Blood-thirsty pirates! Vicious dinosaurs! Danger at every turn!
The year is 1717.
The newly discovered island of Pangaea is the most dangerous place on Earth, where dinosaurs still walk the land…
Sophie Delacourt has been sent to Pangaea to stay with her uncle. But little does she know its perils – for Pangaea is a lawless wilderness, teeming with cut-throat pirates!
Kidnapped and imprisoned, Sophie must escape from the ruthless Captain Brookes and embark upon an epic journey, to find her way home…
Co-writer Dan Hartwell and co-writer/artist Neill Cameron are the team behind “The Pirates of Pangaea” in The Phoenix, a weekly anthology comic for children (that quite a few adults seem to like too). Now that strip is the subject of a new collection which was released last month by David Fickling Books. I caught up with them recently for a chin-wag about adventure comics for girls, generating ideas and why we, on a societal level, need comics for children. Here’s the resulting interview…
Matt Badham: Please tell me about the high concept for The Pirates of Pangaea and how you came up with it.
Dan Hartwell: It’s just maths, right? Cool plus cool equals awesome. Kids love pirates and kids love dinosaurs. It’s just two great tastes that taste great together.
Neill Cameron: I knew Dan a little bit from here and there, and I think at [comic convention] Caption one year he was telling me about this idea he had for a comic about pirates riding round on dinosaurs. And my response was, essentially, ‘YOU HAVE TO LET ME DRAW THAT!’ (I quite like dinosaurs).
Dan: I’d had the idea buzzing in my head since at least 2006. I’d been telling anyone who’d listen to me about the possibilities of combining pirates and dinosaurs. Matt Brooker [aka D’Israeli] did some very lovely rough concept art while I was telling him about it in the pub. Luckily Neill was one of those people kind enough to listen to my rambling. The Phoenix didn’t exist at that point. [Children’s comic] The DFC [now sadly defunct] had just started around this time I think. Originally I’d intended to pitch it to somewhere like Image Comics, or 2000AD perhaps. At this point the cast were all adults. It has to be re-written a bit when we did pitch it to The Phoenix a few years later.
Neill: At that point, it was a fun thing to work up into pitch-able shape and have in the top drawer for whenever a suitable opportunity might arise. I drew a few sort of concept sheets – it was an excuse to draw some dinosaurs, basically.
Matt: Is coming up with a story less about having a killer idea and more often about taking familiar components and putting them together in new and exciting ways?
Dan: Ooh, tricky one. I’d say that having an idea is easy. It’s getting it made that counts. It was years before I met Neill and he could make it into a reality. I suppose it is all about experimenting with different ingredients and seeing if you can come up with something new.
Neill: I always tell kids in my comics-making workshops not to worry about having the most original, unprecedented, previously-unheard-of idea – because it could take you ages, prove very frustrating and is probably impossible anyway – but to just get on and make something and tell a story. The way you tell it – your sensibility, your voice and your sense of humour – is what will make it unique, more perhaps than the idea itself.
To briefly mention another project, as an example: the strip I currently do for The Phoenix, “Mega Robo Bros”, is about two little boys who are robots. That is not, in itself, the most original high concept in the world. It is, in fact, basically Pinocchio, and in years past I probably would have shied away from doing something that could be seen as such well-trodden ground. But as I’ve made more comics I’ve come to trust more in – at risk of sounding pretentious – my own voice. To trust that the execution and the things I’m trying to do and say with a strip are not quite what anyone else in the world would do.
But I dunno. I may just be saying this because I’m basically a horribly unimaginative hack.
Matt: The Pirates of Panagaea first appeared in The Phoenix, but is now been collected. What’s in the new collection?
Dan: It contains the first 20 episodes, which is the entire first story.
Matt: Do you have any favourite bits from the strip that could give our readers more of an idea of what it is about?
Dan: My favourite bit has to be Sophie’s line from the middle of the story: “How is a live volcano, that is also filled with pirates ‘safe’?” It’s an unapologetic adventure story. Not a Boys’ Own one though. I very much want it to be viewed a gender-neutral adventure story that all kids can enjoy.
My other favourite bit: “KRON KRODAN!” (Kron Krodan is what the native Iwakian tribespeople of Pangaea are chanting in the last chapter of the book. I could tell you why, but that’d be a spoiler).
I remember when we came up with that whole sequence in a café. The other patrons staring at us when we kept saying “Kron Krodan!” out loud. Good times.
Neill: It’s a Girls’ Own Adventure Story!
I think my favourite part of this series is just the opportunity that it gives you to deliver those really big moments. It’s a story of exploration and discovery, and getting to do all these great big splash panels of dinosaurs and pirate ships, and pirate ships on top of dinosaurs, and vistas of volcanoes surrounded by pirate ships on top of dinosaurs… really lets you sell the excitement of that.
Matt: So, how was it that The Phoenix picked it up?
Neill: When The Phoenix was first in the offing, original editor Ben Sharpe got in touch to ask if I had anything suitable I’d like to pitch. I had a couple of things, one of which unfortunately got tied up and bogged down in all sorts of boring legal stuff, and the other of which was Pirates of Pangaea, handily sitting in the top drawer ready to be pitched.
I think as we went through the development process I came very strongly to feel that Pirates was the one, anyway – that it’d make such a great launch strip for the comic The Phoenix was going to be.
