The true story of a farmer building a full-sized ship in the dustbowl of the 1930s Prairies was a graphic novel just waiting to happen, says Elaine M Will.

"I was drawn to it because it was such a strange story and there was something eerie and magical about it," said the Saskatoon-based illustrator.

Her graphic novel Dustship Glory is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Andreas Schroeder.

"I hope [readers] learn a little bit about an obscure piece of Saskatchewan history and about the [Great] Depression and about a rather roguish figure who is a really interesting character," she said.

The books are based on the true story of a Finnish immigrant farmer who built a full-sized ship in his Saskatchewan farmyard, with the stated aim of sailing home.

Tom Sukanen planned to float his ship down the Saskatchewan River in three pieces on rafts, and then assemble the ship at Hudson Bay. He spent six years building the ship but in 1941, when it was almost finished, vandals stripped it. 

Sukanen was committed to an institution in Battleford and died in 1943.

Dustship Glory illustration

The novel explores issues of mental health and how it was viewed in the 1930s. (Elaine M Will)

Will said she was drawn to Sukanen's character because she felt like she related to him in a way.

"I've always considered myself a bit of an outsider, I guess, and someone having this dream they pursue against all odds, this is also something I kind of relate to," she said. 

"Making graphic novels sometimes seems like a really — I don't want to say a pointless pursuit …but a challenging pursuit."

Will's first graphic novel, Look Straight Ahead, was a semi-autobiographical tale about a mental breakdown she suffered in high school. Mental health is "the topic I'm most interested in telling stories about and I think we need more realistic stories about it," she said.

"It's something that's easier for me to explore with images. It's easier for me to communicate it with images than with words alone."

She said she finds the creative process therapeutic, and that the openness in her work helps others.

"I have had a lot of readers that have come up to me and said that Look Straight Ahead was really helpful for them in either dealing with their own issues or helping them understand friends who were going through the same thing."

illustration Dustship Glory

The ship was almost complete when it was dismantled by vandals. (Elaine M Will)

How mental health was regarded on the 1930s Prairies was another reason she was drawn to Sukanen's story. Failing farms in the drought may have pushed him to the breaking point.

"By building the ship, though he did want to go home, he also just wanted to do something with his hands; he wanted to create something to occupy his mind, to distract himself."

The parts of Sukanen's ship were eventually collected and rebuilt into an attraction near Moose Jaw.

Will said she is interested in how the perspective has shifted to celebrating his ship folly as an example of "extreme drive and determination" and "courage in the face of adversity."

She said her next project will likely be a collection of short stories centred on the idea of rebirth.

with files from CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend