I have mixed feelings about comics in the classroom. On the one hand, I think comics are a terrific tool for promoting literacy, as they engage the imagination, expand vocabulary, and show kids that reading can be fun. On the other hand, I don’t always find comics the best vehicle for teaching science or history, as authors seldom find that sweet spot between textbook clarity and superhero thrills. Jay Piscopo makes a game effort to find that middle ground in The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli, borrowing plot lines and visual tropes from Aquaman, Jonny Quest, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to teach students about the Bermuda Triangle. Unfortunately, Capt’n Eli falls short of the mark, demonstrating just how hard it is produce a comic that’s fun, educational, and aesthetically pleasing.
The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli, Vol. 1
By Jay Piscopo
Nemo Publishing, 104 pp.
Ages 8 to 12
Capt’n Eli is divided into three sections. The first, “The Mystery of Me,” unfolds in the manner of a classic superhero origin story. As a baby, Eli was placed in a small, sea-going capsule that traveled the world’s oceans. He eventually washed ashore in Maine, where an elderly couple rescued and raised him. Though they loved Eli like a son, his adoptive parents recognized the water as his true home, and encouraged him to join The Seasearchers, an elite team of scientists.
The second section, “The Mystery of the Sargasso Sea,” picks up the story several years later. Eli has ditched the lobsterman’s hat for a proper spandex outfit (complete with visor and insignia) and acquired two sidekicks: Barney, a knot-tying dog, and Jolly Roger, a two-hundred-year-old parrot who cracks wise and reminisces about the golden age of Caribbean piracy. Eli’s adventures begin when the Seasearchers are dispatched to the Bermuda Triangle to recover a yacht that disappeared in foggy weather. As the team begins their search, Eli, Barney, and Roger are sucked into a wormhole that deposits them aboard Christopher Columbus’ ship, where his exhausted and terrified crew teeters on the brink of mutiny. Unbeknownst to them, a fleet of fast-moving submarines is closing in on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, threatening to destroy the vessels and irrevocably alter the course of modern history.
In true comic book form, “Sargasso Sea” ends on a cliffhanger, to be resolved in volume two. The third and final section, “The Return of Baron Hydro,” is a self-contained story about Commander X, a powerful, Nemo-esque figure who factors prominently into Eli’s backstory. Piscopo adopts a different visual style for this section, evoking the work of Silver Age mainstays Jack Kirby and John Buscema through eye-popping primary colors, bold lines, and Marvel-esque character designs.
If only the entire book had this fun, retro-chic look! It compliments the story’s gee-whiz, let’s-have-an-adventure tone much more effectively than the awkward mixture of hand-drawn character designs and computer-generated backgrounds found elsewhere in the book. Piscopo’s characters look flat and garish when contrasted with the softly-lit backgrounds, which have been meticulously rendered to look three-dimensional. (N.B. The cover is misleading, as it’s been drawn by artist Steve Rude, not Piscopo.) The computer modeling varies considerably in quality as well. In some panels, Piscopo does a fine job of capturing the play of light on the ocean’s surface, creating an astonishingly realistic, vivid image; in other panels, however, Piscopo struggles to make his submarines and helicopters look like actual vehicles and not simple geometric shapes.
The other problem bedeviling Capt’n Eli is the educational content. Piscopo has a storyteller’s knack for pacing and dialogue, but never succeeds in making the Bermuda Triangle’s history or ecosystem a fundamental part of the story. Though several characters make long, fact-heavy speeches about the Sargasso Sea, none of the information from these speeches plays a role in advancing the plot; if anything, these teaching moments feel like afterthoughts, as Piscopo lavishes far more attention on the workings of the Seascape (the Seasearchers’ vessel) and Sub X (Commander X’s vessel) than he does on seaweed and strange phenomenon.
I wish I liked Capt’n Eli more, as I think Piscopo’s heart is in the right place. But its weak visuals and poorly integrated science and history lessons do little to advance the cause of comics in the classroom—if anything, they underscore just how difficult it is to create edu-tainment that’s as engrossing as straightforward fantasy-adventure.
This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © Nemo Publishing.