Saturday, February 11, 2006
Not Child's Play
Ted Naifeh's Polly and the Pirates is an extraordinary comic being published by Oni Press; so far three issues have appeared. I can't praise Naifeh's book enough; I eagerly await each bi-monthly issue.
The title's main character, Polly Pringle, is engaged in the kind of identity quest common to both comic book characters and fairy-tale heroines. A student at Mistress Lovejoy's Preparatory School for Proper Young Ladies, Polly is the most proper of the school's student body. However, contrary to what her father has led her to believe, it's revealed at the close of issue #1 that rather than a retiring matron who died giving birth to her, Polly's mother was actually roaring Meg Molloy, the Pirate Queen.
Polly is torn between the comforting certainties about a mother she never knew ("The most graceful and proper lady that ever was"); Mistress Lovejoy's stern precepts (when in a tight spot, Polly asks herself: "Now what would Mistress Lovejoy do?"); and what seems to be her inherited ability to swash-buckle (for want of a better term) when she's cornered. There are two moments in the second issue in which Polly extricates herself from danger in ways that elicit dumbfounded reactions from older, more experienced pirates. In the first, an onlooker asks "How'd she do that?" "Dunno," is the only reply. In the second, her actions leave the pirates awestruck, with one gasping out: "Strewth! That were amazing."
Of course, there's a map (to the Pirate Queen's treasure) that is central to the story. While the plot is developing very nicely, what's satisfying is that Naifeh is also developing the characters with great sensitivity. In the third issue, Polly is presented with a dilemma that skillfully goes to the core of her character: in order to preserve her reputation, is she willing to betray Scrimshaw, the lovable old salty dog whose life depends upon his ability to recruit her to lead her mom's old crew? (Sorry, but I just can't divulge the answer.)
Naifeh's artwork is deceptively simplistic; his care in providing Polly, Scrimshaw and the others with individualized facial expressions is well-done. These two panels provide good evidence of his skill:
Finally, I'm thoroughly enjoying the mish-mash of chronology and geography in this title. While things are definitely taking place in the Americas, (even, it seems, the USA), Polly's Victorian attitudes are rooted in a particular time period--but wait, the golden age of piracy was over way before the 19th century. San Francisco is a geographical touchstone; the place is not usually associated with piracy. And there's the matter of the prevalence of English accents (and peace-keeping "bobbies," now that I think about it). Rather than annoy me, though, these juxtapositions have interested and intrigued me. I'm enjoying figuring out how Naifeh is taking what he knows about geography and the past in order to create a distintive sense of time and place, here. To give an example, the character of Emperor Norton, whose "coronation" provides a scene that's crucial to the plot, is based (pretty much faithfully) upon a real historical figure.
This title satisfies on many levels. Ted Naifeh is providing the reader with a well-drawn, expertly characterized, and carefully plotted pirate comic headlined by a strong female character. It's an added bonus that he's also working to give his creation historical depth in some very interesting ways.