The Littlest Pirate King

By David B. & Pierre Mac Orlan, translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-403-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for bold kids and timid parents…  8/10

Tim Burton has pretty much cornered the market on outlandish spooky fairytales but if you and your kids have a fondness for scary fables and macabre adventure with a uniquely European flavour you might want to take a peek at this impressive yarn of unquiet buccaneers and phantom piracy.

Pierre Mac Orlan was one of the nom-de-plumes of celebrated French author, musician and performer Pierre Dumarchey who between his birth in 1882 and death in 1970 managed to live quite a number of successful, productive and action-packed lives.  As well as writing straight books, he produced a wealth of artistic materials including children’s tales like this one, hundreds of popular songs and quite a bit of outré pornography.

A renowned Parisian Bohemian, he sang and played accordion in nightclubs and cabaret, was wounded in the trenches in 1916, subsequently becoming a war correspondent, and after the conflict became a celebrated film and photography critic as well as one of the country’s most admired songwriter and novelists.

David B. is a founder member of the groundbreaking strip artists group L’Association, and has won numerous awards including the Alph’ Art for comics excellence including European Cartoonist of the Year in 1998. His seamless blending of artistic Primitivism visual metaphor, high and low cultural icons, as seen in such landmarks as Babel and Epileptic, are augmented here by a welcome touch of morbid whimsy and stark fantasy which imbues this work with a cheery ghoulish intensity only Charles Addams and Ronald  Searle can match.

Mac Orlan’s tale perhaps owes more to song than storybook, with its oddly jumpy narrative structure, but Davis B.’s canny illustration perfectly captures the spirit of grim wit as it recounts the tale of the ghostly crew of the Flying Dutchman, damned sailors cursed to wander the oceans, never reaching port, destroying any living sailors they encounter and craving nothing but the peace of oblivion.

Their horrendous existence forever changes when, on one of their periodic night raids, they slaughter the crew of a transatlantic liner but save a baby found on board. Their heartless intention is to rear the boy until he is old enough to properly suffer at their skeletal hands, but as the years pass the eagerly anticipated day becomes harder and harder for the remorseless crew to contemplate…

Stark and vivid, scary and heartbreakingly sad as only a children’s tale can be, this darkly swashbuckling romp is a classy act with echoes of Pirates of the Caribbean (which it predates by nearly a century) that will charm, inspire and probably cause a tear or two to well up.

© 2009 Gallimard Jeunesse. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.