Oyster pirates fight a supernatural battle for shellfish, Hergé-style

There's more to Ben Towle's freshly Eisner-nominated webcomic Oyster War than its visual homage to Hergé. It's a funny but wonderfully restrained pulp adventure about a group of oyster pirates looking to pull a supernatural caper—and the crew of misfits battling them to save the seabeds.

Commander Davidson Bulloch is a former Confederate submarine officer, brought to the prosperous coastal town of Blood's Haven, Maryland, to help with a persistent pest. Blood's Haven made its fortune on oysters and ensures its fisherfolk don't over-harvest the seabeds. Unfortunately, a crew of pirates has moved into Chesapeake Bay, threatening to deplete the oyster beds. Fearing that the pirates will destroy the local economy and then move on, the mayor of Blood's Haven recruits Bulloch to handle the problem.

Bulloch is an interesting character. On the one hand, he's a bit of a goofball; one of his defining traits is his tendency to misquote popular maxims with eccentric results (e.g. "You shouldn't judge a book 'til it's over."). On the other, he's a brave and competent sailor and a staunch skeptic to boot, with little patience for the superstitions of fisherfolk. With the help of a local knuckle-boxer, he assembles a motley crew that includes a a newly sober waterman, a Polynesian navigator, a Chinese cook, a naturalist, a watchmaker, and a woman (considered bad luck by most sailors).

However, Bulloch could use a touch more belief in the supernatural. The pirate Fink has some particularly mystical tools in his employ, including a Selkie companion, and powerful relic that could allow Fink to command the oyster beds. Fortunately, Bulloch's companions employ a combination of sailing technology and folklore to help them in their quest against the pirates, and Bulloch has a few Confederate tricks stashed up his navy man's sleeves.

And that's what makes Oyster War more engaging than most fantasy comics. Towle gives Blood's Haven a sense of history, a sense that it exists in this particular time and place—and that Bulloch's crew might plausibly come together then and there. It's a time when it's not always easy to distinguish technology from magic, but when, if a man (or a woman) sales long enough and far enough, they're likely to encounter both. But it all serves a world building for a fun adventure comic, one where we're curious to watch Fink unleash the mystical powers of the sea, and see if Fink, or any of the crewmen hunting him down, can control them once he does.

[Oyster War]