Strapped into the back of someone else’s father’s car, I caught a glimpse of swans in a field of young wheat. “Oh!” I thought, their necks undulating, “Dinosaurs!” I felt like a child, but I wasn’t. I’d just been reading children’s comics: I’d been reading Pirates of Pangaea.
Published weekly in The Phoenix and collected by David Fickling books in a first compact volume, it’s a lovely thing to have. The story of a 1700s girl off to visit her uncle, hijacked on the way by pirates. A younger boy as sidekick. Grown men to flee and parlay with, all that good stuff. And a bonus: dinosaurs. It’s Pirates of the Savage Land or Cool Dinotopia (like Dinotopia if people actually did things). Pirates of Pangaea puts a girl at the head of a carnivorous lizard beast, and she tames it. She’s wearing a dress. She names her dino after a flower. It’s enriching, and some of its applied dino/naval ideas are breathtaking. Turn that page onto a spread of the sea of green—! Diplodocus with great ships saddled safely on their backs, wading those giant bones across a rolling field of sharp, thick grass. It’s a gorgeous dream. Wait until you see swans in wheat. Oh!
Pirates of Pangaea is a colonial story; there’s no escaping that. The lost world in question is in the Caribbean, and like the rather famous Pirates franchise set there, their authority’s mostly white people. But not all; there are black faces in the non-pirate, law-abiding naval authority, in the nicer pirate cast, and in the meaner pirate cast. Their main protector, ambiguously pleasant though he is, is an attractively shabby black pirate with a small afro, a dashing sash, and—how many guns? The indigenous communities all appear to be black (we hear from men who have left their old way of life behind to live with pirates, and we hear from men still living as their grandparents did), and everybody we meet from their number, so far, is friendly. There’s a white saviour moment, when our heroine is allowed to use the sacred golden armour for her dinosaur, but (unusually?) it passes, without shining reward. Pirates of Pangaea attempts, and I think aims, to engage with its colonial setting and some of the social realities that followed the Empire’s invasions and displacements.
The focus, though, is on the “roaring adventure” promised on the front cover of the Phoenix’ very first issue, way back when. It delivers. When I was little, I’d have read this though before you could blink and be waiting for book two almost tragically. Dinosaurs! Pirates! Wild nature! Peril! Quick thinking and problem solving! By a girl! Dinosaurs for girls! And she’s dressed practically like Belle.
I know Neill Cameron, co-scripter with Daniel Hartwell and artist too, a little on Twitter, so I asked him some things after I read his book.
In real life or in fiction? Because either way, the answer is Sue from Sooty. That was my attempt at a “funny” answer to this question, because I fear my real answer will be super pompous and windbaggy, which is to say: most* of the fictional worlds I obsessively inhabited as a child—Transformers, 80s Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, Hitchhikers Guide, Red Dwarf—were pretty much unremitting sausage-fests in hindsight, and I think that’s by no means unusual, and I think it’s kind of a shame, and I don’t know how much it’s changed in the years since I was a kid. There’s a received wisdom in children’s media that boys don’t want to read stories about female characters, and my opinion of that received wisdom is that it is a PILE OF ASS. I think boys are very much like girls in that they want to read exciting stories about compelling characters, and if those stories happen to have dinosaurs and robots and wizards, so much the better, and that’s about the end of what ought to matter.
*Most, but not all. Kitty Pryde and Granny Weatherwax made up for a lot, I think.
How much costume research did (do) you do? How much have you thought about how different Pangaean Pirate fashions might be from British seafaring, academic, and young ladies’ fashions?
Well, I hadn’t thought about it nearly as much as I feel like I should have, now. Pangaean fashions tend to be a bit more ripped-up, on account of all the “getting bitten by dinosaurs,” but that’s probably about as much as I went into that. In terms of research, I did quite a lot, but for the most part it boiled down to extensively rewatching various Jane Austen TV adaptations with a sketchpad by my side, and to be honest that is how I spend most evenings anyway, so it was fairly painless.
How regularly do you check for updates to dinosaur scientific knowledge?
