Readers uninitiated either to Warren Ellis or graphic novels would benefit immensely by reading Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island. On the one hand it’s a brisk and bloody romp in a genre definitely not steampunk (as Ellis insists) but something that feels a lot like it. Sure, there’s lots of metal and some gears but it’s a story enshrouded mostly in fog, blood and sparks.
Captain Swing is a frenzied mix of clashing societal and seemingly fantastical forces. Enigmatic spring-heeled figures, harnessing blue lightning, are caught slinking about the streets and rooftops of London. Murdered Bobbies, drawn and quartered with all signs of foul-play pointing to the sky. Add to this confusion the turbulence of 1830s London with the eruption of the Swing Riots, the peasant uprisings against industrialized agriculture, combined with the full-on war between the emergent policing factions of the Peelers and Bow Street Runners. All these factors paint a story of change swaddled in bedlam, easily personified through the notorious visage of Captain Swing.
Ellis writes a deceptively pithy story. Course like the London grime, his dialogue, especially between his policing factions, is as bawdy as it’s humorous and unsettling. Contrast this, however, to the utopian and progressive aspirations of his altruistic Swing. Thankfully, his own sentiment does not boil down to dualistic either-or scenario. Applying a shades-of-grey lens to the ideological questions concerning the nature of law, justice, piracy and knowledge, Ellis takes great care not to espouse any ideal but rather cloak it in uncertainty, showcasing only the confusion experienced by a rapidly changing English society.
The artwork of Raulo Caceres impeccably parallels Ellis’s authorship. Shades of navy, amber, lavender and maroon deliberately permeate the work, highlighting predominantly the shadows of London upon each character, each panel. Only the blindingly blue sparks in this pre-electrical era add any brightness to the sketches, drawn in finely intricate woodcut fashion. It is equally fun to gaze at the panels as it is to read.
Captain Swing is a grand synthesis of fiction, history and dark, alluring artwork. Whether for the casual comic fan or for readers with a more academic scrutiny, this work is an impressive exposition on the continuum of societal bedlam and progress.