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Review: ‘Sea Sirens: A Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure’

Sea Sirens: A Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure
Writer: Amy Chu
Artist: Janet K. Lee
Penguin; $20.99

The Sea Fairies is one of L. Frank Baum’s lesser-known works, but when a writer has a book like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on his resume, most of his books will probably seem like lesser-known works. The 1911 undersea fantasy was apparently meant to be a departure from Baum’s Oz books, but since the adventures of his new characters Trot and Cap’n Bill didn’t quite catch on in the same the way that those of the gang from Oz did, he eventually returned to the Oz series…and brought Trot and the Captain into that series with him.

Very new and very different versions of those characters star in Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee’s Sea Sirens, a new original graphic novel that is something of an adaptation of Baum’s Sea Fairies, albeit so radically reworked that a casual reader might not even know how much DNA it shares with the 100-and-eight-year-old novel were the creators not so upfront about their work as a kinda sorta (but not really) adaptation.

How greatly reworked is Sirens from Fairies? Well, for one thing, Cap’n Bill is no longer an old sea captain, but a cat. (“It’s a nickname, short for captain,” Trot explains when introducing him, “Because he thinks he’s in charge.”)

Trot is still a little girl who lives in California, but now she’s less little. And Vietnamese-American, which the original almost certainly wasn’t. Trot spends her summers surfing with her cat…and grandpa-sitting her grandfather, who fishes from the nearby pier. A very old man originally born in Vietnam, he suffers from dementia, and sometimes gets confused, so he need someone to keep an eye on him. They both live with Trot’s hard-working mother.

One day, Trot loses sight of her grandfather, and he gets lost. When they eventually find him, mom grounds them both to the house: No more surfing, no more fishing. Trot and Cap’n Bill sneak away, however, and it is during this forbidden surfing trip that they are knocked from their board and sink deep under water, right in the midst of a weird battle between mermaids riding sidesaddle atop giant sea horses and huge, striped snakes.

The appearance of the surface-dwellers scares off the snakes, and, to reward them, one of the mermaids—who turns out to be the princess of the sirens—uses magic to allow them to breathe underwater. She then brings them back home to her castle, to meet her mother Queen Aquareine. There they learn all about the world below and the sirens’ war with the snakes. When Trot’s grandfather shows up underwater too, they decide to stay a bit, which ultimately leads them further into conflict with the snakes, a conflict that reaches an unexpected resolution.

Before meeting the sirens, Chu and Lee’s comic seems completely modern in every way, and it’s not until we get under water that the Baum’s influence becomes obvious. Like the Oz books, there’s a gentleness about the adventure, with more time spent on resting in nice quarters, dressing up, feasting and making friends than on battle, despite the kingdom being in a state of war, and even those battles are remarkably free of any real violence or sense of danger. Like Baum’s books, Sea Sirens has a comforting, comfortable bed time story vibe to it, despite some of the angst in the opening scenes.

Lee’s artwork seems to quite intentionally echo that of turn-of-the-twentieth century fantasy illustration art. The castle and society of the sirens is somewhat suggestive of a medieval culture, but their design and dress is almost Art Deco. They look like the illustrations of fairy tale books of a century ago come alive — which, in a way, they are— or like characters that escaped from a particularly vivid Little Nemo in Slumberand strip that swam their way into a modern comic book narrative.

Although some of the characters take their names from Sea Fairies, and the book is suffused with a Baum-like spirit, the plot is fairly different, seemingly taking inspiration from Vietnamese folktales and fairy tales and other Baum works (this feline Cap’n Bill has more in common with Dorothy’s kitten Eureka from Dorothy and The Wizard in Oz than the Bill of Sea Fairies, for example, and our heroes’ return to the surface world owes a bit to the climax of the original Oz book).

The works that most directly inspired Sea Sirens’ story were prose ones, and though they often had illustrations, those illustrations were only there to supplement the work of the words. Here, that effort is obviously inverted, as it is Lee’s art that tells the story, as should be the case in quality comics. And Sea Sirens is definitely a quality comic, an all-ages adventure that synthesizes something new and compelling from a variety of strange, sometimes incongruent subject matter from long ago.

More likely than not, this isn’t the last Trot and Cap’n Bill adventure, either. The attached subtitle suggest that there will be more than just this one, and while the ending turns somewhat on the old “It was all a dream…or was it?” cliche of such stories, there’s physical evidence that it wasn’t, with Bill hacking up a magical artifact from beneath the sea that would make another journey beneath the waves a possibility.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

Comments

  1. Yet another one of the books with Janets artwork I am desperate to get my hands on.

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