You know a book is damn good when you go in wanting to hate it and it gets you anyway. In a comment on the Facebook link I put up for my best comics of 2010 list, David Auerbach wanted to know why I’d left off David B’s The Littlest Pirate King, and I could only say that I’d missed it in the store and would have to follow up. In my heart I was thinking, “And when I do, I’m going to write about all the reasons it doesn’t belong on the best-of list, because I can’t be wrong.” All the more so because I’m pretty sure last year the same David Auerbach caught me leaving David B’s Epileptic off my best-of-the-decade list.
Unfortunately for my ego, though, he’s right. The Littlest Pirate King is easily one of the best comics of 2010. I won’t even try to wriggle free on the technicality that it was published in French in 2009 and only translated to English in 2010.
Main body of the review below the fold for spoiler reasons.
It presents itself as a children’s book, with that familiar oversized rectangular hardcover binding, naive, perspectiveless panels, and a child protagonist. But the narrative, adapted from a classic short story by Pierre Mac Orlan, is nothing for kids.
For their crimes in life, God has condemned the undead crew of the story’s pirate ship to wander the sea by night and sink underwater during the day. They long for death and try to pilot themselves onto reefs and into the mouth of a Leviathan, but the rocks withdraw and a wave sweeps them free of the monster.
To make others share their suffering they attack ships of the living and slaughter the passengers. On one of these raids they accidentally capture a baby boy, and they decide to let him grow to the age of ten before killing him, so that they may have a cabin boy to keep them amused for eternity. The dead pirates fall in love with the baby boy, call him Tiny King, and fall over each other to provide his every need by raiding more and more ships.
So far this could be a children’s book, if a violent one. What sets it apart is how MacOrlan twists Tiny King’s mindset. Surrounded by dead men from infancy he sees their world as normal and the world of the living as a scary, alien place. He can’t wait to be murdered on his tenth birthday so he can shed his weird pink flesh and be a bag of decaying bones like the others. When the pirate captain has an attack of conscience and decides that instead of killing the boy he will deposit him on the shores of the living, Tiny King feels it as a deep betrayal. The final panels depict his cries of anguish as the pirate ship sails away and disappears beneath the waves. There is a suggestion that Tiny King will light votive candles for the pirates and thus buy their souls peace, but it’s still a traumatic ending.
What sells it—what sells the whole tale, really—is David B’s superb art. These are overwhelmingly colorful pages, with scenes from strange angles in compressed perspective. Many indie comic artists nowadays draw panels so packed with shapes and words and colors that they feel overloaded, busy, and ultimately hard to read. David B makes some of his panels just as full, but they never seem busy. It could be an effect of the larger-format page and correspondingly large panels, but I think you have to give a healthy dose of the credit to his talent in varying his compositions. Some are simple, others much more complex.
Accordingly, I’m amending the best of 2010 list. The Littlest Pirate King is now at #4, between Scarlet and Lint.
PDF preview here.