Shipwreck #3, titled “Cairn,” places a tower of stacked rocks in Dr. Shipwright’s way. The meaning of this development is open for interpretation, but the Inspector, who resurfaces from issue one, is happy to throw in his two cents. Wearing the same yellow coat from before, the ugliness of layering the yellow over a tan background amplifies the queasy dread of being in his presence (colorist, Mark Englert’s, immediate switch to a blue motif after he leaves, a release in more ways than one). “Cairns,” though, can be memorials. They can be guide markers. And this particular “cairn” falls under a crime, for obstructing traffic.
It is by this last interpretation that writer, Warren Ellis, uses the cairn to obstruct his story. Until now, AfterShock Comics’ Shipwreck has depicted a surreal, continuous journey of present movement, ever-shifting thanks to the way Phil Hester’s art gels with Eric Gapstur’s inks. Dr. Shipwright is looking for Isham, the man that sabotaged his project, Forward Escape, and left him its only survivor. Uncertain of where Isham is, Dr. Shipwright walks and uses his small apporter to follow a flock of birds without a declared destination (issue one, titled “Augur,” associated the birds with the future).
Yet Dr. Shipwright stops walking this issue and in doing so arrives at the series’ first flashbacks. Providing a much more developed idea of the project he had been heading for the hush-hush company, Janus, in some ways I wish Ellis had found another way to deliver this information, or not tell us at all. Ambiguity is the pleasure of reading Shipwreck and, more than understanding that Shipwright hasn’t been above board about his past (the Inspector never calls him by his first name but his title, doctor, to question whether he’s truly as lost as he’d suggest), seeing that past, where he’s confident and wearing a suit, threatens the series’ dream state. There are truths that can be gained in the unreal. By leaving the road, there’s not the same reliance on symbolism that makes the filtered biography Shipwright tells a motel owner, for a room discount, more instructive than a flashback to Shipwright in his element. Shipwright the enigma catches your attention like few comic protagonists do. Shipwright the fully-realized person can’t compare.
It’s a special thing to meet a comic that makes you want to know less and be confused more but Shipwreck does, straying from the pattern set by the previous two issues to end with Shipwright sleeping instead of walking. Another obstruction to his journey, but not to the series itself.