The Littlest Pirate King is Fantagraphics first foray into the world of ‘bande dessinee’ – Franco-Belgian comics to you and me – that started out in 1908 with Louis Forton’s Les Pieds Nickeles but really came into their own with Georges ‘Herge’ Remi’s first installments of Tintin which ran in Le Petit Vingtieme in 1929. The Littlest Pirate King is an adapation by David B (of Epilepsy fame) of a classic story by the French novelist and songwriter Pierre Mac Orlan – and what a treat it is!
We open on the kinds of high seas Hiroshige was so fond of, a pirate ship – The Flying Dutchman, indeed – populated by skeletal pirates singing ‘A pirate’s life is a hard one indeed’ in the moments before the ship plunges beneath the icy waves all the way down to Davy Jones’ locker, as it is wont to do each dawn. And what a world it is beneath the waves! Gigantic hairy fish, enormous tentacular beasties, vast dead eyed eels. The pirate king is plotting with his first mate how they can bring their damnation to an end, charting a course for some dread reef that would ‘plunge them into real death’ – but such is their curse, the rocks part as they pass and a gigantic octopus lifts them to safety. ‘Merciful God, again you cheat us!’ the pirates cry.
Pirates being pirates, though, it isn’t long before they set to with pirate’s work, boarding vessels and stealing booty, but always, at the back of their what is left of their minds, is the thought, the hope, the dream of potential salvation. A huge ocean going liner appears out of nowhere and the pirates think this is it – only for the boat to explode upon touching their own vessel. All that is left amongst the detritus is a small child – a small child that the pirates vow will die upon his tenth birthday at their hand. ‘Then we will have a dead cabin boy to alleviate the dreariness of our endless labours.’
But, of course, the child enchants them and send them off on never-previously-conceived of adventures (in search of milk and biscuits, that are then fed to the wee nipper with encouragements such as ‘One spoonful for fickle fate… One spoonful for Providence… One spoonful for Death… One spoonful for damnation… One spoonful for sausages…’). When the child is old enough to consider his surroundings, though, such topics as death can not be put off for long and though the child wishes to remain amongst them, the old pirate king knows such a fate can not be considered…
The Littlest Pirate King is a wonderful phantasmagoria, as likely to entertain a ten year old as a thirty year eight year old (and I say this having had the book pulled off my lap and spirited away by my own ten year old). There is a lovely innocence to proceedings, a seemingly uncalculated desire to thrill and chill and transport (lacking from more calculated high sea graphic endeavours such as The Rime of the Modern Mariner) that has had me flicking back through the book a good dozen times since I’ve read it. This is the kind of book that got me reading books when I was a wee nipper, and it’s the kind of book that keeps me reading now that I’m the furthest possible thing from a wee nipper.
Any Cop?: If you’ve ever experienced the thrill of a good comic, and know how difficult it can sometimes be to relate that thrill to others, then The Littlest Pirate King is for you – and damn anyone who thinks it’s a kid’s book for the salty landlubber they are!