Written by Colin Taylor
I’ve just completed a reread of the whole of Red Seas and didn’t want to do so without passing comment. I think the passing of this series, in the shadow of the end of Nikolai Dante, has been rather overlooked. I think many people felt done with it and didn’t really feel they were going to miss it. I get the impression some might have lost patience with the series, as with another favourite of mine, it was victim to some irregular scheduling and just like Sinister Dexter doesn’t have trade releases to encourage people to go back and revisit it in one go. So yeah I really wanted to stand up for it.
The trouble is I didn’t have much to say about it. Well aside from pointing out that the title of the first story “Red Seas: Under the banner of King Death” is probably the greatest title for any comic story ever!
I managed to write about 17 short articles here ECBT 2000ad when I re-read Sinister Dexter, that amounted to some 20,000ish words. Red Seas… not so much to say, its just… fun. Its simple fun… mind not having anything interesting to say never stopped me before now, so why start here?
When starting my re-read I wondered if Red Seas really was just going to be an extended Ray Harryhausen movie, or whether reading it over the years, in its episodic nature, had masked a more complex story. You know what it is just a majestic claymation picture. For those late to the show it’s the story of a pirate, Jack Dancer, his crew, or what’s left of it and their adventures trying to save the world from the devil. They travel to amazing exotic locations, tangle with witches and warlocks, giants of deep, armies of undead pirates (before that film) and armies of metal warriors, dinosaurs, lizard men and Gods, numerous Gods. As well as pirates his companions include Isaac Newton some years after his ‘death’, the disembodied heads of the guardian of the underworld, a cowardly musician and family members not too impressed by him. It offers such a lot of excitement, swashbuckling adventure and crazy action. Its not mindless though, by any stretch, but it doesn’t try too hard to be anything its not. Its an action adventure, its designed to be a high octane read and I felt it was even structured to be like those movies of old, to a degree.
First the scene is set and a major peril is introduced, a evil to drive the rest of the series forward. The world is then explored in a series of adventures, each introducing some new element and each introducing some fantastic and wonderful inhabitants of said world. All of it throwing danger and excitement the way of our heroes. Once this is done, the world established, the main players in place, more and more of the over arching plot is revealed, building towards a climax. Things become more intriguing, I’d never say intricate, mysteries are firmly established though, interesting themes are exploded, faith, family relationships, but the action is kept so relentless that we don’t ponder on them too much.
Many people complained that the concluding story ‘Fire across the deep’ felt slight, had no substance, but it I think it was meant to, in the best possible way. Read in context of the whole series, its the thrilling, big action end sequence, where all the pieces of the puzzle come together, all the elements we’ve visited (well almost) collide, in one pulse pounding showdown between the good guys and the bad guys. Its does read incredibly fast, that emphasizes the break neck speed of it all. It was fantastic and entirely appropriate. The casual, relaxed, happy final celebration, in the final splash panel is the perfect way to round things off. Loved it.
Aside from the structure our lead reminds me of Ray Harryhausen films as well. Jack Dancer isn’t that great a character, he’s no Nikolai Dante, he’s no Sinister or Dexter, he’s no Joe Dredd, he’s all the heroes from from Ray Harryhausen films. What do you remember from Jason and the Argonauts, Jason or the Skeletons? What do you remember Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Patrick Wayne (I had to look his name up) or the troll fighting the sabretoothed tiger? I could go on, but I hope to have made my point. After all the series isn’t called ‘The high adventures of Jack Dancer’, its The Red Seas for a reason.
Oh look cool! A troll fights a massive cat and woooohhh look Jane Seymour… with some guy or other. Pictures shameless stolen and probably copyright Columbia Pictures or some such
Jack Dancer isn’t a bad character at all, he’s fun,he’s sharp, witty, brave, full of bluff and daring do. He’s just not the star of the show, he’s the lynchpin that holds together the story of the world he explores and the real stars of the series, the wondrous mystical beasts and monsters, Gods and demons that inhabit it. This is borne out when you see how must of the stories and adventures resolve themselves. Jack often stands witness to colossal forces at play, barely having an impact on the outcome, often he’s the vessel that carries some deux ex machina to its required location, to set unimaginable powers into action. He’s a real man in a world of wonders.
