Posted on 27 February 2010.
Book: Captain Swing and the Electric Pirates of Cindery Island
Author: Warren Ellis
Art: Raulo Caceres
Verdict: Though slow to start, is sure to please fans of Ellis as well as fans of steampunk
The truth may be stranger than fiction according to Lord Byron, but for Warren Ellis this is both a battle cry and a challenge. Ellis’s modus operandi is to veraciously consume information; history, science, technology, and lore, then to reconstitute the strange seeds he finds into his own fantastic imagined possibilities. I could go on for quite a while with demonstrations, but to list a few:
- The concept of Feral cities in Fell
- The potentials and possibilities of emerging transhumanism in Docktor Sleepless
- And many more theories expanded on in Desolation Jones, Planetary and Transmetropolitan
In Ellis’s newest work, Captain Swing and the Electric Pirates of Cindery Island, we are introduced to two opposing police forces and their mutual target, chasing their way through a variant-Victorian London.
Our Pro(An)tagonist is both, Captain Swing and Spring Heeled Jack an amazing creation of Tesla-punk* enhancements whose full range of powers are currently unknown. He is able to leap great distances, has enhanced strength and shoots “clockwork” electric bullets.
The historical Captain Swing was the signature on several letters written during the English Swing Riots of 1830, a rural revolt against the loss of jobs from machines and low wages. Several of the protesters ‘swung’ from the Gallows, thus the name Captain Swing. This makes Ellis’s Captain Swing an interesting juxtaposition of history and fiction, a technologically advanced symbol of Luddism.
Spring Heeled Jack is another name pulled from Victorian history. A terrifying urban legend with the ability to leap great distances:
Spring Heeled Jack was described by people claiming to have seen him as having a terrifying and frightful appearance, with diabolical physiognomy, clawed hands, and eyes that “resembled red balls of fire”. One report claimed that, beneath a black cloak, he wore a helmet and a tight-fitting white garment like an “oilskin”. Many stories also mention a “Devil-like” aspect. Spring Heeled Jack was said to be tall and thin, with the appearance of a gentleman, and capable of making great leaps. (Wikipedia)
Replace references of “fire” with bright, arcing electricity and you have a pretty fair description of our Captain Swing.
Interwoven between the frame by frame pages of the comic is a letter to the reader, revealing the secret social order and technological mysteries of the times, written by Swing himself. This letter, along with his anti-authoritarian actions against the police, seems to reveal Swing as an anarchistic liberator, in the same vein as Grant Morrison’s ‘King Mob’ or Alan Moore’s ‘V’.
This first issue of Captain Swing is just a tease, with little plot progression. But by introducing a historical context and the various players, with only loose assumptions of their pro(an)tagonistic roles, the story successfully draws the reader in.
Although I am a man of text, I would be remiss to not mention the illustrations of Raulo Caceres. Caceres does a great job of showing us the gritty industrial darkness of the London nights, where bad things could be hiding in the shadows and alleyways. While by daylight, the citizens seem to be content with the order of things. Although the industry of the age, and Swing’s own devices, give the book a “steampunk” feel, Ellis is quick to correct people that it should be called Tesla-punk. This is due, I imagine, to Swing’s reliance on electricity over mechanics.
As with most of Ellis’s works, Captain Swing will be an interesting trip as he leads us through this alternative history of a scientific revolution. So all aboard Swing’s “ionic air propulsion” jolly-boat, don’t look down, and hold on tight.
*Ellis’s chosen term