“If you don’t set sail, you’ll end up in the belly of a whale, no swallow saint will mock your grave”
Long-time readers might recall that I have a few favorite people in comics, not only because I love their work (I mean, I love the work of a lot of people) but because they’re such excellent people. Ever since I met her a few years ago, Lucy Bellwood has become one of those people. Her work is terrific, and she’s an extremely nice, very funny person. For years she made mini-comics which she called Baggywrinkles, and last year she ran a wildly successful Kickstarter to bring all those comics into one book (with a new chapter for those who already had them) and get them colored (which they were, by Joey Weiser and Michele Chidester). She kept being able to add stuff, so the book eventually came out this past summer, and of course, it’s taken me some months to review it. But review it I shall!
Because I like Lucy so much, you might think it’s hard for me to review her comics with the cold, critical, cynical eye that you’ve come to know and love from your humble blogger, and that might be true, but part of the reason I like Lucy is because I like her work, so I’m already kind of compromised. Just deal with it, okay? A baggywrinkle, whence the comic gets its name, is, as explained in the book, “a handmade affair of rope yarns which is wound spirally about any offending rope to form a soft, brush-like, cylindrical buffer designed for the protection of a ship’s sail against chafing.” It looks thusly:
Bellwood (I have to call her that, because I’ve moved to cold, clinical, cynical reviewer mode, don’t you know) called the book that because it’s a funny term, of course, but also because the book is about sailing. Sailing on olde-tymey tall ships, to be more specific. Bellwood explains in the first strip that back when she was in high school, she discovered that one could actually go on a tall ship and learn how to be a sailor, and so off she went. She still sails today – she’s heading for both the Pacific and Iceland next year – and this book is about her experiences, but it’s also about sailing lore and history. She explains what nautical tattoos mean, for instance. She gives us all the many parts of a ship, naturally, and humorously goes into how to work onboard. There’s a fun story debunking plank-walking (which was not a thing at all), a neat story about two American vessels in Japan in 1791 (co-written with R.J. Mockford), and a tale about scurvy (which is new to this collection and is co-written by Eriq Nelson). Bellwood tells all the stories with a nice wittiness and sense of humor, so in the best tradition of education, you’re learning while being entertained. As this is partly a personal story, she usually gives us the information in the form of dialogue between herself and others, which is a fine way to convey information. It also allows her to humanize characters from history, including the pirates she scolds for conforming to stereotypes and the various people who helped figure out what scurvy is and how to cure it. She also throws in some fun historical trivia, like why Englishmen are called “Limeys.” Also, she is able to get in some beautifully quiet moments when we feel why she loves sailing so much. It’s not a coming-of-age book nor an autobiography, but there’s enough of Bellwood in the book that we get a good idea of what kind of person she is. It’s a charming book, and it’s about things most people don’t know about, which makes it even more interesting!
Bellwood drew the book over a period of several years, so it’s interesting to see how her art evolved over time. I interviewed Bellwood about her art during my “Year of the Artist,” and we spoke a bit about Baggywrinkles. The early art, from 2010, is naturally a bit rougher than later in the book, as her figure work is slightly stiffer and she compensates by using exaggeration a bit more. She does draw a beautiful tall ship, though, and her talent is obvious, but her art gets better by leaps and bounds throughout the book. As I’ve noticed over the years, younger artists tend to ink heavily and occasionally hatch too much or, to combat that, go a bit cartoony, and Bellwood errs on the latter side, although during the story on tattoos she gives us two consecutive full-page splashes on which she uses heavy spot blacks, which adds some heft to the art. By the time she gives us the story about being on a ship for the first time, her art has become more like it is today, with less hatching and cleaner lines and bit less emphasis on cartoony art, although Bellwood’s default style is always a bit cartoony (like most artists, she can draw in different styles). The fulcrum of the book, almost, is a gorgeous splash of the sun breaking through dark clouds as Bellwood looks on, a page I mentioned when I interviewed her – she used an ink wash to make it a bit dreamier than anything that had come before, and the colors are simply stunning:
Bellwood is very good at body language and facial expressions, which help her stories become more entertaining, because she’s able to get everyone’s emotions down superbly. As I noted, she often exaggerates, but it’s usually to make a comedic point, and the more subtle stuff works quite well, too. While her stories tell us about sailing and tall ships, her art expresses the wonder that she and others feel about being on a ship. For “Pacific Passages,” the story about the American ships in Japan, she uses a more “realistic” style, giving a bit more detail to the faces and clothing of the characters without sacrificing their expressiveness. It’s impressive to see her draw in two different (but not totally dissimilar) styles and do well at both of them. It adds a nice layer of authority to the stories, especially when she blends them together, as she does in the story about scurvy. It’s fascinating to see how Bellwood improves over six years of drawing these stories, even though the early stuff shows that she knew very well what she was doing even when she started.
Baggywrinkles is a fun comic about a topic few people know about, and it’s also about a woman’s passion for something and how she goes about living her dream. Bellwood does a great job balancing the nuts and bolts of the job with the way it makes her feel, and the stories that don’t directly involve her are fun historical nuggets about nifty things. It’s 128 pages and costs $19.99, and it’s definitely worth every penny. Check it out at the link below (from which I get a percentage if you shop by going through that link, as I make a very subtle attempt to get money) or get a nifty hardcover from her directly. So many choices!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