Monday, December 12

Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor

Story and drawings by Mervyn Peake 
Originally published in Country Life magazine 1939
published in book form by Macmillian 1967
reprinted by Candlewick 2001

The Captain and his oddball crew settle in on an uncharted island where they encounter a creature the color of butter and then... do nothing?  

The good Captain is a bruiser who has run through his share of crew. His ship, The Black Tiger, has lost many a men to sharks and the plank leaving only five bizarre scallywags for company. One day they spot an uncharted island and go to investigate, finding among the unusual flora and fauna a pan-like creature the color of butter. "Just exactly the sort I've been wanting!" the Captain says cryptically. Entranced, the Captain quickly spends all his time looking at, doting on, dancing with, and generally hanging out with the Yellow Creature, so much so that the crew are reduced to doing little more than acting as servants or a bored audience. The Captain is so happy with his new life on the island that he finally decides to give up pirating for good. His crew (presumably with the ship) have long departed, and to this day the Captain and his Yellow Creature are there on their island, eating exotic fruit and watching the sun set and dancing hornpipes whenever they please.

he looked like this
It's near impossible to explain this picture book's weird vibe. Peake's illustration style in this book is like a whimsical version of the stuff Basil Wolverton was producing for MAD magazine in the 1950s. With exaggerated, elongated facial features and preposterously proportioned bodies, Captain Slaughterboard and his crew are beyond misfits, beyond human, perhaps only one evolutionary rung above the fantastical creatures of Edward Lear. In addition, Peake's handwritten text give the book the feel of a journal or an illustrated captain's log.

As for the story itself, my modern reader's brain wants to know a whole lot more about what Peake's intentions were. The Captain has clearly been running through men in search of something, seeking out some unknown something that has driven him at the expense of others. But then when he finds the Yellow Creature the effect is identical to that of falling into a blind, fawning love. The Creature's coy, almost fay expressions seem to acknowledge the Captain's stirrings and perhaps indicate the feelings are mutual.

Is this crazy? A story about a pirate captain at the end of his career finally deciding to retire on a remote, deserted island and setting up home with an exotic native?

l'après-midi d'un faune?
Alright, I'm going to set my adult goggles aside and try to look at this again. We've got a rough pirate captain driving what little of his crew he has to find some new thing, something never before seen or imagined. Finding the Yellow Creature and his island the Captain has finally found what he was looking for, but the crew comes to realize that this is not what they signed up for, and they depart. The crew sails off into the sunset (unseen, they simply disappear from the book half way through) and the Captain spends his sunset years happily in his island paradise. What's wrong with that?

By modern standards, what's wrong is that there's no real character development and little plot conflict to speak of. The Yellow Creature is an enigma. There's almost something menacing about his silence and manner, with facial expressions that can be read as innocent or seductive or duplicitous, and understanding his intentions might confuse younger readers.

Or maybe not. Kids don't question an owl and a pussycat sailing to far away lands and getting married by a pig, they don't think twice about forests full of bears who live in houses and sleep in beds and eat porridge, and pirates are simply cool.

Another curiosity no longer in print, though still available in libraries and worth a peek.


Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

A trenchant look at a great curio...thanks for bringing it to our attention. If only we had some record of what kids of its day thought of it.

Geoff Langdale said...

Captain Slaughterboard's crew didn't depart with the ship, IIRC. They all died in furious battles.