By Ian D. Rylett & Ian Hillyard (Red Fox/Random House)
The problem with pirates is that they don’t know when enough’s enough, so here’s another review to reconnoitre: tangentially celebrating the greatest buccaneer of all…
John Ryan was an artist and storyteller who straddled three distinct disciplines of graphic narrative, with equal qualitative if not financial success.
Born in Edinburgh on March 4th 1921, Ryan was the son of a diplomat, served during WWII in Burma and India and – after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) – took up a post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955.
It was during this time that he began contributing strips to Fulton Press publications, in the company’s glossy distaff alternative Girl, but most especially in the pages of the legendary “boys’ paper” The Eagle.
On April 14th 1950, Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Avid children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day.
The Eagle was a tabloid-sized paper with full-colour inserts alternating with text and a range of various other comic features. “Tabloid” is a big page and one can get a lot of material onto each one. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome page was an 8-panel strip entitled Captain Pugwash – The story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many Sticky Ends which nearly befell him. Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required throughout the comic every week.
Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran (or more accurately capered and fell about) until issue 19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship for Ryan who had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent as a full-page (tabloid, remember, an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) from Eagle #16. (I really must reinvestigate the solidly stolid sleuth too sometime soon…)
Tweed ran as a page for three years until 1953 when it dropped to a half-page strip and was repositioned as a purely comedic venture
In 1956 the indefatigable old sea-dog (I mean old Horatio Pugwash but it could so easily be Ryan) made the jump to children’s picture books. He was an unceasing story-peddler with a big family, and somehow also found time to be head cartoonist for The Catholic Herald for forty years.
A Pirate Story was first published by Bodley Head before switching to the children’s publishing specialist Puffin for further editions and more adventures. It was the first of a vast (sorry, got away with myself again there!) run of children’s books on a number of different subjects.
Pugwash himself starred in 21 tomes; there were a dozen books based on the animated TV series Ark Stories, plus Sir Prancelot and a number of other creations. Ryan worked whenever he wanted to in the comics world and eventually the books and the strips began to cross-fertilise.
The primary Pugwash is very traditional in format with blocks of text and single illustrations to illuminate a particular moment. But by the publication of Pugwash the Smuggler (1982) entire sequences were lavishly painted comic strips, with as many as eight panels per page, and including word balloons. A fitting circularity to his interlocking careers and a nice treat for us old-fashioned comic drones.
After A Pirate Story was released in 1957 the BBC pounced on the property, commissioning Ryan to produce five-minute episodes (86 in all from 1957 to 1968: later reformatted in full colour and rebroadcast in 1976). In the budding 1950s arena of animated television cartoons, Ryan developed a new system for producing cheap, high quality animations to a tight deadline.
He began with Pugwash, keeping the adventure milieu, but replaced the shrewish wife with a tried-and-true boy assistant. Tom the Cabin Boy is the only capable member of a crew which included such visual archetypes as Willy, Barnabas and Master Mate (fat, thin and tall – and all dim), instantly affirming to the rapt, young audience that grown-ups are fools and kids do, in fact, rule.
Ryan also drew a weekly Captain Pugwash strip in The Radio Times for eight years, before going on to produce a number of other animated series including Mary, Mungo and Midge, The Friendly Giant and the aforementioned Sir Prancelot. There were also adaptations of some of his many other children’s books and in 1997 Pugwash was rebooted in an all-new CGI animated TV series.
The first book – A Pirate Story – sets the scene with a delightful clown’s romp as the so-very-motley crew of the Black Pig sail in search of buried treasure, only to fall into a cunning trap set by the truly nasty corsair Cut-Throat Jake. Luckily, Tom is as smart as his shipmates and Captain are not…
A 2008 edition of A Pirate Story from Frances Lincoln Children’s Books came with a free audio CD, and just in case I’ve tempted you beyond endurance here’s a full list of the good (ish) Captain’s exploits that you should make it your remaining life’s work to unearth…:
Captain Pugwash: A Pirate Story (1957), Pugwash Aloft (1960), Pugwash and the Ghost Ship (1962), Pugwash in the Pacific (1963), Pugwash and the Sea Monster (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Ruby (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Treasure Chest (1976), Captain Pugwash and the New Ship (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Elephant (1976), The Captain Pugwash Cartoon Book (1977), Pugwash and the Buried Treasure (1980), Pugwash the Smuggler (1982), Captain Pugwash and the Fancy Dress Party (1982), Captain Pugwash and the Mutiny (1982), Pugwash and the Wreckers (1984), Pugwash and the Midnight Feast (1984), The Battle of Bunkum Bay (1985), The Quest of the Golden Handshake (1985), The Secret of the San Fiasco (1985), Captain Pugwash and the Pigwig (1991) and Captain Pugwash and the Huge Reward (1991). They are all pearls beyond price and a true treasure of graphic excellence…
Although currently out of print, the assembled Pugwash canon (the only sort this band of rapscallions can be trusted with) are still widely available through online vendors and should be a prize you set your hearts on acquiring.
As you might expect, such success breeds ancillary projects, and cleaving close to the wind and running in the master’s wake is this minor mirthquake that no sassy brat could possibly resist. Compiled by Ian D. Rylett and copiously illustrated by Ian Hillyard in stark monochrome, it’s a fairly standard cartoon joke book as beloved by generations of youngsters and loathed beyond endurance by parents, guardians, older siblings and every other adult whose patience is proven quite exhaustible…
Divided into themed chapters ‘The Captain’s Crackers’, ‘Jakes’ Jests’, ‘Blundering Bucaneersk, KHysterics in the Harbour’, ‘Fishy Funnies’ and ‘All Aboard’, the level of wit is almost lethal in its predictability and vintage (Q: why did the irate sailor go for a pee? A: he wanted to be a pirate.) but the relentless pace and remorseless progression is actually irresistible in delivery.
With the world crashing down around us and the water levels inexorably rising, we don’t have that much to laugh at, so why don’t you go and find something to take your minds off the chaos to come? Your kids will thank you and if you’ve any life left in your old and weary soul, you will too…
Pugwash books © 1957-2009 John Ryan and (presumably) the Estate of John Ryan. All rights reserved.
Best Pirate Jokes © Britt-Allcroft (Development Ltd) Limited 2000. All rights worldwide Britt-Allcroft (Development Ltd) Limited.