French Pirates and Feminists! Long John Silver: Lady Vivian Hastings

Long John Silver: Lady Vivian Hasting, Written by Xavier Dorison, Illustrated by Mathieu Laufray Published in French by Dargaud, Published in English by Cinebook

Long John Silver Vol. 1: Lady Vivian Hastings

Xavier Dorison (writer), Mathieu Laufray (illustrator)
Dargaud (French version)
May 18, 2007
Cinebook (English version)
February 16, 2011

“But in these dark hours at last, I find the courage to pass along these terrible memories…”

Long John Silver Vol. 1, Lady Vivian Hastings opens with an ominous letter to Orpheus, the Greek hero who was legendary for his music–more powerful than a siren’s call. Much like the modern day Pied Piper, his music could force men and animals to dance.

Like Orpheus’s tune, the siren call of treasure is irresistible, and it is at the heart of any good pirate story. Long John Silver tells of the hidden city of Guiana-Capac full of Incan treasures–and Incan horrors. If the foreshadowing is true, this will be anything but a pleasant tune.

The book introduces us to a cast of anti-heroes, each with their own hidden agendas. But the dynamic between the two main characters is the most interesting story.

Lady Vivian is a noblewoman who defied the conventions of the 1780s. She has no use for the conventional rules of her time. Why should she? Conventional rules gave all her family’s wealth and property to her husband. She was left to live a solitary life while he sought adventure. She lives childless, forced to have abortions, because her husband hated children.

Long John Silver: Lady Vivian Hasting, Written by Xavier Dorison, Illustrated by Mathieu Laufray Published in French by Dargaud, Published in English by Cinebook

These conventional rules have shaped Vivian into a shrewd force to be reckoned with. When we meet her, she is strategizing to maintain her estate—and lifestyle—by convincing her lover to marry her. After all, she is pregnant with his child. But her plans are foiled when her brother-in-law arrives to announce that not only is her husband is alive, but the brothers will be selling off her father’s estate to retrieve the treasure from Guiana-Capac. They have decided that Vivian is to take up life in a convent.

It is then that Vivian decides to claim her own life on her own terms. Refusing to bow to convention and her husband, she decides join the quest for the hidden city and its treasure. After all, it is her estate that is funding the trip, and Vivian will get what is rightfully hers. Being no fool, she searches for those who she can trust–even if they are pirates.

Long John Silver is an old pirate, telling tales in a tavern while he cooks for his fellow pirates. It doesn’t take much for Vivian to convince him and his small crew to join and support her during the journey.

Long John Silver: Lady Vivian Hasting, Written by Xavier Dorison, Illustrated by Mathieu Laufray Published in French by Dargaud, Published in English by Cinebook

Of all the characters, Long John has no hidden agenda. Despite his violence, there is a noble side to Long John. As he and his crew make plans take over the ship sailing to the Americas, Long John kills another ship captain after learning that was a slave driver. In the end, it is the old pirate who drew me in. Violent to be sure, quick to kill, but loyal to his men, Long John shows his heroic side by fighting for those who have the least.

There is a moment between the noblewoman and the pirate that is the most intriguing. Before joining Vivian’s crusade, John asks for her to sign a contract. He signs in blood before offering up a pen for her signature. Proving once again she is stronger than anyone believes, she declines the pen and signs in blood. More than the promise of riches, it is that moment when Long John’s interest is truly piqued. And finally mine was as well.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the book could not hold my interest.

It is a serious and weighty book, reading more like an illustrated novel than a comic. Laufray’s artwork creates a gorgeous yet ominous and gritty world. He is able to bring Long John to vivid life, showing us the pirate within his eyes. However, many of his pages feel crushed under too many dialog boxes. And despite the interesting dynamic between the lady with the violent yet noble(ish) pirate, the story itself also suffers from the weight of too many characters with their own complex stories.

While I’m usually glad to have fully developed characters, most of these can easily be found in any other pirate story, for instance Starz’s “Black Sails.” I found myself trying to find the character I would truly root for, and I so wanted it to be Lady Vivian. Pushed to a point where most would break, she learned to stand firm. It is a perfect moment to become a hero, but instead her firmness is cold and cruel. She thinks of only herself.

Counter to that, give me a hero-turned-pirate-turned-hero like Wu Ao-Shi. Appearing in a stand-alone version of “Immortal Iron Fist,” Wu’s story began similarly to Vivian’s with many telling her she could never be more than a worthless orphan. Wu finds her inner strength and through training, defeats Shou-Lao the Undying, and becomes the first female Iron Fist. But rather than stay in K’un-Lun, Wu leaves to follow her true love, a simple fisherman.

Immortal Iron First, Marvel

On her journey to find him, Wu too becomes a pirate. She sails the seas and violently avenges the helpless–but for a fee. When she is reunited with her love, they both see past their differences as fighter and fisherman. It is through this acceptance of who she truly is that Wu realizes she can protect those who need her as a hero, not a pirate.

It is possible that Vivian too will find acceptance and find her inner hero, but as the book ends, the narrator’s letter to Orpheus continues giving us an indication that this will be a tragic story.

Orpheus’s own story ended tragically. With his his musical lyre he journeyed to the underworld to bring back his wife Eurydice. He was given one rule: not to look back as they climbed their way out. But temptation is overwhelming and Orpheus turned to look at Eurydice, causing her to vanish forever.

If the letter to Orpheus gives us any indication, Vivian, Long John Silver, and the rest are not telling a hero’s story, but rather a doomed tale.