By Ted Naifeh
176 pages, black and white
Published by Oni Press
When a creator is attached to a specific franchise or character, it can be difficult for fans to see the creator try something different. I can’t help but think that must have been a large hurdle for some readers when Ted Naifeh announced Polly and the Pirates. While Naifeh’s never limited himself to a single project (writing-but-not-drawing Unearthly, drawing-but-not-writing Death Jr.), this the first all-by-Naifeh comic in a while that isn’t a new Courtney Crumrin story. And those who are expecting Courtney Crumrin II might be in for a bit of a shock upon meeting Polly.
Polly-Ann Pringle lives a quiet life at an all-girls boarding school in the port city of St. Helvetia. Her classmate Anastasia is forever trying to get Polly to live a little, have some fun and excitement in her life. Polly, on the other hand, thinks a good evening is helping Anastasia with the latest chore she’s been assigned as punishment for sneaking bodice-ripper adventures into class. Then one night Polly woke up to find her bed—with Polly inside of it—kidnapped by pirates who have declared Polly to be their new Pirate Queen. Too bad Polly wants nothing to do with them whatsoever.
I’ll admit to being a little apprehensive upon first reading Polly and the Pirates. In the opening chapter, Polly seemed a little too innocent and naive, and even more importantly too lacking in ambition. It’s a nice fake out from Naifeh, giving us a character who is stronger-willed than she appears on the surface (or even seems to realize about herself) but is willing to stay in the background until situations demand that she take action. There’s a great moment early on when Polly looks at the bad situation she’s in and then asks herself, “What would Mistress Lovejoy do in a situation like this?” She has to keep looking up to the headmistress of her school to find inspiration and the force of will to survive. By the end of the volume, though, Polly’s found her own strength and is able to make decisions without having to resort to what someone else would have done in the situation. She’s someone whose transformation from wallflower to mover-and-shaker plays out across the entire book, and comes across as perfectly logical and understandable.
Naifeh does a nice job of the rest of the plot’s progression as well in Polly and the Pirates. Naifeh brings the supporting cast on slowly, introducing them one or two at a time and letting us as readers get a firm grasp on who they are before the next new face appears. The same is also true of St. Helvetia itself, letting us learn more about the world of Polly and the Pirates without ever resorting to huge chunks of exposition. It’s in many ways a more fantastical version of San Francisco, one that still has larger-than-life figures like the self-proclaimed Emperor Norton, but has gone a step further. I love the fact that it’s never stated outright that the boarding school is actually a docked ship, for instance, but in a city that seems to almost be more ships than streets it makes perfect sense. So many things in Polly and the Pirates are shown rather than stated, and the end result is a book that treats its readers as intelligent people and doesn’t waste time assuming otherwise. It’s a refreshing change from so many books that seem to think “all-ages” means “too dimwitted to understand.”
Anyone who’s encountered Naifeh’s art before will be unsurprised to see that it looks as attractive as always. The basic character designs are great in their own right; a mixture of being grounded in reality, and wonderfully over the top. From lurking, goblin-esque pirates to haughty handsome villains, each character has their own unique look and feel. Naifeh pays just as much attention to the character’s actions and surroundings. The sea of ship masts among the buildings of St. Helvetia gives you an instant impression as to the makeup of the city and the importance of the sea trade, and the elegant mansions-on-water look of the boats themselves that Naifeh created gives a sense of wonder and excitement. Even the little moments of the book, like Polly’s bed being hoisted through the air with ropes and hooks captures the reader’s imagination with the sheer fun of it all. Add in some beautiful grey tones added to the art to give the pages a great deal of depth and three-dimensionality and this is a great-looking book.
Fans of Courtney Crumrin shouldn’t be disappointed that Naifeh took a detour into Polly and the Pirates; rather, they should be excited that now they have a second Naifeh-created series to fall in love with. Before I’d read Polly and the Pirates I found myself hoping that Naifeh’s next book would be a return to Courtney Crumrin; now I find myself hoping that he alternates between the two. Polly’s a great addition to everyone’s library; she can set sail any time and I’ll be on board.