I will admit, I am coming into Raven the Pirate Princess fairly blind. While I’d heard great things about the comic and its predecessor, Princeless, I’d never had a chance to read them. But news has gotten out that the comic, about to finish its second year, is on the verge of cancellation. So I reached out to writer and creator Jeremy Whitley to see how I could help. The Fandomentals have worked with him in the past, and many of the staff and editors are fans of his work on Raven and Princeless, to say nothing of his work with mainstream comics like Unstoppable Wasp. Needless to say we (and even four issues in, I) want Raven to continue.
Rather than an overview of the whole series, we’ve decided to do more in-depth reviews. For the next month or so, I’ll be posting a review of four issues each week, plus a special bonus review for the upcoming finale to “Love and Revenge.” So settle in, drink up, and hold on to your butts: it’s about to get pirate-y.
Issue #1: Chasing Sunshine
a.k.a “Teenage girls are going to be the death of me”
Each of the first four issues spends time developing the characters that will eventually form the core of Raven’s crew. But you can’t have a ship without a captain, and you can’t start a story without a main character. Naturally then, the first issue introduces us to Raven Xingtao, the Pirate Princess that was and will be, right off the bat.
As I said before, I hadn’t read Princeless. As such, I was a little worried that I’d be a little lost going in. That worry ended up being unfounded, as Jeremy Whitley is able to smoothly incorporate both backstory and character into the plot of issue one. Opening on Raven at her happiest, raiding a ship with her father, we quickly switch to the present where is Raven at her lowest point: starving, dirty, and alone. Eventually she literally runs into ‘Sunshine’, a thief who robs Raven of what little money she has, but not before we get this panel.
What follows is a chase scene straight of a Jackie Chan movie. Doors are kicked down, barrel lids are thrown, and a certain unlucky cabbage merchant still can’t catch a break. The comic ends with Raven seemingly reunited with an old friend right before the thief, who we learn is named Sunshine, clocks her behind the head with a bottle.
The first issue of a comic has to set the tone for the entire run, and this issue accomplishes that with aplomb. Raven herself is spunky, capable, and badass all while retaining a vulnerability that makes the audience really want to root for her. In Raven, we have a character who does what so many of her male predecessors have done over the years but without the usual slapdash writing and hollow girl-power that so many female YA protagonists fall victim to. She even, as we will see, seems to have more romantic possibilities than an anime main character. Beyond Raven, the comic captures all of the swashbuckling action of a proper pirate movie.
Within the action, though, there’s plenty of room for Whitley’s trademark humor to leak through. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Raven kicks her way through a door and the two boys playing inside immediately begin fighting over who gets to play with the “girl doll.”
Issue #2: Scumbag Job Fair
a.k.a “Pretty much any group of women would beat this”
Each issue of Raven the Pirate Princess begins with a bit of flashback of her youth, showing her interactions with her father, brothers, or other characters before things went wrong. In this book’s flashback, the Pirate King takes the ship he and his crew was attacking in the first issue. Subverting our expectations, he takes the ship nonviolently. But what is the treasure he sends young Raven to retrieve below decks?
In the present, Raven is recovering from her grievous bottle-y harm in a room of her old friend Cookie’s inn. Her new “friend” Sunshine tries her best to apologize for robbing her while Cookie and his young daughter Jay bicker over eggs. We get a proper little bit of table exposition as Raven and Cookie catch up and fill Sunshine in. Here, we get Raven’s quest for vengeance laid out in full: she plans to set sail for her home and take her crown back from her brothers, who took the traditionally matriarchal role of “Pirate Queen” and convinced their father to sequester her in a tower (Sadly, there was no interjection from Smilin’ Stan to tell us to read about it in Princeless). Their raising of a crew is where the real meat of the issue is.
Raven’s apprehension at becoming a proper pirate captain is quickly quashed when she meets with the men interviewing for a job. Whitley has a lot of fun cramming every stereotype of a shitty man into this segment: the overly flirty one, the negging one, the one with mommy issues, the one with girlfriend issues, even a gatekeeping “pirate nerd”.
The cycle is broken when she meets Kate, a tall, well dressed, well-built woman who is the spitting image of Brienne of Tarth. The only applicant who isn’t a fuckboy, she shares Raven’s dedication to justice and promises a whole crews-worth of women with whom she plays, essentially, Dungeons and Dragons. Deciding to take Kate up on her offer, a bar-fight breaks out as the men insult and attempt to assault the women. The issue ends with Jay, fed up with the noise, emptying the bar with a science-aided witch impersonation.
Unlike the dynamic action of the first issue, this issue is a LOT more talky than the first. Were it not for the big brawl at the end, there’d be not much excitement happening here. We do, however, get some truly great examples of Whitley’s crackling dialogue. The exposition and discussion don’t ever feel plodding or pointless, as he intersperses them with humor, asides, and natural emotions. Rosy Higgins’s art really shines in this issue, as the sliminess of the prospective male crew members is conveyed even before they open their mouths.
