Review: Warship Jolly Roger Vol. 1

Probably as good a time as any to explain my personal rating criteria here on Bastards. Despite the attempt to standardize grading across the board, every critic approaches rating tiers with different agendas as to how to qualify quality. When I go one star (more often than I'd like this year, but thems the breaks), it's something either without redeeming qualities or where the redeeming qualities are overcome by the titanic ineptitude of the writing or art. Two stars, a book is flawed, not unreadable but made less than purely enjoyable by creative factors. Either there is room to improve or your artist kicked all of the ass for you. Three, a book is enjoyable on a purely entertainment basis, not a wildly good time but I found myself pulled in and it did its duty on all fronts. Four, the book did more than required, telling a story strongly with confident art that merits special recognition of talent. In almost all cases, a book I enjoy will not exceed four stars. Five stars are retained for God Tier books, the kind of story that stays with you long past the end of the year, the kind that gets put in the deep memory banks as the reason you read comics in the first place. For me, the book often usually has to have some sort of depth or artistic ambition that go beyond straight entertainment, books that use the medium ambitiously to tell meaningful stories or push the art form into the future.

Warship Jolly RogerWarship Jolly Roger isn't high art. It's entertainment, of a pretty straight forward variety. Its story has been done before, famously, and this edition doesn't add a whole lot more to the formula. Despite this, and with the preceding clarifications, I couldn't bring myself to give this book less than a five out of five.

A French import first published in 2014, but reprinted and translated by Magnetic Press for an English-speaking audience, Warship Jolly Roger concerns a former general of a vast galactic government, betrayed and sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes most foul, getting involved in a bloody jailbreak and fleeing into the galaxy on the lam with a handful of prisoners with traditionally colorful backgrounds. Collecting the first two bulky chapters of the ongoing series, the first volume is a hefty but brisk read with a grand scope.

While a familiar story, nipping bits and pieces from other works, Warship Jolly Roger is exceptionally tightly crafted, cinematic in the best way possible and with a small tidy cast that fit pre-ordained archetypes, but doesn't fall victim to letting that excuse lazy writing. The story is episodic but keeps a solid central arc that keeps the chapters bound to a driving skeleton, preventing the drifting feeling later chapters of Saga began to result in.

An important feature to the book's story is the 'anti' part of the anti-hero characters. Are you watching Warner Bros.? When you want to tell a story about a rag-tag group of criminals gathered under less than ideal circumstances, this is what it fucking looks like. No soft-shoeing the fact they are criminals, and pretty unpleasant ones at that, this isn't a story of lost souls finding each other and discovering their humanity. These are murderers and torturers each living for whatever personal agenda they feel compelled to pursue. While not trying to constantly scandalize you with their growing rap sheet of sins, they do make it clear early on that none of them can be trusted and that they will do things that are difficult to excuse as a reader. Think a few steps less pleasant than the pilot to Firefly before Fox made Joss clean it up, back when Malcolm Reynolds was comfortable with ventilating teenage stowaways into space. It puts a big time clock on this team's viability as a working unit, waiting for the moment it all goes south and these crazy kids start murdering each other.

Sylvain Runberg keeps a tight ship in the script, but the x-factor that pushed this into the perfect score range for me was Miki Montllo's incredible art. Digitally painted, Montllo's style is reminiscent of early 2000's Disney concept design, recalling to me the expressive stylized look of films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet, only planted in a universe of gunmetal and blood. While not familiar with Montllo as a creator, my impression is he has to have a background in concept art, as his art has the gesturally bold and creatively relaxed feel of concept art for film or animation. The environments are detailed and lived-in, minor background characters have remarkable personality, and the action is given an animation that makes you temporarily forget the image is technically static.  Montllo is the kind of artist I would follow on Twitter but unfollow the same day because looking at their output, the sheer head-shaking perfection of certain images, is incredibly depressing to a selfish and jealous artist like myself. Goddamn, if this book doesn't make amazing look easy.

Warship Jolly Roger is perfect pulp sci-fi, a simple story told so strongly and seemingly effortlessly (even though the work put into it is clearly on the page) that you wonder why more people haven't gotten even half as close to this good with so many attempts. It's the R-rated Disney sci-fi adventure film you wish could have gotten made if Columbine and a shaky script hadn't sunk Titan A.E. right out of the gate. I am not overly familiar with how the European comic market works, but my impression is comics in mainland Europe are released in larger volumes that take longer to produce, aiming more for large serialized graphic novels than the rapid production and release of American and Japanese comics. The way this book reads and looks, I can't help but wish American comic readers had the patience for something similar, this story not being so reliant on stop-go cliffhanger hooks and thinly stretched premises to keep publications going. When creators have to justify a slower release scheduled it has to result in something more intentionally crafted, and the result can be amazing. I've been waiting nearly a decade for a new translated chapter of Skydoll, but I'm willing to wait because that comic is masterful.  I'm not a pure-blooded snob, I don't hate pulp and fantasy storytelling, it just sucks so goddamn much of the time that it forces me to read more high-minded material as basic entertainment. Warship Jolly Roger is broad entertainment done not only right, but exceptionally right, a big ass bloody flag planted in the chest cavity of the withered corpse of boring post-apocalypses and sloppy cheeky trash comics that take storytelling and quality nods from modern-day Troma. It's not going to save the world or reinvent the medium, it's just going to tear ass through the galaxy while looking so good it makes me want to never draw again. Five stars. Suck it, art.

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Warship Jolly Roger Vol. 1 Writer: Sylvain Runberg Artist: Miquel Montllo Publisher: Magnetic Press Price: $19.99 Format: Hardcover; Print