Monday, September 8, 2014

Voyage of the Damned: Ship Of Soiled Doves

Nils Balls is one of the many talented independent cartoonists out of Pittsburgh. His first book, Ship of Soiled Doves, takes on the events of a particularly sordid moment in American history and uses it to expose hypocrisy at the highest levels. During the American Civil War, a steamship was ordered to transport a hundred prostitutes from Nashville to Louisville. Many of them were disease-ridden and all of them were outraged at the indignity of being herded like cattle. Aboard the ship known as the Idahoe, these "Idahoe Gals" quickly turned the order of the hilariously priggish and status-seeking captain into total chaos. This was done in the middle of a particularly brutal summer, so everyone involved was already in a bad mood to begin with. When every port of call refused to accept the "cargo" (with a few exceptions here and there), things got worse and worse on the ship as the already-feeble authority of the captain and the few soldiers granted to him as to keep order were summarily killed or thrown overboard.

Balls' scratchy, expressive style reminds me a great deal of Vanessa Davis' work, especially with regard to the way he's able to draw so many different kinds of women's bodies. Propriety was not exactly a priority for these women, especially in the hot summer, so nudity proved to be the rule for many on the ship. Sex for them was a form of currency but also pleasure, expression, control and power, one they exercised early and often. They are not portrayed monolithically, to be sure; some of the women are vicious killers, others are survivors, and yet others just want to live a life of freedom. There's certainly a line connecting them to outcast pirates, down to the way they take over the ship and run their bloomers up the mast as a flag. The military is portrayed as corrupt when it is not incompetent, which is actually historically quite accurate for the most part. The Union had a huge advantage in terms of population and industrial might in the war, but their incompetent leadership allowed the Confederacy to stretch the war out for years. That's reflected in the humorous newspaper "articles" that Balls has as section breaks. Some of them are facts, like reports on the battle of Gettysburg and Vicksburg tempered by the Union's inexplicable failure to pursue fleeing and desperate Confederate armies. Others are larks, as Balls puts his friends in silly articles. I found myself wishing the printing in the book was a little sharper, as the book lost some of its snap in the way its greys were printed. That said, the landscape format and the loose page layout were both quite clever, as he frequently eschewed the use of a traditional grid or panels. That gave the book a dreamy (and sometimes nightmarish) quality.

One can see that Balls has quickly developed as an artist. The minicomic Skeleton Balls Comics is much rougher-looking than Ship of Soiled Doves. Balls shows his interest in history's more delightfully sordid moments early on, as a strip about the history of the beer Porter is funny and drawn in a bigfoot style. There's a later gag that somehow interpolates beer into the plot of It's A Wonderful Life that's also amusing. "All God's Creatures" features some excellent pencil drawings that flip between tight and sketchy as a boat sails across the ocean and the voyagers discover an island filled with friendly natives. Unfortunately, the sailors are invested with germs, cleverly depicted by Balls as bug-sized, and the island's population is decimated. It's a silent strip where Balls' linework carries the whole thing effortlessly. Another Balls specialty is strips where god is depicted as an all-seeing eye. In this silent, impassive form, the acts of god as depicted in the Bible seem especially cruel and capricious. In a final merging of his familiar tropes, there's a funny debate between Jesus and the Devil about drinking, culminating in Christ asking that the bartender get his mother some ice for her Chardonnay. One can see the bigfoot tendencies and predilection for satire present in these earlier strips, and Balls certainly honed the sharpness of both his images and writing for Ship of Soiled Doves.

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