Oni Want A Cracker? Ted Naifeh Talks "Polly & The Pirates"

Mon, July 25th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

The solicitation for Oni Press' "Polly & The Pirates" took many fans by surprise, as no one had really heard of acclaimed writer/artist Ted Naifeh's new project before the solicitation. Then the preview images shown at Comic Con International in San Diego not only made fans happy, it whet their appetites for more. CBR News caught up Naifeh to learn about the project.

"Polly & The Pirates" is a six-issue mini-series with the first issue scheduled to hit comic shop shelves September 21st. "Polly, naturally, is the central character," Naifeh told CBR News. "The main inspiration for her is, believe it or not, Bilbo Baggins of 'The Hobbit.' I always loved that book, even more than 'Lord of the Rings,' actually. The idea of the homebody discovering the joy of adventure always struck me as a fantastic coming of age tale, even back when I was a kid and couldn't put words to the idea. So I decided that I wanted a character who wasn't interested in adventure, didn't want to escape her circumstances, and only found out after the fact how much she was missing in her comfortable everyday life.

"All the other characters of the story take a backseat to Polly, but there are a few who stand out.

"Of course, the most important character other than Polly is Meg Malloy, the Pirate Queen, who vanished over a decade ago, but whose legacy Polly finds herself unable to escape. I don't want to give too much away about her, or I'll ruin the book. The pirate crew stand, more or less, as one character. They all have their own little quirks, but basically they're this group of foulmouthed ne'er-do-wells that offend Polly's well-groomed sensibilities pretty much continually. Of course, she soon comes to feel enormous affection toward them, and even tries to teach them manners (not to mention hygiene), with predictably silly results.

"And there's The Pirate Prince, whose father is, of course, the infamous Pirate King (now retired), who gathered all the pirates of the pacific under his flag. All except for Meg Malloy, naturally. So the Prince and Polly carry on the same conflict as the old king and queen.

"And, of course, there's Polly's father, who is quite possibly the most debonair gentleman in the world, and could charm a shark into giving you a ride on its back; two scheming lawyers called Snedecker & Werms; and Emperor Norton, one of my favorite historical madmen."

And while none would argue that Naifeh is a man of integrity, he does admit that he did see dollar signs when creating "Polly." "Actually, 'Polly & the Pirates' was conceived as a cartoon cash cow, to be sold off to the network slaughterhouse. I'd been getting calls from the producers of 'Invader Zim' and Warner Animation, and I started trying to come up with an idea that would work as an ongoing humorous situation. Unfortunately, my ideas are very plotty, involving more action and adventure and less people standing around making jokes, which is easier to animate. 'Polly & the Pirates' was one of the ideas I developed. It was a very simple set-up, with Polly getting kidnapped aboard the pirate ship as captive captain, but then it had this cast of kooky characters, from Polly's father (the most debonair gentleman in the world) to her best friend, Anastasia Van Vervendander, who becomes obsessed with marrying her father (and wackiness ensues), to the devilishly handsome young pirate prince, etc. So instead of being a plot, the concept was more of an environment, with an odd population who create their own stories as they bounce off each other.

"In any event, I got a lot of nibbles, but nothing concrete. And the more I dreamed about the world, the less I liked the idea of just handing it to an animation sweatshop and letting them do whatever they wanted. It's got a pretty unique flavor, and I didn't think it would work unless it was done just right. On the other hand, I didn't want to move to Hollywood and get into the business myself. I'd watched Jhonen Vasquez go through that and though I'm in awe of 'Invader Zim's' utter brilliance (I have the full collection plus the house box), I don't envy him the effort and struggle he had to go through. Plus, there's no way I'm moving out of San Francisco. So when Oni asked for my next project, I pitched it along with a slew of others. They went ga-ga for it."

