|Ted Naifeh, Polly and the Pirates (Oni Press, 2006), $11.95, paper.|
by Jared Gardner
Ted Naifeh has made something of a name for himself as an author of sharp comics directed toward literate girls and young adults with his popular goth Courtney Crumin series. Polly and Pirates aims perhaps at a somewhat younger, less hip readership, but the guns are still very much pointed in the same general direction. Unfortunately, this second series seems to have stretched Naifeh’s forces as surely as I am now stretching the whole nautical-pirate metaphor. Where Courtney is playful, original and energetic, Polly comes off as by-the-numbers and completely uninspired in almost every way.
The premise has all the nuance and high craft of a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy. Polly is, unsurprisingly, a pollyana, living in a boarding house with her romantic (and strangely hypersexualized) best friend, Anastasia, and her adversary, the omnipresent Sarah Snedecker. They live in a strange seaport town where all the buildings are essentially ships permanently moored into the docks. This is all the better for pirates to come and steal young girls from their beds while they sleep, which of course is precisely what happens almost immediately to young Polly. And faster than you can say “Walt Disney,” we learn that Polly is in fact the daughter of famed Pirate Queen Meg Malloy, the most feared pirate on the seas, who (along with her treasure and its location) disappeared some years ago. The pirates who kidnap Polly, a rumpled band of dwarves and Nightmare Before Christmas extras, had hoped she might be able to lead them to a return to their former glory. But Polly (not to mention Fate, that hackneyed scriptwriter) has other ideas. Polly escapes, only to be kidnapped yet again, this time by the son of her mother’s former adversary, who has his eyes on the treasure map and Meg Malloy’s booty (sadly, no pun intended).
If you can imagine Pirates of the Caribbean performed by Smurfs, you would have a sense of both the substance and style of this series. There are moments of great comic timing that one has come to expect from Naifeh, as when Polly first comes to the pirate ship and screams, sending her kidnappers into a panic attack of their own. But beyond the fundamental ham-handedness of the plot, there are also surprising moments of fundamental comic solecisms—for example when, in recounting Polly’s attempt to sneak back into her room, the panels slips into an imagined vision of Polly’s future fate that is entirely indistinguishable from the actual fate that ultimately befalls her at her rival’s hands.
Then there is the problem of Polly’s creepy feet. For reasons known only to Naifeh (although we might hazard a guess that he, like us, was looking for any shortcuts he could find through this pap), Polly walks around on strange stumps, decorously covered in striped socks. That this poor crippled mutant could prove in the end to be such a dexterous pirate herself should perhaps increase our sense of wonder at the inevitable transformation that befalls her at the first whiff of real danger, but we could not help but wonder about those missing feet (far more interesting than the missing treasure, I fear). There is reason to hope that Naifeh has retired Polly after only six issues and one trade volume, but with so many prescripted adventures so obviously waiting on the horizon, we wouldn’t bet on it. There was a time when this was the best that literate young adults could hope for in graphic fiction. Thankfully, that is no longer the case, as even several of the reviews in this volume can testify.