Reading “Hob’s Leviathan”

heThis issue features a humongous sea serpent.  Its scale is very impressive when you see it compared to the ship on which most of story’s set.  It also has very little impact on most of the story.  The central figure here is Jim, a young sailor who’s recounting the story of the voyage where the sea serpent appears.  Jim’s fascinating, because what we learn as the story closes is that Jim is actually Margaret, a girl who is pretending to be boy so that she can work as a sailor.

Jim’s a difficult character for me to grasp.  I don’t mean that in the sense that I don’t understand his motivations; the story is set in 1914, and it’s apparent that the gender bending is a means to having the life that Jim wants.  That much is perfectly clear.  What I have difficulty with is grokking Jim’s genderfluidity.  In the context of the story, he’s Jim; the fact that he’s biologically female isn’t really an issue until Hob Gadling, Dream’s old friend who decided he just wasn’t going to die one day and has held to it for centuries, lets Jim know that he knows.  Hob doesn’t have any interest in outing Jim, and the revelation is mostly a non-issue.  In the context of the story’s aftermath, when the closing page leaves us with the prospect that Jim is getting too old to pass as a boy, he speculates that he’s going to have to take a new identity and build a new life (it’s actually a nice echo of what Hob does in this story, where he’s in the process of reinventing himself as his nephew after a couple decades away from home).  It’s left ambiguous as to what this precisely means for Jim; will he resume his life as Margaret, or does he have other plans?  This question fascinates me, because it leaves me wondering about Jim’s gender identity.  Gaiman makes it pretty clear that Jim’s real love is the sea, and the final panels sell the idea that Jim’s unhappy but resigned to the end of his time as a sailor; throw in the confounding problem of the setting in a time when working as a sailor was all but closed off to most women, and the question of whether Jim’s gender identity is a really important part of his self concept becomes rather ambiguous.

I’m still not sure how to answer it.

Setting Jim aside though, there are a couple of other interesting characters featured in this story.  One, as I’ve already mentioned, is Hob Gadling.  Hob’s one of my favorite recurring characters in The Sandman because he always pops up to offer meditations on the cyclical nature of civilization while simultaneously demonstrating an arc of moral progress (I find his involvement in the Atlantic slave trade and perpetual attempts to atone for that involvement in the subsequent centuries fascinating).  He’s a great contrast to the other interesting character of the story, the immortal Indian man (he’s not given a name in the story) who stows away on the ship.  We get his origin story explaining how he came to be immortal; when he was a king long in the past, he was given a fruit that would grant the eater immortality, and he chose to give it to his favorite wife, who in turn gave it to a guard captain with whom she was having an affair, who in turn gave it to a prostitute with whom he was infatuated, who in turn gave it back to the king in hopes of receiving a reward.  Devastated by his wife’s betrayal, the king had her and her lover killed, abdicated his throne, ate the fruit, and disappeared.  Where Hob’s an immortal who has spent his life learning about the world and has tried to better himself (and who carries with him a deep sadness; he’s had a number of families whom he all outlived), the Indian man is highly fanciful, more than a little irresponsible, and deeply suspicious of women because of his past.  The contrast between the immortals is a nice little continuation of the themes that Gaiman explores in Brief Lives.

“We’re not going to talk about this moment of mutual vulnerability ever again, right fellas?” (Artwork by Michael Zulli, Dick Giordano, and Daniel Vozzo)

The art for this issue is by Michael Zulli and Dick Giordano.  It’s a very understated issue, with few panels that I’d describe as being particularly spectacular.  There are a few delightful moments, like the panel where Jim recalls a couple of Scandinavian crewmates who had an ongoing feud that he doesn’t know the particulars of (framed in the panel is each man’s arm, which bears a tattoo of the name “Nancy”), a few panels with excellent close up expressions (Zulli draws particularly emotive bearded men), a tremendous double page spread of the sea serpent, and one of my personal favorites, a panel showing some of the crew weeping after they’ve seen the serpent sink back beneath the waves without comment.

Next time we’ll get an issue that I particularly enjoy, mostly because it’s illustrated by Mike Allred, featuring the somewhat obscure DC character Prez Rickard, the youngest president of the United States of America.

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