July 5, 2016

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All-Ages or Small-Ages #14 (Baggywrinkles: A Lubber's Guide to Life at Sea by Lucy Bellwood)



See all of the past entries of All-Ages or Small-Ages here.

There are a wide array of all-ages comics out there from the classic Archie comics, through the  Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney, all the way to the original properties such as Lumberjanes. You might look at one of these books and think that, as an adult, it doesn’t have much to offer you. As someone who has discovered a deep fondness for titles such as this, I’ve been surprised by how rich and complex the stories can be. All-Ages or Small-Ages? is a feature that takes a look at the books that fall under this banner and attempts to analyse whether or not their assigned label is apt; is it a book that you can read along with your children?

Baggywrinkles is a semi-ficticious but mostly educational graphic novel that chronicles the author's adventures and experiences on board a modern day recreation of the famous Lady Washington. Interwoven between the narrative depicting her actual life on the boat and everything that she learned while there are little educational snippets that hope to teach you a thing or two about life of the seas. Maintaining a strong and astute sense of humour throughout each section, it imbues a contagious enthusiasm into the book that effortlessly carries you through until the very end.

From the very first page, it's clear that both the comic and the sailing itself is a deep and intense passion for Bellwood. However, it's important to note that it comes with a certain degree of endearing self-awareness. She's aware of how she comes across when she talks about it and channels all of that happiness and passion into a very recognisable, but instantly relateable, archetype of a character. As adults, we can all think of a moment when we've become a blabbering and unrestrained mess as we attempt to tell people why they need to care about the thing that we care about. It's a very strong beginning and immediately lets you know that Bellwood, at the very least the version of herself that she presents, is someone that's very easy to like.

During all of the aforementioned educational statements, Bellwood either serves as an omniscient narrator or as a physical presenter. In both, while it does adds another enjoyable fourth-wall breaking layer, it does begin to feel like an children's educational TV show. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that, with all of the cuts between scenes that we see, it does begin to build up to give you flashbacks to those days when you would sit and read something akin to Horrible Histories or its sister series Horrible Science

It's worth mentioning that it presents all of the information very concisely and coherently, which is perfect for a younger audience, but does start to make you wish that Bellwood would get to the point slightly quicker. This may well be a matter of personal taste; I found myself entertained throughout, but there were times when it began to drag. I would unquestionably recommend this series to its intended younger audience, but passing it on to an older audience is where my confidence starts to waver.

The pace of the comedic delivery is quick and you never get too far without a joke or an aphorism designed to get a chuckle out of you. Due in part to the classic grid layouts, the humour is hlped along by the decision to keep the level of background detail relatively low. Pushing your focus onto the characters themselves, as it should be in a story as personal as this one, the ample amount of physical humour is always at the forefront of your mind.

Bellwood's art style is very expressive in a classic cartoon way, making it instantly recognisable as something designed for a slightly younger audience. That's not to point this out as a negative, as I have no doubt that it matches the tone of the story. With little asides to describe the intricacies of a certain piece of equipment or to emphasise a physical motion, it's clear that Bellwood has a deep understanding of how best to make use of a comic page.

A broad cast of characters prevents the cuts between scenes from feeling superfluous; the focus shifts around because there's simply so much to cover. It never feels like Bellwood is phoning in the details on even the most ancillary of characters as they each have their own aesthetic and individual look. For moments like the gathering of allegorical pirates, it serves to beautifully highlight the disconnect between our knowledgeable protagonist (the delightful representation of Bellwood herself) and the surrounding cast. For a lesser creator, details like this would have slipped through the cracks, but it goes to show how much thought has gone into each and every panel.

Besides the joy that this comic brought into my life, it also had its fair share of surprisingly poignant moments. When all of the surface-level excitement bubbles away, the deep affection for the vocation begins to shine through and there are a few genuinely uplifting moments. When Bellwood has the realisation that all of the hard physical labour eventually pays off with the unexpected freedom that comes from living on a boat, it's enough to make someone of any age start to pine for that much natural beauty.

I was enjoying myself from the first page of this graphic novel all the way through the bonus material in the back, but I'm still finding myself struggling to recommend this to an older audience. Maybe it's because I generally read quickly, but it felt like I absolutely flew through this. As can be seen in the screenshots, the font is relatively large and the focus is on the information itself instead of building up a deep narrative progression; as that's what you would expect, it's difficult to mark it down for it, but it's a detail that keeps nagging at my brain.

With an adorable sense of humour throughout and a strong overall cohesion, this is a book that would serve as a perfect gift for a young and nautically-inclined youngster. It has all of the mirth that you might expect and a hell of a lot of knowledge that you might not; I can honestly say that I learned a fair bit from reading this. However, there's a lack of overall depth and satisfaction that a piece of media needs to feel absolutely ready for a more mature audience. Delve into this if you want something fun to read, because it definitely has that in spades, but otherwise I'd recommend giving this a miss.

Let me know if there's a comic that you think I should be checking out. I'm always on the look-out for some more hidden All-Ages gold. Contact me at mark@thegreengorcrow.com or head over to check out the podcast that I co-host You Know What I Like...? on SoundCloud.