Saturday, March 22, 2008

EL CAZADOR Crossgen Comics

I loves me the pirates, although I'm not 100% sure why.

Pirates - both historical and contemporary - are not really nice people. They're seafaring thieves, rapist, and murderers. I don't particularly dig that kind of person on land, so I'm not sure why a thieving rapist suddenly becomes cool when they get on a boat. It's the romance of the sea, I suppose.

That's what it comes down to, isn't it? People like me enjoy tales from the Golden Age of Piracy because we're insulated from the brutal truth by several centuries and a firewall of fanciful books and movies. The romance and glamour of piracy has superimposed itself over reality, until we're left with a collective image of the pirate in pop culture that is utterly divorced from historical accuracy. Kids dress up as pirates for Halloween, we have National Talk Like a Pirate Day, and the Pirates of The Carribean films were blockbuster hits.

It's inconvenient to contemplate what piracy really means, because that gets in the way of the iconography. Little kids who play pirates never say, "Avast, I'm going to rape all the women onboard this ship and torture this priest until you tell me where you've hidden the valuables!" Well, I hope they don't anyway. The Pirates movies embrace all the trappings and brand identity of 18th century pirates but coyly steer clear of the grim truth. For movies that are supposedly about pirates there are precious few instances of actual full-on piracy in them. I don't want to overthink this, but there's something a teensy bit dishonest about those movies.

Remember in the third movie, At World's End, when Keira Knightly's character tries to rally the pirates to fight with a rousing speech about freedom? If you stayed awake long enough to get to that point in the movie, you might have though, like me, "Yeah, freedom to rape, steal, and kill." Because that's really the core value of those movies - their freedom is dependant on someone else's misfortune.

When people think about pirates they just focus on the window dressing, the iconic trappings of piracy rather than actual act of piracy. The Jolly Roger, walking the plank, buried treasure, cutlasses, frigates bristling with cannon, peg legs, squawking parrots, eye patches, violent diarrhea brought on by poor nutrition, treasure maps, etc. Pirates are a glamorous remnant of a time when the world was vast and governments were small.

But make no mistake - pirates are still out there, glamour or not. The US Navy regularly skirmishes with brazen Somali pirates who raid shipping in fast boats, then retreat back to the African coast before they can get caught. Pirates routinely attack shipping in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Nigeria, and ships in port at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The big game in modern piracy is in the target-rich Straits of Malacca. This narrow waterway near Malaysia is a superhighway for ships heading to East Asia or India, and it's surrounded by thousands of inlets and creeks that make perfect hiding places for pirates. In 2004, a full 40% of all reported pirate attacks took place in these waters, and despite increased patrols, the problem is still out of hand. Freighters and tankers who travel through the Straits at night do so at great peril - many of them rake the darkness with deck mounted spotlights and high powered firehoses in an attempt to keep raiders at bay.

Check out the International Chamber of Commerce's Piracy Reporting Center if you want a glimpse of the scope of the international piracy problem - they have piracy alerts and a weekly report on global pirate activity that will convince any skeptics that piracy isn't just a thing of the past. Plus, it makes for interesting reading.

So why aren't these modern pirates popular? They're practicing essentially the same craft that the buccaneers of the Carribean practiced centuries ago. Nobody romanticizes modern pirates, because they don't have the benefit of the brand identity their forefathers had - they're just violent thugs with AKs and RPGs in small watercraft. Nothing glamorous there.

Jeez, where am I going with all this? I don't know, I guess I just wanted to talk about pirates. Oh! Right: I'm here to talk about El Cazador, a now dead pirate comic from now dead Crossgen Comics.

El Cazador was a slickly produced swashbuckler by writer Chuck Dixon, master of he-man action, and artist Steve Epting, who I like to think of as a modern Gene Colan. It follows the adventures of Donessa Cinzia Elena Marie Esperanza Diego-Luis Hidalgo - or just "Becky" for short - as she makes the huge leap from being a victim of a pirate attack to a formidable, revenge-driven huntress of the high seas who kicks ass in her ship, ElCazador ("The Hunter").

They only put out six issues and a one-shot before the series and the company were cancelled, which is a pity. They just don't make pirate comics anymore, and El Cazador was a good one. Dixon tread the line between familiar romantic pirate elements and a grimmer, harsher, scuzzier reality. The pirates in this book looked and acted like they haven't washed or gone to church in decades.

Epting's art is fantastic and perfectly suited for this project. I compare him to Gene Colan because of his liberal use of deep shadows and black ink, and his deft brush work. At least, I think he uses a brush a lot of the time. Regardless of the technique, Epting's art really raises the quality of El Cazador and makes it a visually stunning comic packed full of salty atmosphere.

