Those who love nautical adventures are in for a treat this week, as Kathryn Prince runs down her favorite comics featuring pirates, mysterious islands, and tall ships.
Have you ever wanted a curated list of comics to complement a specific place you’re going (or wish you were going) to read them? Here are a few books for reading on a beach, while listening to the waves crash against the shore. Or better yet, for when you’ve scuttled up the ratlines of a pirate ship with a comic between your teeth and now you’re perched in the crow’s nest to read it while you sail across the open ocean, in search of adventure.
1. The Cursed Pirate Girl
The Cursed Pirate Girl is set (or begins, at least) in Jamaica, 1728. The setting is loose, though, because the story is definitely fantasy rather than historical fiction. Overall, it has a very Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass vibe … if that story was about pirates. The protagonist, Cursed Pirate Girl, is the daughter of a fearsome pirate captain, and she’s setting out to try to find him.
If you tend to read through comics really quickly this one will slow you down, because the art is exquisite – and it’s not even in color! No detail is too small to receive attention, from the froth on the waves of a choppy sea to the etchings on a single doubloon. There are text boxes with whimsical shapes for no apparent reason. And every person in the background of a scene has a unique face and costume.
The characters often appear caricature-like with outlandish proportions. I really like that Jeremy Bastian is not afraid to draw characters who are ugly, or even grotesque. But there are cute and whimsical characters, too. My favorite is an armored squirrel that makes a brief appearance pulling a carriage.
I’ve found that comics with really complex art can at best distract from a good story, and at worst obscure the plot. But that’s okay, because the writing in The Cursed Pirate Girl is not that great. There isn’t any character development, the dialogue doesn’t flow well, and to add to the mayhem there are a few random sub-stories sprinkled in. But think of it this way: comics usually consist of art that’s created for the sake of telling a story, right? Well, The Cursed Pirate Girl seems to be the reverse: a story created solely to be a vessel for art.
The Cursed Pirate Girl collects the first three chapters of a longer story, though it’s the only part I’ve read. For the next chapter check out The Cursed Pirate Girl 2015 Annual Number 1, which has a confusing name since it’s actually chapter 4. The subsequent installment, The Devil’s Cave, was released in 2022. There is also a coloring book, which looks pretty rad.
2. Four Points Series (Compass South & Knife’s Edge)
Four Points is a duology. Each book is named after a mysterious artifact that’s in the possession of the series’ protagonists, twins Alex and Cleo. The story begins in the United States during the years before the start of the Civil War, but ends up taking readers all over the Americas and their seas.
Four Points is just a good old-fashioned high-seas tale that has all kinds of fun situations you don’t often find mixed together into one adventure story. There are gangs and pirates. There’s a twins-versus-twins fight.
And though it may be something of a trope these days, when it’s done right I can’t resist a story where a girl dresses as a boy to get her first taste of freedom (even better if she’s doing it to pull off a heist).
Having interesting characters and an interesting plot is only part of what makes a good story with a historical setting. I love it when authors take the time to do their research and then sprinkle in little details that add depth to the story. For example, the sailors are all barefoot.
The modern idea of pirates swaggering about in big leather boots is a purely aesthetic one; leather and seawater have always been a terrible combination, so real sailors in the age of sail were often barefoot while at sea. Of course, pirate captains in colorful frock coats and big leather boots do still make an appearance in Four Points because aesthetics die hard I guess.
There are other little historical details, too. The characters sing authentic sea shanties. There’s a boy who spent some years working for a coal company who has permanent coal dust stains on his palms. This is a real phenomenon called a “dirt tattoo” that apparently still happens to people today.
But my favorite details are the ones about what it takes to sail a tall ship: how the sails work, how to sail faster, even how to load and fire a cannon. Four Points is overall a very fun read for the sailing-curious.
3. Queen of the Sea
While the other two books on this list make for great reading on a bright sunny beach, Queen of the Sea is better for a windswept rocky coast. This book will give you a flavor of life in an island convent through the eyes of the main character, Margaret, who is 12 years old during most of the story’s events. You’ll watch Margaret grow up on the island as ships come and go through the years, and you’ll probably find yourself wondering if she’ll ever end up sailing away on one of them.
Queen of the Sea is set during the mid-sixteenth century in a world that parallels our own. It is very clearly based on events that took place in Tudor England during the life of Queen Elizabeth I (who in this story is named Eleanor).
The true story of Elizabeth I’s life before becoming queen is wild, by the way. This comic streamlines it into a cleaner narrative that’s told from the perspectives of other characters, including Margaret. Dylan Meconis, who is both the writer and artist, has described Queen of the Sea as a sort of revisionist history that imagines a more positive world instead of a more dystopian one.
Considering that Queen of the Sea takes place in an idyllic island convent, the secrets and twists start to pile up surprisingly quickly. Who were Margaret’s parents, and why is she at the convent? Who were the nuns before they became nuns? And what happened to Queen Eleanor?
Eleanor herself does not fall into the literary princess trope; she is every bit the complex individual that a princess/queen would really be. She can be haughty and imperious. She has a narrow face and crooked nose (just like Elizabeth I) that is not beautiful in the contemporary sense. And she doesn’t romantically long for true love and a simple life; she wants her throne!
The art is easily as good as the writing. It’s primarily done in watercolor with a muted palette of blues and ochres, but switches up the style every once in a while. There are illustrated prose sections. There are maps and flashbacks in brighter hues.
There’s even a recipe!
And then there are the details!! As you know by now, I’m a sucker for historical details. Even though Queen of the Sea is a fantasy, there are plenty of things traceable to 16th-century England. The stiff bodice that Eleanor wears affects her posture and the way she moves. It’s especially noticeable when compared to the looser clothes Margaret and the nuns wear.
I especially loved all the different Tudor hoods.
Queen of the Sea ends with a few questions left unresolved. The good news is, there’s a sequel in the works called Prince of the City. The bad news? It was expected to be released in Fall 2022, but as of January 2023 it doesn’t seem to have happened yet, and I don’t think a new release date has been announced.