Readers familiar with Samuel Coleridge’s classic poem and those who’ve never encountered the eighteenth-century adventure are likely to find delight in graphic artist Nick Hayes’s hugely inventive retelling. Set off by an act of mindless killing, The Rime of the Modern Mariner takes us through a dark and haunted sea filled with oil spills, trawling nets, and the great Pacific garbage patch—all rendered in sprawling, swirling images reminiscent of old woodcuts. Below, Nick tells us about the park bench and mountain perch where it all began.
I had the idea for The Modern Mariner sitting in an office block, eating lunch at my computer, rifling through blogs. I came across a certain picture, a penny dropped, and I ran round the corner to the park with a pen and paper to write the first few verses. The pigeons were crowding around the picnic table, jumping on each other’s backs, horny as hell, so it must have been spring.
The picture in question was of a matted, decayed albatross corpse. Its belly had rotted open, revealing a mess of plastic lighters, bottle caps, and tangled furls of nylon. I was trawling through the blog of Captain Charles Moore, which relayed Moore’s findings from his ship, The Algalita, which in turn was trawling through a plastic soup of waste in an area of the globe called the North Pacific Gyre.
This gyre is one of five in the world, a confluence of oceanic streams and weather systems, which merge as a slow moving maelstrom. Much like sediment deposited on the bank of a meandering river, the cargo of these oceanic streams is unloaded in these areas, forming a vast column of sediment from the ocean’s floor to its surface. And for the last 150 years, since the invention of plastics, this cargo has been comprised mainly of plastic waste—anything from tractor tires to bottle caps, fishing nets to yellow bath time ducks. My dismay increased as I read on: this particular gyre is estimated to be around twice the size of Texas, stretching nine kilometers to its deepest trench.
But it hadn’t occurred to me to develop these images into a story until I found the picture of the albatross. Brought to its end not by a cross bow, as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s tale, but by mistaking bottle caps for shrimp and taxidermy-ing itself from the inside out.
The book’s climax and catharsis occurs in a bower of forty ash trees. This is a real bower, slap bang in the center of Wales, planted and tended by the artist David Nash. I had come across his work while researching The Modern Mariner and thought it might be a nice treat, when I got to that bit in the book, to go and draw it from life. So I took the train to north Wales, and spent a couple of days biking south to the little village where he lives. It was burning hot sunshine all the way, and by the afternoon on the second day, I was within twenty miles of my destination, and received a text. From his assistant. Saying he was too busy.
So, in the middle of nowhere, I decided to make something else of the day. Seeing a mountain in the distance, I decided to climb it, and on its summit, it seemed inevitable that I should spend the night there.
The night I spent on that mountain was unforgettable. I watched the sun sink and the dark arm of the night sweep over the land below, touching the cottages and turning on their lights, and hours later, blinking them off, as their residents went to bed. Through the course of the night, the mountain turned for me from a cold, haunting place outside of human comfort to a warm home. That transformation was the book’s greatest blessing, the gift I value most.
Nick Hayes is a political cartoonist for The Guardian and was a founding editor of Meat Magazine, which showcased new writing, comics, and illustrations. The winner of two Guardian Media awards, he is at work on a book about Woody Guthrie and the Dustbowl. He lives in London.