(Possibly unnecessary spoiler warning: The central plot development in Polly and the Pirates was revealed in some of the book’s promotional coverage, but I’m going to restate it here. Just be forewarned.)
I have a well-documented weakness for characters I would call “blurters,” people whose natural honesty leads them to rattle off uncomfortable, impolitic observations in less-than-ideal circumstances. I’m happy to see that the protagonist of Ted Naifeh’s Polly and the Pirates (Oni Press) carves her own funny niche in this category.
Polly-Ann Pringle is a proper young girl attending boarding school in St. Helvetia, an exotic, seaside city. Faultlessly honest and dutiful, she’s trying to emulate her late mother, described by her father as “the most graceful and proper lady that ever was.” Her more adventuresome schoolmates (they read “novels”!) view her with varying degrees of fondness and frustration.
She seems almost eager to live a predictable, appropriate life. Unfortunately, her mother wasn’t always the pillar of propriety that’s been described. One night, Polly is kidnapped from her dormitory by pirates who are looking for the heir of their former captain, Meg Malloy. They need a new leader, and they’ve settled on Polly, Meg’s daughter.
It’s a charmingly absurd set-up, not just because of the generic notion of a pre-teen pirate queen. Polly seems a particularly bad choice for buccaneer because of her conservative approach to life. Her first exchange with the pirates illustrates this nicely, as she bluntly assesses their morals and personal hygiene.
The first issue is given over to setting up the premise, and if pre-release publicity has taken away some of the element of surprise, it hasn’t done anything to undermine the book’s charm. Polly is a very promising protagonist (alliteration alert!), because she has somewhere to go. Her disposition isn’t suited to a life of adventure on the high seas, but her legacy might not leave her any choice. It should be great fun to watch her adjustment unfold.
I love Naifeh’s art. He’s given Polly an open, serious face that’s alternately childlike and a little forbidding. In fact, the whole visual sense could be described that way, from character design to sense of place. The illustrations are precise and engaging, and they’re layered with a wonderful use of shading. (Keith Wood collaborated with Naifeh on the design; I’m not sure how his contributions break down, but I wouldn’t want to exclude him, because the book looks great.)
Polly and the Pirates gets off to a fine start. It has a fun, solid premise, appealing characters, and terrific illustrations.