Hugh Madden started cartooning his adaptation of Treasure Island on the eighteenth of March, early in the Irish Lockdown. As I write, he’s completed two hundred and twenty-seven pages, all free to read in one mega-thread on Twitter, and has covered everything up until Hawkins’ joining, under sufferance, Silver’s pirate gang now marooned on the island. It’s a splendid, truly splendid retelling of the original, and that quality lies in both Madden’s inks and narrative choices.
Hugh Madden (art & writing), Robert Lewis Stevenson (story)
In Madden’s Treasure Island, the Hawkins we follow is Imogen, a young girl whose father dies and whose mother is run ragged in management of the family Inn. The local doctor, a man whose affection for Imogen’s mother is plain, promises to protect the girl when they both take up the treasure quest accidentally bequeathed by Billy Bones. The trip is financed by Lady Trelawney, a beetlebrowed, well-belashed local swashbuckler and society firebrand; their ship captained by Smollett, a woman of most upright nature and forthright schnozz. When Long John Silver enters the frame, he’s a clear rogue, a naughty chancer—a Snufkin gone rotten. Long hair in tendrils that curl, beanie, twinkle in the eye. He’s a babe and a half, and Imogen—though she’d never speak it so—is smitten. This is how you remind me that a good plot, dusty, old, might just need a breath of air and some added spice—and I’ll be bold enough to say it’ll work on more than me.
Many adaptors of agreed classics who hit upon the idea of changing the gender of one character, or two, may find themselves stopping soon after. But Madden does not! Imogen, Lady Trelawney, her righthand woman, Redruth… Then even Smollett, whose first appearance leaves gender unspoken (and for those who know the story, perhaps undisrupted), is soon revealed a she as well, and Black Dog, and the crew continues to unfurl in variety.
Trelawney and Smollett’s disagreement, then, about the worthiness of the voyage, plays out as two women in their respective authorities and confidence arguing their corners and coming to a lumpy accord. Their same-team rivalry and power pull and push are mutually affirming. Orders taken or even asked for by men are natural. Imogen’s presence on this crew is given a sense of security and potential: she’s not there by anomaly, one girl amongst boys and men, but by her right as a person looking to find their way. It is unsurprising for her to be there. It is unremarkable, and because of that it is exciting without being nerve-wracking. She’s a young girl on an adventure and she won’t get “found out.” It’s not a story about transgressing. Therefore we need not stress. Madden even bothers to give Imogen and her mother time together to acknowledge the stresses he’s removing: diversity within one environment does not dispel the demands of patriarchy outside of it. We find ourselves within our wider circumstances.
Every crew member is given their own fresh lick of paint, and many introduced with a moment of focus that dignifies and details. The only Treasure Island that ever really thrilled me, though I tried to read several versions several times, was the Muppet version, and while the characters in that motley crew were funny and fun—and though this may sound like a criticism of that excellent movie it is not: it’s just an illustration of how this version differently textures its interest—
—In Muppet Treasure Island (again, an excellent film, that I love) I believed in those pirates as pirates in the moment but had no sense that they lived outside of their presence in the musical. While there’s little (or no?) added dialogue or digressions from the established plot once these characters are alive in our minds, the trouble taken by Madden to give everyone a face, a shape, accessories, a hairdo, and the feeling of a chancer’s razzle-dazzle—to see this crew in human form with no caveats, whole histories suggested and with no-one played by anyone recognisable—that’s the thing that drives engagement here. Everybody looks particular; within the hired crew whiteness is not clung to (which isn’t to say this doesn’t reflect racism but just… that it could reflect it more, I suppose—the pirates feel like people and their racial diversity means that the story feels like it encourages the conceptualisation of true humanity within people of all ethnicities for any white children potentially reading it, which, thanks to white supremacy and long experience, is a base metric by which I judge entertainment apparently); nor is youth; nor is women’s beauty; shape is emphasised as a result of the linear attitude and sculptural design sense (the latter of which Madden actually shares with the design minds behind the Muppets); and therefore there is little sense of normativity. The women are often possessed of traditionally unappealing, very gratifying vivacity. Long John’s disability is not ignored; his crutch and necessarily adjusted balance featuring as a matter of course not only in his panels but also in his action.
Madden’s attitude to line and sculptural impression, as mentioned, are also standout aspects of this…is it a strip? It’s been released, daily, in strip form so far. I’m absolutely certain it would and will sell when it’s inevitably picked up for traditional publication, as a book (probably relettered, though I’ve no complaints about reading the lettering as it stands). What do you call ligne claire when it does have hatching? What do you get when you take the Ezquerra dat-dat-dat-dat dimension and cross it over with Osbourne Puzzle Adventure friendliness?
Let’s check our working and prove it again:
Heaven, essentially. Water you can hear, sunlight you can feel, every face a figurehead carved by a master. And the silhouettes of the trees! Elegance supreme. The art history of it escapes me (Nouveau? Beardsley?—No. Vintage travel posters?) but the beauty does not. If your job involves acquisitions and you haven’t sent Madden an offer yet…if I were you, I’d get to it. I wanna buy it. For now, Hugh’s self-published work is available via Gumroad.