A few weeks back The Phoenix very kindly sent me a copy of ‘The Pirates of Pangaea’, a series set in a world where dinosaurs and humans co-exist, on the lost continent of Pangaea. But when faced up with the existence of dinosaurs, what have the humans decided to do? That’s right: strap giant boats onto their backs and go pirating about.
Written by Daniel Hartwell and drawn by Neill Cameron, the first few stories from The Phoenix are collected into this volume as part of the ‘Phoenix Presents’ collection, which has previously put out similar collections from people like Gary Northfield, Jamie Smart and Adam Murphy. Coming in at around 100 pages, this first volume of the series proves to be a surprisingly heady mix of swashbuckling, dinosaur discovery, and people getting eaten. Word of caution – I’m writing this review whilst enjoying a full-on head cold, which normally results in me over-writing my points. So, just bear that in mind as you read on.
The most striking thing about the first part of the story collected here is how brutal Hartwell’s story is at times. He doesn’t pull any punches (or, indeed, retract any sabres), setting a darker tone than I’ve seen in any of the other Phoenix Presents books so far. People die in this series, in unfair ways, and in ways which connect the book to the book it seems most inspired by (based on my limited knowledge, at least): Tintin.
The basic concept here is that Pangaea still exists, and can be travelled to by sea. This is a forgotten continent, where dinosaurs still roam around free – apart from some, which are rendered docile by a substance called ‘snuff’ and used as transport. Giant wooden boats are built on their backs, and civilians can thereby travel from port to port without having to walk through the wilderness, which is populated by rather more dangerous dinos. However, the threat to the civilians travelling Pangaea is that pirates roam the plains, themselves on the backs of dinosaurs, and are liable to appear from nowhere to raid travelling ships.
It’s an old-fashioned story, where all the men try to act civilised, the women are expected to be docile, and pirates are mostly ruthless and ugly people. What elevates it above the stuff that they used to put in The Funday Times is the world-building, mostly established through Cameron’s artwork. We get scant glimpses of far away places, towns tucked into mountains and whole societies living undetected in the forests (which are played a little as ‘savages’, although this is ultimately negated), and it creates a continual sense of awe to the series.
In having a whole continent to set up their base, and then sending the characters all over the place to see the various wonders contained within it, the creative team set up a real sense of wonder and adventure. Just as Treasure Island – which obviously influences every aspect of this book – managed, the series sets up the premise that there is far more going on than first meets the eye, and this creates a feeling of vast expanse – but also of tight confinement. The first story gives the reader a fairly brutal treatment, as our hero Sophie comes up against some quite scary opponents and meets a stark defeat pretty quickly, and this then provides stakes for the rest of the series.
Not all of the story comes together – there’s a kid she meets, Timothy, who spends most of his time being an annoyance rapping round the story’s ankles rather than somebody the reader wants to spend time with – but there’s a surprisingly tight narrative in-place here. Hartwell’s dialogue is full-on enjoying the pirate theme throughout, creating high spirits which helps thrust the story along from issue-to-issue. Whilst the scripting has a B-Movie sensibility to it, letting the reader see a romanticised pirate story even as people swoop in on the backs of dinosaurs and eat their opponents, the narrative itself manages to walk the line away from self-parody.
This is partly because Hartwell restrains the narrative whenever it seems like things might become blandly over-the-top, and partly because Cameron’s artistic style goes for realism over cartooning. The dinosaurs are drawn to careful proportion, whilst the humans and settings are both fantastical but identifiable. He doesn’t break anatomy or over-emote at any point, which makes the story feel more authentic and true to itself. Likewise, the colouring seems aimed at ensuring the Pangaea setting feels like a real location, with natural colours filtering through the landscapes.
It’s a fun comic to read through, starting off with a brutal setting-of-the-scene but then relaxing into a confident, enjoyable journey. I can’t stress enough how much I like the way the team create their world, and the story and characters they fit inside it are likeable and relatable. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but once I settled into the storytelling, I found myself really liking the style – and the energy – of this first collection.