Pirate tales are all the rage these days, but French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim -- along with creative partner Appollo -- doesn't take the ironic, fantasy route that has proved so popular. With "Bourbon Island 1730," the team has crafted a multi-layered story filled with intellectual depth as it examines the mythologies of pirate life as contrasted with the realities -- good and bad.
The story is taken from real history -- the sprawling tale of Bourbon Island, passed along through the ages as the property of several nations, here a French territory -- and fictionalized. The island was known for its pirate amnesty policy -- the local government saw pirates as trade and business opportunities and wanted to encourage such interactions. This meant a great deal of pirate integration into the population and, eventually, lead to pirates giving settling down their upon making their fortunes. Mix these circumstances a thriving coffee business reliant on plantations and slaves -- as well as settlements of escaped slaves and some ne'er do well pirates stirring things up -- and you have an obscure historical drama begging to be told.
"Bourbon Island 1730" mixes the throngs of the island with two newcomers -- the ornithologist, Despentes, who seeks out a surviving Dodo, and his helper, Raphael, who dreams of adventure. Specifically, Raphael is drawn to the pirate tales that the sailor tells him and fixated on mythical pirate republic of Libertalia -- he sees the pirate life in terms of personal and political freedom and has idealized that strata through his own intellectualizing of their criminal lives.
Adventure does await and it's both exactly what Raphael was hoping for and so far away from his dreams. It's certainly not the romantic jaunt he had hoped for, but rather a complicated and convoluted explosion of provincial infighting that is born from the romantic past he dreams of. There is no fraternal order of thievery, no hero gets the girl -- in fact, it's often hard for him to figure out who the hero is. Raphael wants to fill those shoes himself, but these may not be shoes that were ever available in the first place.
A rebellion is dying on Bourbon Island -- pirate leader Buzzard is behind bars and his crusty old associate, Rapier, is traveling across the island to drum up resistance among the ex-pirates who have not found their fortunes as plantation owners. Rapier uses scare tactics wrapped around horror tales of political power that will decimate the free black populations into slavery and wipe out the ex-pirates who side with them in an effort to gather forces among his former comrades as well the plantation slaves, but the fear of what such an attack will bring holds back any fury. A cast of at least hundreds dash through the book, each with a different agenda that often centers around Buzzard's hidden treasure, criss-crossing through the action with dirty under the table deals, abductions and deceptions.
The irony that Bourbon Island may well be Raphael's beloved Libertalia gone awry looms over the story, with the hard lesson that true, compassionate democracy among thieves is certainly a fairy tale.
Trondheim's art is a wonder, portraying the complicated forest landscapes as intricate and stark black and white line work that begins to resemble marks on an old pirate map at a certain point, scratched in with the complicated jungle fauna and vines. Animal heads give even keel to the characters, sometimes making their role in the drama to be a surprise once their identity is stated. "Bourbon Island, 1730" is a graphic novel of great visual and literary maturity, with delights of great subtlety and sophistication and begging repeated readings.
Abandoned Cars by Tim Lane (Fantagraphics)
From its cover image of a depressed guy driving his car in the night to the final page, mapping out Downtown St. Louis, Mo., circa 1895 (for the purpose of giving the logistics for the legendary murder story of Stagger Lee), Tim Lane's "Abandoned Cars" hints that there's something in the air in America -- and it's a bit of a downer.
Lane's collection of short stories and cartoons all center around his idea of "the Great American Mythological Drama," which he ruminates in his afterward. Lane spells it out far more eloquently than I will here, but this is essentially the title he gives to the tapestry of
America characters and archetypes as they are weighed against American realities. This drama is the way a real individual comes up against the idea of America, how they interact with the American Dream, rather than actually being that dream itself. Thematically, this is territory covered in the songs of people like Tom Waits and Randy Newman, the literature of John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski, the films of Elia Kazan and Martin Scorsese. Lane walks that territory like a young understudy -- if his style and subject matter is a little affected by those who came before him, it's not without its charm. Lane lays it on thick, a poetic goo that he spreads over his short pieces, but that's his way of interacting with his characters, explaining their lives as if they were poetry to be dissected -- and maybe they are.
Lane's collection is split up into several one-offs and a few more continued pieces, all linking together through mood and backdrop -- there are a lot of scummy old men's bars in here, as well as cars at night, and everyone has a lost love and a haunting regret. Lane mixes up the tawdry, sometimes surreal, tales of the misfortune of others with autobiographical interludes that have him chasing the elusive gloom on a freight train, play-acting the lost soul in an attempt to grab onto and feel for himself just what affects the characters and archetypes he chronicles.
In between the stories are funny cut-out dolls of classic American types -- Rockabillies, "Tai Chi Larry" and "Beatle Bob," just to name a few. These playful bits speak to the idea that we all play roles in the drama, but our own personal spins give them an ugly, sad edge.
That's at the root of Lane's larger message as he moves through the ugly little realities of people's lives, only to end up focusing on a seedy little murder that has lived on 150 years later as the romantic, dark epitome of the nation it took place in. Lane captures that line well -- he's immensely skilled art-wise and if his writing seems as if it is still forming, it is moving towards the possibility of something profound.