The Webcomic Overlook #228: Oyster War
Out of the Eisner-nominated titles, Ben Towle’s Oyster War is probably the one we’d most conventionally associate with the term “webcomic.” By that, I mostly mean the layout. This Will All Hurt is a metaphysical zombie comic where all the pages of the chapter are laid out vertically. Bandette is available as a digital comic on Comixology, the preferred format for the big piracy-averse publishers and arguably not really a webomic. Our Bloodstained Roof is a short story (most webcomics have runs longer than four installments), and Ant Comic is a bizarre little creature that looks like it would be more at home in the pages of an alternative magazine.
Oyster War, on the other hand, is a webcomic webcomic. Handy navigational buttons at the bottom of the page, familiar layout with a snazzy title header and sidebars, and a sensible pace of one page per post. It’s about as standard-looking as you can get on the no-frills WordPress format. There’s benefits to trying something new — in fact, it could be argued that because they’re more experimental, that they’re more deserving of award attention.
Oyster War shouldn’t dismissed, though. Mainly because it seems to have earned Eisner consideration on the merits of it being good.
We start the story in the charmingly named town of Blood’s Haven. It’s set some time in the late 19th century, after the Civil War and long before Nightwing cleaned up the streets. Blood’s Haven is oyster crazy. Parts of the town are built on oyster shells. It’s a crucial part of the booming economy. Oyster harvesting brings in the cash, and the shucked shells are tossed into the bay, creating new land for development. The place is also a little seedy — shocking for a place with the respectable name of Blood’s Haven! Yes, folks, this is a place where prostitutes in full view and people are entertained by big men punching other men’s faces. (It’s actually a nifty detail to remind us that pre-Marquis of Queensbury rules, boxing was a disreputable sport.)
Off-shore, though, there is something more disreputable still: pirates. The oyster pirates, led by a fellow named Treacher Fink, just do not give a crap about maintaining the sustainability of Blood’s Haven’s economy. (Yikes! That’s a lot of apostrophes.) These cowardly brigands strip the sea floors of oysters using a harmful harvesting tool called an oyster dredge. There are rumors, too, that the pirates are in possession of something that aids in their triumphs. Something … magical.
Like wicked voodoo magical. Not prom week magical. The pirates, for example, have a woman who can shape-shift into a seal, and they’re not afraid to use her. What I’d initially thought was an ecological fable has suddenly transformed into Monkey Island. There’s even a plot involving a tentacled beast resurrected from the Stygian Abyss and an island that appears out of nowhere. Clearly, the combination of the arcane arts and oyster thievery can prove to be problematic!
To combat the pirates, the local authorities enlist the help of Commander Bulloch, a naval officer who looks like he should be part of Dr. Teeth’s Electric Mayhem. Bulloch, who has an affectation of malapropisms, is also a former Confederate soldier who now works in the the service of the Union, but is still suspicious of those damn Northern carpetbaggers. For example, when he’s briefed on the ecological ramifications of the oyster harvesting, he dismisses are someone else’s problem. But when he finds out the pirates are from the North? Well. It’s game on, gentlemen.
Unfortunately, the Oyster Navy — as the anti-pirate revenge squad of one ship is called — is working on a limited budget. And thus Bulloch, to his consternation, has to command a very ragtag (yet multicultural) crew and an rusty old paddlewheeler. Luckily, they’re also suitably capable of counteracting the pirate menace, filling in roles that had not been foreseen. They’re smarter and haler than he gives them credit for. Bulloch, for example, is a capable enough leader. However, he has a pretty big blind spot: he doesn’t believe in any of this magic nonsense. So it’s actually fortunate that among his crew, there’s an old gentleman who knows how to handle the ins-and-out of fairy tale mysticism.
Besides, Bulloch knows when to respect scientific reasoning when he sees it. One of his crewmates is a Polynesian, who suggests navigating the waves with the aid of a totem made of sticks. Bulloch blows this off as dumb magic until the crewman explains that the totem is based on the motion and height of waves as they approach a distant shore. Satisfied with the scientific explanation, Bulloch becomes 100% committed to using the Polynesian’s method.
What I like about Oyster War is how genuine all the little details feel. There’s a part of the story where the crew has to find an old Civil War submarine. While it may look like a ridiculous steampunk contraption, it’s actually based on a real life sub called The Alligator. And that’s not all! Towle has clearly spent some time thinking about the mechanics involved in raising the sub. The crew sets up a system of ropes and pulleys supported by nearby trees. If the sub is underwater, though, doesn’t mean that the ballast tanks are filled up? Yes, so Bullock has to swim in and flush out the water to regain buoyancy. It’s methodical, but in getting to the details Towle has opened up an avenue for storytelling.
And then there are the artistic flourishes. Oysters are so lovingly drawn they make my toes tingle a little. (Cuz I have gout. Oysters and shellfish are a known trigger to excruciating foot pain.) Blood’s Haven is rendered with plenty of horizontal and vertical elements and crowds of people. It feels alive but also somewhat hemmed in. Even though you only see it in bits and pieces, you get a strong sense of location, as if a building had always been at the place it was drawn and not just randomly placed. (It also reminds me a little of Sweethaven, Popeye’s home town.) When the crew gets out to sea, the vast expanses of water and the miniature profile of the ship feel unbounded and less claustrophobic.
Towle takes great advantage of visual language and using it to tell the story. One page particularly impressed me. The first mate is trying to gather up some crewmates. We get a glimpse of the list, filled with empty positions which we hadn’t seen beforehand. The first mate knocks on a door, after which we see a scene where he’s scratching names off the list. This is a great way to introduce the spots on the roster to the reader without flat out telling you in exposition. It works wonderfully well, and yet it’s also quite elegantly simple. This gets to the heart of what I like about Oyster War: no flashy gimmicks, just solid storytelling using the tools readily available in the comics medium.
Not to say that there isn’t plenty of exposition. Chapter One is only 13 pages long, but what a dense 13 pages those are. The packed so much content that I was a little surprised that, by the time I’d reached the end of the chapter, I was a little surprised it wasn’t page 50. Yet, while the style highly economical, it’s also entertaining. It’s not tedious, like some comics that choose to exposit the story through a couple of space moose doing tiresome comedy pratfalls. There’s a lot going on while we’re learning the Oyster War backstory. There’s oodles of character development, organic world-building, and and actual plot. Where exposition drags other stories down, here it’s used most effectively to get the reader to the meat of the story as soon as possible.
Oyster War is a refreshing webcomic that’s exactly what it sets out to be: an adventure story with quirky characters that moves along at a confident pace. It has the discipline and sensibilities of an old school comic in the best way possible.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)