The Littlest Pirate King

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

Just one more day, me Buckos!

Tim Burton has pretty much cornered the market on outlandish, spooky fairytales and edgy all-ages fantasy, but if you and your kids have a fondness for scary fables and macabre adventure with a uniquely European flavour you might want to seek out this supremely 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 proper books for sensible folk, he also produced a wealth of artistic materials including children’s tales like this one, hundreds of popular songs and quite a bit of rather outré pornography.

A renowned Parisian Bohemian, Mac Orlan sang and played accordion in nightclubs and cabaret, and was wounded in the trenches in 1916, subsequently becoming a war correspondent. After the conflict ground to a conclusion he evolved into a celebrated film and photography critic as well as one of France’s most admired songwriters and novelists.

By contrast, David B. is a founder member of the groundbreaking strip artists conclave L’Association, and has won numerous awards including the Alph’ Art for comics excellence and European Cartoonist of the Year.

He was born Pierre-François “David” Beauchard on February 9th 1959, and began his comics career in 1985 after studying advertising at Paris’ Duperré School of Applied Arts. His seamless blending of artistic Primitivism, visual metaphor, high and low cultural icons, as seen in such landmarks as Babel and Epileptic and Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations are augmented here by a welcome touch of morbid whimsy and stark fantasy which imbues this particular gem with a cheery ghoulish intensity only Charles Addams and Ronald Searle could possibly match.

Mac Orlan’s tale perhaps owes more to song than storybook, with its oddly jumpy narrative structure, but M’sieu B.’s canny illustration perfectly captures the true flavour and 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.