The reason that Oni went "ga-ga" for Naifeh's pitch is a combination of the broad appeal of the series and the fact that, like monkeys and zombies, pirates are "kewl." "[Oni Publisher] Joe Nozemack called me immediately after I sent the pitch and said, 'This is adorable. How come you didn't show it to me before?' I think what really got him was the extended cast. It's not simply a bunch of wacky characters. What makes them interesting is their relationships with each other, how they all connect in various ways to make a whole quirky world. Of course, I'm sure the fact that it's a pirate story, the flavor of the month, doesn't hurt matters."

As Naifeh mentioned, the main characters in "Polly" are an eclectic bunch and while fans of his "Courtney Crumrin" work know that Naifeh likes to create offbeat characters, one had to wonder where the inspiration comes from for this series. "That's a tough question. I get some of it from books and movies, lots of anime, especially Miyazaki, that kind of thing. As I mentioned, Polly was based loosely on Bilbo Baggins. The Pirate Prince is simply your classic bishonen type bad guy (you know, the kind of bad guy who's secretly in love with the heroine but won't admit it to himself). Polly's father is based somewhat on Anthony Andrews' portrayal of the Scarlet Pimpernel, among other things. The flavor of the world is a combination of things, from just living in a kooky town like San Francisco, to reading history with an overly geeky imagination."

Like "Courtney Crumrin," expect to see multiple series, but there won't be any "bigger" picture you really need to worry about following. "I plan to do three Polly Mini-series," said Naifeh. "There won't be an overarching story, unless one asserts itself. They'll just be the various adventures of Polly and her taking on the mantle of the new Pirate Queen. But then, Courtney wasn't planned as an overarching story, but it definitely became one, mainly because characters that don't change bore me. I wanted Courtney to grow and evolve. I suspect I'll want Polly to do the same."

The comparisons to "Courtney" may seem tedious to some, but it highlights an important aspect of Naifeh's career- without pandering to "grittiness" or writing down to his audience, Naifeh has managed to create comics that appeal to both children and adults. "I didn't intend to start a career as a children's comic writer. In fact, I, like many others, took an interest in comics when I was getting older and children's entertainment was beginning to lose its appeal. My first loves in comics were the 'Dark Knight Returns' and Matt Wagner's 'Mage,' both of which were intended for post-adolescent audiences. I'm not sure why I ended up doing 'Courtney' as a children's comic, other than that perhaps I felt that there weren't enough of them and that I predicted (wisely, I can now see) that there might be a market outside comics core readership starving for that kind of material. Additionally, I have a soft spot for children's books. I still love Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl and many other great children's writers, not to mention JK Rowling. It seems unfitting, somehow, that the medium would have moved so far away from that sort of material, when after all, that's really the kind of work that launched comics. More importantly, I think one of the biggest

hurtles to becoming a comics reader is that there aren't a lot of entry points. Say, for example, you just saw a Spider-Man movie and now you want to read some Spiderman comics. It's practically impossible to jump into the current continuity. You have way too many alternative histories to keep track of and have to understand too much about the industry. Hell, I work in the industry and I have no idea how to start reading Spider-Man. It has too much memory, too much self-awareness and self-reference. Comics these days are incredibly postmodern. I just wanted to do a book that anyone could pick up and read without ever having picked up a comic before. Courtney contains no obscure references, and no 'tributes' to the history of comics Well, maybe one little Dark Knight tribute. (It's in 'Coven of Mystics.' See if you can spot it.) It's for the most part just its own little thing, in a genre that isn't even a typical comics genre, and I'd like to think that if someone were interested in getting into comics, especially someone young, they might well start with this."

Looking at the premise of "Polly & The Pirates," the series has a mix of romance, action and adventure that lends itself to a broad range of stories. Naifeh says that there's no genre he won't be tackling per se, but he wants to focus on one in particular. "'Polly' will be a light, fun adventure story with lots of silly humor and plenty of romance. It's not going to have a lot of horror. I think 'Courtney' has the horror stuff covered. Also, It's not actually going to have any magic. It's more of a fanciful version of reality, where the only magic comes from places and inventions that never existed.