I will say that, while I enjoyed the slimy dudes, the scale and completeness of it felt a tad on the nose. No doubt honed by the convention circuit and the dark corners of message boards, Whitley’s cavalcade of sexism is true to life as anything can be in a pirate story. But I wonder if brevity, and precious panel room, was sacrificed for the sake of what is essentially the same joke told 12 ways. And when one of the pirates literally yells “your mom” at Kate, its possible to feel just a little pulled out of things.
Issue #3: Navigation: Seas, Dungeons, & Relationships
a.k.a “All hail Captain Raven”
After the comedy of issue two comes the drama of issue three, which opens that the treasure Raven’s father to retrieve wasn’t gold or jewels, but a person: Ximena, a map-maker and daughter of a high-ranking general.
In the present, Raven is having to recruit Ximena again, this time for her pirate crew. While she nervously stands outside of Ximena’s store, Kate and Sunshine travel to Kate’s guild to recruit them to Raven’s crew.
In the shop, we see why Raven is nervous: Ximena had been a hostage of Raven’s father, and her kidnapping led to her own father being executed by the king. Her first action upon meeting Raven after years apart is to attempt to stab her with a drafting compass. The two have a heartfelt conversation about their respective losses and, for the first time in the series, you really start feeling for Raven. As her eyes open to Ximena’s rage and fear, the hinted at vulnerability is fully exposed. Seeing that Raven is truly in it for justice, and on her own quest for revenge, Ximena reluctantly agrees to be Raven’s navigator.
Meanwhile, at the guild, Sunshine learns to play legally-distinct-D&D while Kate bargains with the heads of the guild, who allow any willing woman to join the pirate crew. Naturally, nearly all of them do. They join up with Raven and Ximena just as an angry mob prepares to storm Cookie’s bar.
Lighthearted comics sometimes struggle when it comes time for drama. So many times the writer can’t milk pathos out of characters who just minutes ago were just cracking jokes and throwing pies. But Whitley is able to strike the perfect balance in this issue. Most of the comedy is left to the Guild, where the women throw around dice and complain about salted pork. At Ximena’s shop, it’s an intense and heartfelt reunion that is effective despite the melodrama native to the genre.
We also get to see Raven be a bit of a gay mess this issue, as she’s quickly flustered when the beautiful Ximena appears from behind the curtain, though it must be said the whole “sorry I kidnapped you thing” is still on her mind as well.
Issue three is doing the job issues one and two did of setting up our future cast of characters, and it’s interesting that each of the one’s we’ve seen so far have their own motivations and arcs shaping up. We also get the common “recruiting the party” storyline done with a great deal of complexity, rather than the simple “you’re cool come fight with me” you see in many similar stories.
Issue #4: Are You Ready For An Adventure?
a.k.a “Pull me up, ladies
An angry mob is ready to storm Cookie’s bar thanks to Jay’s witch act earlier in the night. But first, another flashback. This one doesn’t focus on Raven and her father, but instead expands on the complex relationship between Ximena and Raven that the previous issue hinted at. Laid out under the stars, which are either called “The Sisters” or “The Lovers,” Raven makes eyes at Ximena while she explains the stars to her. But before she can do anything, Ximena passes out.
In the present, our heroes are dealing with the fallout from Jay’s “magic.” Raven, of course, decides that she’s going to fight the mob, but Ximena has a better idea. Calling in a favor at the local butcher, she has Katie dump a huge bucket of pigs blood on herself and two other women. Emerging from the alley, the three drive the mob away with the threats of a curse.
With the immediate problem dealt with, they can recruit their finally final crewmember: self-proclaimed “Demolitions Expert” Jayla. Driven out by her father’s over-protectiveness, Jay is the final piece of the puzzle. After getting Cookie’s blessing, and bidding him a fond farewell, Raven finally sets off for her ship. The gorgeous final page shows Raven, tall against the rose-gold sunset, beckoning her new companions to adventure.
If Raven were an RPG, this would be the point in the game where the party finally leaves the starter town. As such, all of the threads and loose ends must get tied up, at least for the time being. The manner in which Ximena deals with the mob is clever, and getting Jay away from Cookie is done well enough that a relatively well-trod story trope still has resonance with us. The opening flashback may be the best scene in these four issues, with the slight romantic tension sweet without being a sledgehammer of sappiness.
Even the end, where the party is gathered and the leader stands tall, feels as triumphant as it is intended thanks to the strength of the characters that Whitley has established in only a short amount of time.
The secret slogan of Raven might, in fact, be “Tropes are not bad.” There’s very little going on here that hasn’t been done, deconstructed, reconstructed, and parodied.
But it works.
There’s a REASON so many things recur in media: they are effective. And the story beats and plot points that Whitley uses here work thanks to his deft character work and clever bits of humor. As well, most of the tropes he’s using are traditionally the domain of the white, the straight, and the male. To see a queer main character and largely female cast made up of nearly every ethnicity under the sun (plus an alleged half-elf) do the same things that Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp have been doing is incredibly refreshing. Plus, if you’ve ever wanted a western comic that feels like a dating sim, this is it.
Stay tuned next week for issues #4-8 as Raven and her merry crew of misfits finally set out onto the open sea!