Review: Polly and the Pirates

Polly and the Pirates by Ted Naifeh

I have to be totally honest–Polly and the Pirates appealed to me because of a story missing from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. You see, the titular Zelda is a girl pirate with a crew she probably inherited from her mother, but we don’t know. Her mother is mentioned once and appears in a painting in the captain’s quarters. That’s it. Being the geek I am, I often wonder about the two. So when I heard about Polly and the Pirates during a fandom celebration of female characters, I put it down on my list, but it proved elusive–until I walked into my local library and found it on the very small graphic novel bookshelf. Oh, I love this library.

Polly and the Pirates is a short comic miniseries that takes place in St. Helvetia, an American port in something like the 1800s. Polly Pringle is a young girl who attends Mistress Lovejoy’s Preparatory School for Proper Young Ladies. While her friend Anastasia dreams of pirates and midnight duels, Polly is a prim, proper, and polite young lady whose goal in life is to be like her late mother–the perfect lady. But one night, Polly is kidnapped by pirates; pirates who claim that she, as the daughter of the fearsome Pirate Queen Meg Malloy, is meant to be their captain. As Polly struggles between these two worlds–polite society and piracy–she discovers resources she never knew she had and the cost of comfortable living.

Polly and the Pirates is aimed for a young crowd; while it’s marked as “YA” on my library copy, Polly’s age, the light, clear story, and the charming artwork make it clear it’s aimed towards preteens, although people of all ages can enjoy it. Because it’s aimed for a preteen crowd, however, it can feel simple–I liked it so much I wanted more, but that’s a compliment to Naifeh. (More is coming in 2011, but Naifeh, sadly, will not illustrate it.) Naifeh’s artwork is charmingly unique, borrowing some manga elements without seeming derivative most of the time–characters tend to either have large heads (like the fantastic Mistress Lovejoy) or end up quite stylized, such as the caricatures that make up the pirate crew. When it gets too detailed, however, it can seem a little off. It’s a very animated, lively style, aided by the efficient paneling. While it’s set in an alternate history San Francisco, that doesn’t particularly matter; it’s a setting familiar to anyone who’s seen The Pirates of the Caribbean or anything set in the golden age of piracy.

I really loved Polly, especially the evolution of her character. Polly and the Pirates is about Polly coming into her own and applying her personal sense of ethics and honor to her heritage, which I loved. As it turns out, the prim and proper Polly makes a damn fine pirate (although she’d certainly scold me for using such language!). Piracy is never depicted as purely good–Claudio, the Pirate Prince (no relation), is presented as a shady, if charming, character–and Polly’s society is never presented as purely oppressive. Throughout the graphic novel, Polly thinks about what Mistress Lovejoy would do in her situation. (This leads to a hilarious moment where Polly, surrounded by sharks, can only conjure up an image of Mistress Lovejoy saying, “Oh, that’s a tricky one!”) It’s complex, and part of Polly’s journey is finding a fulfilling middle path where she can be content. Although the story is simple, this graphic novel is emotionally complex–while Polly and the Pirates is aimed towards preteens, it doesn’t talks down to them.

Naturally, Polly’s relationship with her mother is a central part of the story. Polly, motherless, has built up her mother into a perfect lady in her imagination–to discover that she’s the Pirate Queen Meg Malloy is quite a shock to the system. I don’t want to spoil anything, although I’m quite sure you can deduce what happens; but it’s very sweet and I love how it’s done. In anything other than a preteen graphic novel, it might be heavy-handed, but it worked here. Polly also connects with the pirates, particularly the downright cute Scrimshaw, the de facto head of what’s left of Malloy’s pirates–their relationship is quite sweet, as Scrimshaw understands both Malloy and Polly very well. I really loved that while Claudio is set up as a possible romantic interest, Polly rejects him by never being particularly interested; this is about her mother and not about anyone else. The way she shuts him down is utterly brilliant; when he goes crying to his father, the Pirate King, he merely shrugs–after all, it’s what Pirate Queens do. And Polly does it quite well.

Bottom line: Polly and the Pirates is a charming treat of a graphic novel that, while certainly aimed at preteens with its clear, simple story and charming artwork, never talks down to its readers about the emotional complexity of its wonderful heroine and the path she must forge between gentility and piracy.

I rented this book from the public library.

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