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Review time! with Oyster War

by  in Comic News Comment
Review time! with <i>Oyster War</i>

“Barrooms spilling sailors all shipwrecked at dawn”

Oyster War is the latest comic by Ben Towle, whose previous work, Midnight Sun, was pretty good. This one is published by Oni, it’s edited by Robin Herrera and Ari Yarwood, and it costs $29.99.

That’s a bit much for a 165-page book (which has some chapter breaks, so the story pages are fewer), but it’s a nice hardcover and it’s bigger than your usual comic, so the package looks great. Still, 30 bucks is a bit dear.

Towle writes in the afterword that he used a bit of reality – there were battles between fishermen and “oyster pirates” in the Chesapeake Bay for about a century – and turned it into this epic, which not only dives into the oyster pirates but, you know, sea monsters and ghostly myths. This is a curious book – Towle’s art has become a bit more cartoonish since I saw it last (granted, that was several years ago), and it’s pretty keen, but it clashes a bit with the tone of the book, which is fairly serious. But then you get some strange comedy in the book – the governor, early on, looks like he stepped out of a Popeye cartoon (frankly, a lot of this looks like it came from a Popeye cartoon – that’s part of its charm), the pirate captain wears a long nightshirt with fish silhouettes on it (which is awfully cool, but still a bit weird), and even when things get serious, there’s an odd vibe of goofiness in the comic, which doesn’t make it bad, per se, but does make the tone a bit hard to grasp. Ultimately, I guess, it doesn’t matter – you can tell a serious story and still have humorous elements, of course, and Towle simply keeps the slightly off-kilter tone going through his art rather than his writing.

His story is a simple, solid adventure, which might sound like a criticism, but is just a fact – it certainly doesn’t make the book less entertaining, it’s just that it’s awfully predictable.

The mayor of Blood’s Haven, Maryland, a town on the Chesapeake, asks the governor for help combatting oyster pirates. The town is built on oysters (in some cases literally, as the oyster shells are tossed into the surf and eventually form “land” where people place houses), and the mayor points out that the pirates are stripping the oyster beds instead of slowly harvesting them, so that they die instead of replenishing themselves. The mayor introduces the governor to Davidson Bulloch, a former Confederate commander, who will lead the “navy” against the pirates, and he wants the governor to provide money for more sailors. Bulloch decides to fight because the pirates are from New York, so they’re “nautical carpetbaggers,” but he doesn’t believe in the superstitions of the sailors, which will, of course, be tested in the course of the book. The crew he gathers is a motley bunch, but that’s to be expected. They sail off to find the pirates, but they have a traitor in their midst, because of course they do, and they find out the pirates are trying to raise the spirit of an old crusty sailor who was given power by Davy Jones and can command every sea creature.

There’s a lot of adventuring, some death, some more betrayal, and some irony when the spirit shows up (of course he shows up!). Towle doesn’t pull too many tricks out of his bag – the traitor in Bulloch’s crew is fairly obvious to spot, we’re treated to a quasi-version of Pop Culture Rule #1 (Never Trust The Woman!!!), and Bulloch sees things he can’t explain, which causes him to change his mind about his beliefs. I really don’t want to damn with faint praise, but the story is an entertaining tale but not a particularly challenging one. And there’s really nothing wrong with that.

The story is a bit more interesting than that, though, simply because of the way Towle tells it. This is a story about the marginalized, and while it doesn’t make the overall plot better (which, again, it’s fine, but predictable), it does lend some fascinating subtext to the story. Blood’s Haven itself is literally on the margins, on the littoral, partly in the sea, and the governor’s stuffy dress implies that he would rather not deal with this disgusting town but knows how important it is to the economy of Maryland. All of the main characters are marginalized in one way or another, beginning with Bulloch. I’m not a huge fan of using Confederates as heroes, as in my mind, they’re not noble, but making Bulloch a Southerner removes him from “polite” society – no matter how esteemed he was during the war, he’s still a traitor, and this job feels like one of the few he can get. The other crew members are from the margins, too: Haynie Holsapple is a bare-knuckle boxer, Philip Tickbourne is a drunk, Tevia is a Polynesian navigator, Ju-long is a Chinese cook (who also knows martial arts, because of course he does), Lourdes Sousa is a Portuguese net-maker, Joost le Roy is an elderly watchmaker-cum-mechanic, and Josiah von Liebing is a naturalist.

Towle gives us people who have been ignored by mainstream society, even though, of course, they’re as capable (if not more so) than anyone. On the pirates’ side, a woman named Iseabal also shows that she’s far more capable than the pirate captain, Treacher Fink, thinks. Towle veers a bit toward stereotypes (Ju-long’s knowledge of martial arts, for instance), but overall, it’s pretty fascinating, as the people use skills they learned in their own cultures. The fact that these marginalized people save “polite society” from a menace that those in polite society don’t even know about (although Towle pulls a nice trick with the omnipotent spirit when he finally appears) is clever, too. Nobody will celebrate Bulloch and his crew, but they still do their jobs.

As I mentioned, Towle’s cartoonish art is slightly at odds with the tone of the book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not excellent. His settings are great – Blood’s Haven’s buildings are on rickety stilts, giving the entire town a creaky, ephemeral feel, and he angles the walls outward from the base, so that they look like boats that have happened to wash up on shore. The clanky ship that Bulloch commands is wonderful, as Towle draws it so it looks welded together from spare parts (as Bulloch notes when he first sees it), and the submarine Bulloch uses later is a fantastic monstrosity. Monk, the spirit, is terrifying, as his legs have been replaced with sea creatures and his arms are giant tentacles.

Towle’s characters are great, too – the governor is a goofy caricature, while Bulloch and the rest of his crew are all sorts of interesting shapes and sizes. Towle’s details are excellent – he makes sure the ships looked lived-in, he gives Tevia interesting tattoos, he uses hatching on the characters’ faces well to show that life at sea hardens people. He gets to draw some bizarre creatures, too, which is nice, as they fit into the milieu quite well. There’s some nice action, too, and Towle does well to show that even though Bulloch’s crew might be clever, not all of them are fighters – it’s neat that he realizes that some crew members just wouldn’t become ninjas when hardened pirates show up. The book isn’t gory, but Towle does a good job showing the consequences of violence, which adds some gravitas to the comic. It’s a really nice-looking book, which is neat.

Oyster War might have a predictable plot, but it’s a pretty good one, and Towle’s subtext and art help make the book more interesting than it looks on the surface. Towle is a neat creator, and it’s always nice to see his work, so check this out if you like pirates and action and, you know, oysters!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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