"One thing I really want to tackle in this book is romance. I got to play a little with romantic themes in 'Courtney,' and much more in 'Unearthly,' but I really want to make it a big part of 'Polly' as well. Frankly, I don't see enough good romance in comics and when it's shoehorned in, it rarely fits. Which is a shame, because the superhero comic did start with Superman and romance is the very heart of his story. Superman simply doesn't work without Lois."

The art for "Polly" shows an almost softer, rounder style of art from Naifeh and the bright colors lend the series a distinct look. "The main art influence for Polly is, oddly enough, Junko Mizuno. But a lot of it is just evolution from previous work. As I mentioned elsewhere, I'm attempting with 'Polly' to go in the opposite direction from 'Courtney' and so the art style is going to be an attempt to break out of the habits I've developed. Where 'Courtney' relied on heavy blacks, I plan with 'Polly' to avoid too much use of shadow. I'm getting to the phase in my work where I'm influencing myself. And thankfully, I think I've worked through most of my Mignola influence and can be my own artist for a while."

Whenever Oni announces a series, many fans decide to "wait for the trade," opting to eschew the monthly books in favor of the collection and it's something that frustrates creators- but Naifeh is cool with it all. "The individual issues are for people who love the format, or can't wait for the trade. The problem with issues is that they don't stay in print. They're great for getting a relatively cheap taste of the series, and they have the great full-color covers. The trade is for folks that missed the issues, or don't like the single-issue format. But I don't like to add too much extra to the trade, because I think it cheats the individual-issue readers."

Fans fondly acquainted with Naifeh's previous work have reason to smile- he'll be bringing back a favorite character. "I'm going to do more 'Courtney.' I have way too many ideas to just abandon it. 'How Loathsome,' I'm not so sure. This is my day-job, and I don't make a lot of money on independent projects like 'Courtney' and 'Polly.' This is why books like 'Death Jr.' are a godsend. DJ was a big financial support and it's so much fun that I'd want to do it even if it wasn't. But with 'How Loathsome,' I'm splitting very small profits with another creator. It just doesn't add up. I'd love to do a sequel and Tristan and I have talked about it, but right now, I just can't justify the time. I would like to do more projects with adult themes and I've even considered doing some erotic material. I have some great ideas. But currently I can't afford the time to draw an indy book unless I'm getting the full profit. That may change in the future."

Some have also characterized Naifeh as a comic book elitist who looks down on superheroes, much the same way that many film critics look down on blockbuster films, but the creator says that just isn't the case. "I love superheroes. I have a couple of great ideas for superhero books," said Naifeh. "What doesn't particularly attract me is writing characters that belong to a corporation and having to read hundreds of pages of material to figure out what I can and can't do with them. It's just too constricting. I'm sure I'd make an exception for one or two characters and I already have. I wrote a story for 'X-Men Unlimited' with Wolverine and Emma Frost (both great characters that I could really sink my teeth into). But I did find it a bit frustrating to work within the tight constraints of the Marvel universe and I don't know if I'd do it again. I'd love to do one of those character revamps, especially for a female superhero character, which, in my opinion, are almost universally mishandled. But something tells me that I'd have difficulty in going in the directions I'd want to. There's a reason that female superhero comics are the way they are. I'm probably not the only one who thinks they need things like, say, more frequent costume changes, more focus on interpersonal and/or romantic story elements, in short more girly stuff. I suspect that the reason those comics read like a bad tomb-raider knock-off is because the publishers don't want to bother trying to grab female readers. They're probably desperate to hang onto the few male readers they have. Which is a bit shortsighted in my opinion, because if they just dared to take a few risks, I think they could have both. It worked for me. But then, I'm not a mainstream publisher, I can afford to think liberally."

So why should you check out "Polly & The Pirates?"

"Hey, it's pirates! Everybody like pirates," smiles Naifeh.

 
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