I believe El Cazador is collected in trade format. It's worth checking out, although the storyline ends prematurely and abruptly - just like many pirates.

One last thing. Here's a pirate map thingy I drew a little while back. Regular Dave's Long Box readers may know of my fondness for creating little cartoony maps, and it was only a matter of time before I did a pirate map. Click for a larger picture:

I'm not crazy about the coloring job I did on this one - those red parchment signs are hideous, and in the lower right hand corner? Those white things under the tree are supposed to be fireflies. Instead they look like Christmas lights. Oh, well. That's what I get for stealing my daughter's art supplies.

Wha--? Stealing markers from a little girl? That sounds positively... piratey.


Christian O. said...

Sounds like Somebody was touched inappropriately by pirates, when he was younger.

Let's differenciate between modern pirates and the "Golden Age" (17-century) pirates (Buccaneers being a subgroup of that):

Back in those days, Pirates were some of the few culture that were actually democratic, not actively racist and generally open to anyone, no matter who or what you were previously. The split most of the loot equally among the crew and for a short period had a sort of Social Security, if you suffered battle wounds and the sort. Of course, another difference is that they were fighting/rebelling against an empire built on slave-trade, conquest wrought in blood and other kinds of, what we would deem, immoral behaviour.

This doesn't mean they weren't murderers, rapists and looters though.

Modern pirates are however just murders, rapists and robbers among other, less... pious activies.

Anonymous said...

Did you use your screaming starship to chase your daughter away, and then swoop in and triumphantly grab those markers? Because that would be pretty piratey.

Anonymous said...

Pirates are a bit like vigilantes that way; theoretically cool and romantic, actually reprehensible.

DeadeyeDave said...

I hope you get lots of use out of your new "Arrgh" tag.

Anonymous said...

I like how, in pirate movies, the pirate chicks are always hot, while back in the day, pirate chicks had more facial hair than I do.

BTW, the link to embiggen the picture doesn't work.

Isaac said...

I totally wish I could actually read that map. What gives, you big maptease?

Edward Liu said...

Related to driving off current-day pirates, there was a story a while ago about how some pirates were driven away from a cruise ship by a real-live, honest-to-goodness sonic cannon, which aims an earsplitting 150 dB shriek at what it's aimed at (for comparison, a smoke alarm is between 80-90 dB). The sonic cannon always struck me as a grand bit of science that sounds like it came out of a comic book.

I never really got into El Cazador because I was never a huge fan of Chuck Dixon's comics, though. It's not that I think they're bad, but that they're just kind of formulaic.

Anonymous said...

Edward Liu, a sonic cannon is exactly what those pirates deserved to get for disrupting Klaw and Sonar's annual fishing trip. They were going after marlin this year.

Anonymous said...

Pirates are a bit like vigilantes that way; theoretically cool and romantic, actually reprehensible.

Arrr, that be an interesting point!

One thing to bear in mind is that a lot of "pirate" stories are actually about privateerin' more than piracy. Sailing under a letter of marque to plunder the trade o' the king's enemies.

And thus....
Fictional Privateer : Pirate :: Superhero : Real-Life Vigilante

Superheroes too tend to operate under color of law, with the tacit or explicit approval of law enforcement - something you almost never see in real life (I suppose bounty hunters might be the nearest thing.)

Tom the Dog said...

Hey, I'm actually rereading a pirate comic right now, too!

Well, it's got pirates in it, but it's a lot more than that. It's Colonia, by Jeff Nicholson. Really fantastic stuff -- an alternate history adventure kind of thing, where the Spanish Armada was never defeated, the New World was never fully colonized, mythical creatures abound, and America was named Colonia (after Cristobal Colon).

I recommend the two TPBs very highly, if you haven't already read them. Although I'm a bit concerned: I went to Nicholson's website, to check his progress on the third book -- and the site has been disabled. Well, you can still get more info on the first two books at AIT/PlanetLar... or of course from my own blog.

TestName said...

Hey Dave, just wanted to point out that at least there's case of a comic which is all about modern pirates. It's called Black Lagoon and it's about a small group of pirates/mercenaries, "The Black Lagoon Company", that operate near Maylasia's waters and mostly work for the local not-so-friendly russian mafia.

It's actually a japanese manga, yet it's far from the usual Dragonball, Naruto or emo adolescent crap. There are no actual good guys involved in the story and there's a lot of the stuff related to real modern pirates: violence, theft, drugs. It's a little romanticized (very little, actually) and highly fact oriented and with lots of exaggerated action. Great stuff!