I have a seven-year-old, so quite a lot of my life is spent reading about dinosaurs, watching documentaries about dinosaurs, and visiting dinosaur museums, so I’d say I’m pretty up on things. I know my Triceratops from my juvenile Torosaurus, let’s just put it that way. (This is a hilarious joke. I felt I should probably point that out, in case it wasn’t immediately apparent.)
How often did you draw dinosaurs before starting this comic?
Not that much, actually! It was only when we had a kid and I suddenly started spending a lot more time in the children’s section of bookshops that my long-dormant love for dinosaurs really reawakened, and happily, that was round about the time Dan first pitched me the idea of Pirates of Pangaea.
It was a funny thing, because you think a love of dinosaurs will automatically translate into an ability to draw them, but it turns out they are—of course—actually really hard to draw, with their own complex anatomies going on that any amount of practice at drawing people will not necessarily help with. The way a raptor’s leg works is completely different to the way a sauropod’s leg works, for example, and takes a bit of getting your head round. Particularly if, as in this book, you are called upon to draw dinosaurs in all sorts of poses and from various unlikely angles.
I notice that Sophie is less facially expressive than Kelsey (who has some AMAZING grump faces). Is that an active choice, as she’s been trained to be a young lady, or is it a bit of an accident? I ask this with love.
The first, rather prosaic answer, is that as well as being a well-brought-up young English lady of the early 18th century, Sophie is also The Hero, whereas Kelsey is kind of The Comic Relief, and so as a rule if there’s some comedically exaggerated fear, delight, or grumpiness to be done, that usually falls to Kelsey.
The second, even more prosaic answer is that I used a fair bit of photo reference in prepping for this comic, to try and avoid that problem I often have where I only really get the hang of drawing the characters about two-thirds of the way into a story. And the kid I used as a model for Kelsey had an AMAZING range of gurning/grump/outrage faces, which ended up finding their way into the story … But then, I probably picked those images as models for the characters to some extent as a function of the first point.
The third answer is that I’m just not as good at drawing expressions as I wish I was? THERE I SAID IT.
Many of the adult pirates, including Captain Ford, seem non-evil. My feeling is that in an adult comic a lot of the pirates would be seen doing “bad things” with more regularity. Murdering, groping, cruel carousing, etc. They wouldn’t be as protective towards any children who crossed their paths. I think it’s better your way, they seem more human, but was it a storytelling decision or an appropriate-for-children decision?
I think to an extent I’d have to defer to Dan on this one. But I know what you mean, yeah. In terms of child-appropriateness, I think Captain Brookes is about as evil as you necessarily want someone to be in a comic that six-year-olds are going to be reading. There’s one particular Heinous Act he commits early on that I won’t spoil here, but which I know led to a few tears before bedtime amongst the readership and the one (very gentle, thoughtful, and polite) telling-off I’ve ever had from David Fickling. But with characters like Captain Ford and Ten-Gun, I think we were aiming more for that sweet piratey spot of “assholes, but not *complete* assholes,” because you do want the reader to, to an extent, be rooting for them against Captain Ford in the final act of the book, and not just thinking “God, I wish all these assholes would just murder each other already.”
What would you have changed about Dinotopia, if you could, when you first read it? I’m assuming you’ve read it, and this is not a cruel trick question! PoP fills in a number of gaps I saw in a terribly compelling world.
I have never read Dinotopia! Sorry. I did become aware of it after we’d been working on Pirates for a while, and from the tiny bits I’ve seen it looks stunningly gorgeous, so I kind of decided to put off reading it for fear of either unduly influencing or just totally depressing myself.
It’s been a while since these strips first appeared in The Phoenix. What would you have changed if they’d have been coming out for the first time now?
The honest answer is that, if time and budget allowed, I’d redraw the whole thing, because I hate my own work and can only ever see the mistakes in it. Frankly, I don’t think my own skills even begin to do justice to the sheer magnificence of this idea that Dan came up with. But I’ve been told I shouldn’t admit that in public because it is “off-putting.”
No, for the most part, I’m really proud of Pirates. A stupid amount of work went into it and the response I hear from young readers makes me dare to think it was all worthwhile. But I’d probably put a few more dinosaurs in.