Likewise most of the supporting cast have a similar role, oh they are all nicely realised, each with a role and function, we’re made to care for each enough that their fates keep us interested, but there’s no need to flesh them out beyond that. They serve their purpose for the story perfectly. The one notable exception being Erebus, the decapitated (two) heads of the canine gatekeeper to the underworld. That he stands out should be no surprise, after all he’s one of the astonishing beasts the story relishes in and so no shock he’s the best character of the lot, the most rounded and it could be said, the star of the show.
If the majestic world the Red Seas is set in is the highlight of the series, then its going to take some pretty astonishing art to make that work and Red Seas is perfectly served there, every page being drawn by the magnificent Steve Yeowell. Now its fair to say I’m predisposed to Steve Yeowell, I adore his art, he’s one of my favourites. In Red Seas he excels, in ways that I don’t think he gets full credit for. His designs make all these fantasies come to very vivid life. His storytelling is always clear and easy on the eye, regardless of the crazy excesses of imagination he’s having to portray. Often in mainstream comics these days the double page spread is used too much and as such lose their impact. Every artist tasked with creating one for the ‘big two’ should be made to read Steve Yeowell’s Red Seas and see how they should be used, to real effect, to make the world he’s creating genuinely widescreen.
The artist came into a lot of flack, towards the end of the series, for his scant use of ink. Lots of empty backgrounds, a perceived lack of detail, acres of white space, not crammed with little lines showing every tiny element. For me that was clearly the work of an artist at his height. He had the confidence to leave space, to not weigh panels down with detail and linework. He opened his work out and by doing so removed the boundaries it might otherwise of had and left it light and open, expansive and without limits. He always gave enough to the readers, so their imagination could to fill the spaces on the page and most importantly beyond, with whatever vast expanses were required. He used his art to free the readers imagination, not shackle it. Steve Yeowell created the epic scale the story needed, but did so with real bravery and skill, by allowing the reader to set the limits and see so much more than they otherwise might and I admire him for that and love the work he created here.
If Steve Yeowell’s art is the creative heart of the strip, it is only because Ian Edginton allows it to be so. He writes to the strengths of his artist, he creates a world that Yeowell is able to delight in, he sets the scene so the artist can run with it. In Red Seas Ian Edginton manages another rather impress feat. He creates incredible, fanciful situations, environments and characters, he generates challenges and solutions to dilemmas that stretch the imagination, test the reader’s ability to suspend belief. He’s able to push these limits by having, in the pirate crew we follow, very grounded, real people, simply realised and neatly crafted, so as to always keep even the most incredible events grounded. Next to the pirate there’s a scientist or magician, a mystical beast or musician, even Jack himself, to provide well disguised explanation to boot. Even his Devil is a cheeky chap that we can relate to. Its a deceptively clever trick and allows him to get away with so much. Each time the spectacular occurs there’s some pirate or other, to remind you how much it all stinks, or how tested their breeches were, to keep you right in the story and engaged with every flight of fancy, on a human level. Its a fantastic bit of writing.
So there you go, as you can see I’ve got nowt to say about Red Seas. Its such a shame that the original trades, apparently, didn’t do so well, so this glorious tale is not now bound into easily accessible packages for all to enjoy. Maybe, in a few years, we’ll get lucky and Tharg will see fit to put the whole thing into ‘Case File’ type volumes, I reckon it’d only need two, maybe three at most, so that people can enjoy the series again and hopefully re-evaluate it. See ‘cos Red Seas deserves to be read again and again, just as Ray Harryhausen films can be watched again and again, as its blistering, magnificent, astonishing, epic old school fun. The way comics (and films) used to be.