Edward Liu said...

The first season of the "Black Lagoon" anime was also released on DVD, and I think it's one of the best anime series I've ever seen. Compares very favorably to "Cowboy Bebop" (which is the other anime title that everybody cites for people who think they don't like anime).

"Black Lagoon"s US publisher Geneon stopped US operations last year right after releasing volume 3, so once stock of their DVDs is depleted, they're gone until someone else picks up the rights. I've still seen a few volumes for sale at Best Buy or Borders, so grab 'em if you can.

It's also on the Starz channel "Animidnight" block right now, if you get Starz. Check it out!

David Campbell said...

Tom, I share your love for Colonia:

I'm waiting for that 3rd trade as well.

Zemat, Ed - I will have to check out the Black Lagoon anime and manga - that sounds piraterrific.

Anonymous said...

Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe has an interesting take on piracy that doesn't hide the brutality but does provide some context for it in the press gangs and abusive servitude of the time.

Greg said...

The trade came out a few months ago, and it's reoffered in the latest (March's) Previews. Oddly enough, it does not include the one-shot origin special. Why? Only Disney's executives know for sure ...

This and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang were the only CrossGen books I read, and I cursed the day the company went under and deprived me of them!

Bruce said...

Wait a sec...'The Putas'?
What was young Dave thinking about? :)

David Campbell said...

I know, I know. It should have been "Las Putas."

Bruce said...

Right, that's what I meant.

Jayson said...

In other news, as a culture we're well on our way to romanticizing the Mob in a similar fashion.

And a century or two from now, kids may well be wearing highly stylized, iconic gangsta costumes for Halloween.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

And when it comes to pirate comics, who can forget "Tales of the Black Freighter"?

Yarrr, I always thought that pirate comics taking the ecological niche of superhero comics in a world with superheroes was a cool idea.

tkincher said...

Ned: Stevesy, what's going on? Are those hijackers?

Steve Zissou: Well, out here we call them "pirates," Ned.

Edward S. Smith Jr. said...

Well Dave, what can I say?
Kids today are fond of some weird shit.
They like their scurvy, they like forcing themselves on cabin boys after long periods at sea, and most importantly they love Johnny Depp.
What ever happened to playing with Captain Action Dolls?

Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha! "the putas"

Anonymous said...

El Cazador was brutal and beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dave Campbell! Thank you for calling "bullshit!" on the Keira Knightley speech in Pirates 3. I had the exact same thought during the speech and when I explain this to my co-workers, they stare at me like a foot just grew out of my forehead.


Chris Arndt said...

Given your speech on Pirates, I think you are channeling Chuck Dixon and Conservatives.

That scares me.

Given you are a Seattlite.

A See-attlite


Forget it.

Anonymous said...

'Little kids who play pirates never say, "Avast, I'm going to rape all the women onboard this ship and torture this priest until you tell me where you've hidden the valuables!" Well, I hope they don't anyway.'

This reminds me of a weird/funny story. I'm on the playground in elementary school playing with this girl, suddenly she says to me " you pretend to rape me!"

Uh, yeah, I didn't play with that chick ever again. Now I wonder what was going on in her household. Also, whether or not she ended up in the exotic dance and/or pornographic industries.

Matthew E said...

Pirates weren't even all fictionalized in the same way. Basically you had three kinds:

- Caribbean pirates, who were dashing swashbuckling buccaneers
- Mediterranean pirates, who were Muslims--mean motorscooters who would enslave you, but also men of honour and you could theoretically convert to Islam and work your way up their ranks
- eastern pirates, from around Indonesia and the islands in the Pacific and like that. Totally evil guys who just wanted to kill you and take your stuff and then kill you again. There was no talking to these guys; they had no redeeming qualities at all

Anonymous said...

I rue the day when Crossgen went under. I loved a lot of those comics and the art was very very good.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree on El Cazador Dave - what a fantastic comic sadly cut short due to CrossGen's financial troubles. I say anyone who is a fan should email Chuck Dixon and plead with him to either start it up again with someone else or create a new pirate title (you never know, he may be just waiting for someone to give him a gentle nudge out the door!).

Anyone know of any similar comics? The only other ones I can find seem to fall for that stupid trap of adding supernatural stuff (ghosts, zombies etc.) to what would otherwise be a great pirate story (eg. Sea of Red, Dead Men Tell no Tales - allthough the latter was pretty good when the zombies weren't around!).

If you can put aside the brutal reality of piracy and just indulge in a bit of romantacised but fairly well written pirate fiction, James Nelson's "Bretheren of the Coast" trilogy is pretty good.

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