Anyway, the reaction from the Phoenix guys (Ben Sharpe and Will Fickling) was tremendously positive. I think we had them at ‘pirates riding dinosaurs’, pretty much. But they were enormously helpful. Ben in particular, who we both worked with really closely in developing the story and finding the right tone. As Dan mentioned, it was perhaps originally envisaged as a more OTT, tongue-in-cheek, knowing thing, and Ben helped us actually kind of commit to the idea and take the characters and their world seriously.
Dan: As I’d said earlier. I’d been verbally pitching the idea for years. I had an actual pitch with some concept sketches that I’d wave under editors’ noses at cons.
Once Neill had discussed the possibility of doing it for The Phoenix with Will and Ben, I sat down with Neill and re-worked it a bit so it’d suit a young audience better, and, well, the rest is history.
Matt: How did the story change when you changed the age group it was aimed at?
Dan: It didn’t change that much when I rebooted it. I had to change Sophie and Kelsey’s ages, and tone down some the more over the top bits. Sophie doesn’t know kung fu any more, and Neill won’t let me do that story where they meet that long lost tribe of ninjas… But it’s probably better for it.
Neill: I think the story only benefitted from being retooled for a younger audience. Once we’d done that, the thought of not having done it seemed weird. Like, making a story fully of Exciting Stuff That Kids Love and making it in a way that wasn’t kid-friendly, would just seem kind of mean.
Matt: Please tell me about The Phoenix and its importance, if it is important, to the British comics industry.
Dan: The Phoenix is one of all too few children’s comics these days. It’s establishing a beachhead on the publishing scene. Getting proper story comics out there that the children wouldn’t otherwise have.
Matt: Why do we need good children’s comics?
Neill: Oh man, I could rant on about this for an entire week. And indeed, have.
Reading makes a demonstrable, measurable outcome to children’s quality of life and future prospects. All political parties agree on this, and are forever making a big noise about looking for ways to boost flagging literacy levels.
Reading comics is, can, and should be a hugely important part of how children both learn to read and come to love reading. Some kids will respond well to a strict systematic phonics-based approach to learning to read. Others will respond better to a pile of awesome comics. It’s a tool in the kit, and I think we as a society fail to use it sufficiently to our mutual great loss.
Also, they are FUN! They have robots and dinosaurs in?
Dan: Comics are a unique medium. With an accessibility and an intensity of storytelling it’s hard to find elsewhere. Kids love comics! Kids have always loved comics! So why aren’t there more of them for them to read?
Matt: What else are you chaps working on for The Phoenix?
Dan: I’m currently working on “Shivers” with Karen Rubins. These are spooky short stories between 4-8 pages long. So far we’ve had a haunted set of false teeth, a pond kraken and the truly terrifying were-clowns!
Neill: The Phoenix is pretty much my day job, at the moment. I’m doing “Mega Robo Bros” on a weekly basis, and it’s about to launch into a Giant Whopping Mega-Robo-Epic that will keep me busy for a good chunk of 2015. And I write the strip “Tamsin and the Deep” for the extraordinary Kate Brown, which is just nearing its conclusion in the comic, but might possibly be getting a sequel…
And my OTHER day job is, pretty much, comics outreach and education stuff. I do workshops and such. I’m taking that a bit further this year, with the launch of a new weekly Comics Club at the Story Museum in Oxford and at a local school, as a test-bed /practice run for… bigger plans.
Matt: Thanks, Dan and Neill, for taking time out to do this interview!
The Pirates of Pangaea Book One is on sale in all good bookshops, online stores and some run by sauropods.
Dan Hartwell has been writing comics for years, and used to run the Caption convention. He has a BA in Media Production from the University of Lincoln and Humberside, where he learned a lot about script writing and story structure. Dan has worked in lots of interesting places including a magistrates court, for a mental health team and as a PA to a brain surgeon.
• Follow Dan Hartwell on Twitter @cynicalmongoose
Neill Cameron was born in Oxford. He started drawing robots and dinosaurs, then did some other stuff for a bit. Then he decided that drawing robots and dinosaurs was way more fun, so went back to that. Neill holds degrees in Philosophy, Information Technology, Paleontology, Robotics and Advanced Awesomeology.
“Pirates Of Pangaea was part of The Phoenix right from the start, the introductory chapter in this collection appearing in issue zero of the comic. Across multiple issues the team of Hartwell and Cameron have built up a very traditional adventure, harking back to the classics, a Saturday morning serial feel whose huge appeal of giant dinosaurs and skull and crossbones pirate action can’t be underestimated. But within that traditional structure, that kiddie wish fulfilment of mashing up two firm favourites, there’s the important addition of a very strong, very capable, incredibly brave young girl. It adds a freshness to the whole thing well beyond the fantasy setting…”
“Pirates and dinosaurs, what’s not to like. If Pirates of the Caribbean and Jurassic Park had children they would produce this book. There is so much swash and buckle it will have you on the edge of your seats.”
“If you have kids who love comics (or kids who you would love it if they loved comics) then The Pirates of Pangaea is a must-buy book… Sophie is not your typical demure and retiring 18th Century young lady – she is quick to leap into the fray and the incredible creatures that inhabit Pangaea do not faze her at all.”
“We’ve been consistently impressed by the quality and charm of The Phoenix‘s many strips, and Pirates of Pangaea is no exception. Cameron’s art is bright, clean, consistent and easy to follow, frequently bringing a genuine sense of scope and wonder to Pangaea. His maps and scientific drawings are utterly delightful.”
Matt Badham is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Judge Dredd Megazine, 2000AD and Big Issue in the North.