Adapted by David B.
Based on a story by Pierre Mac Orlan
48 pages, color
Published by Fantagraphics
For being a comic book powerhouse in France, it’s a little surprising that not much of David B.’s works have made it to North America. He’s probably best known for his autobiographical book Epileptic, and his dream diary Nocturnal Conspiracies and ongoing series (and Epileptic follow-up) Babel are also translated. After all of those deeply personal books, though, I was a little surprised to find a new book from B. now in English… about the undead crew of the infamous Flying Dutchman ship.
In The Littlest Pirate King, we quickly meet the cursed crew of sailors, searching for the one reef that will destroy their ship and grant them death, but forever unable to reach it. Frustrated by their inability to end their lives (or rather what little they have left), they start pillaging and destroying other ships on the sea, even as they find it unsatisfying. And that’s how, inadvertently, they end up with a living human baby on board the Flying Dutchman.
The Littlest Pirate King is a strange book, there’s no two ways about it. You spend the first half reading about the undead crew rampaging across the seas while bemoaning their fate to never die. You see them start killing innocent travelers (a reminder for anyone who’s grown attached to them up until this point that they’re not to be trusted in any way), and then upon getting their booty growing tired of it and hurling it over the deck. And then, just when you think the book has settled into a groove, they end up with the baby that they decide to keep until it’s ten years old, at which point they’ll kill him too.
I think what ultimately struck me the most about The Littlest Pirate King (which B. adapted from a story by Pierre Mac Orlan) was how it weaves back and forth between innocent and grim. One moment we’re getting the undead crew sullenly marching, single-file, below decks because the sun is about to come up and the ship will plunge back underwater for the day. The next minute, they’re stabbing travelers unfortunate enough to encounter the Flying Dutchman. I appreciate that B. isn’t ignoring the nasty, dangerous side of the Dutchman myth, but at times you feel almost like a whiplash victim as the book yanks you from one extreme to the other.
The one moment which will charm you from start to finish is the crew’s affection for the human baby, whom they start calling Tiny King. Even though he’s slated for death, B. makes it clear how much they care for him and vice versa. It’s actually rather sweet, with the Tiny King saying he wants to be dead like them, and the crew starting to worry and fret over their initial plan to sacrifice him when he comes of age. It’s what carries the second half of the book, and brings it towards its slightly sad conclusion.
More consistent is the art, which is unsurprisingly beautiful from start to finish. My favorite sections of the book are those which show off the strange and sometimes alien-looking sea creatures which surround the ship as it dips below the waves for the days. The ship is shown as existing amidst a jumble of species and shapes, moving alongside them but still not being a part of them. Add the book’s bright, vivid colors (how can you not love that glowing underwater green seen through the window?) and it’s a gorgeous book. Even at its most nightmarish, there’s always something to admire within The Littlest Pirate King.
This was a strange book, one that goes all over the place, and I’d be curious at some point to see the source material from Mac Orlan that B. adapted this from. I’m glad it’s in English, though, even as I’m slightly unsure exactly whom the target audience would be. I was entertained, though, and for the art alone it was a worthwhile read. Fantagraphics has more of B.’s work on the horizon, and I’m already eager to see what they’ve got in store for us next. Even an average B. comic is, ultimately, still one worth reading.