Story to Comic: Pierre Mac Orlan’s “Roi Rose”

Undead Pirates! Secrets of the Deep!

[SPOILER ALERT: The two works in question, while hardly plot-driven, are discussed in their entirety.] 

The Littlest Pirate King (Fantagraphics, 2010), David B.’s graphic novel adaptation of Pierre Mac Orlan’s short story “Roi Rose”, opens with a faithful rendering of its first paragraphs:

The first lantern ran along the ship’s deck as if on invisible little legs, for of whoever bore it, no glimpse could be caught, blending in as he did with the pitch-black sky. A lamp met the fugitive gleam, and its light revealed the lantern-bearer, a tall, bony man in whose desiccated face there gaped three terrifying holes: eyes and a nose. The thin, barely visible nose seemed gnawed at by some abominable malady.

The man with the lantern lifted it over the man with the lamp. The second man’s face was just like the first. The three holes in their faces inflicted a cadaverous likeness upon them.”

The next two pages of comic stay close in pacing and content to Mac Orlan’s tale. Hoisting, clambering, lashing tight, singing songs of gallows humor, the pirate crew busies itself by night, in “a strange spectacle that could have passed as a funereal entertainment in the land of the dead,” about the task of manning the “eternally errant” Flying Dutchman. Dawn alone halts their activity, and here David B. reserves for readers the first of his surprise departures: a magisterial panel of more than half a page depicting the Dutchman regaining the deep.

The original stipulates no such thing, and perhaps the idea derives from Disney’s Pirates rather than the Dutchman mythos, but so what? Who could resist the ocean denizens of David B.’s composition, leering yet aloof in the dark? His fish with their fixed stares give off a palpable clamminess, and are one of the book’s main visual motifs. As in his trademark mergers of realistic and metaphoric space, the laws of perspective seem suspended here, multiplied or mangled, but not absent. Arguably, this panel, like the book in general, keeps to realism — heightened, perhaps by dream. There is a gesture to respecting relative size — the image is no mere overlay of flat objects; rather, it is as if the only lines leading to the vanishing point of the sinking ship are the curve and swerve of eel and tentacle.

Mac Orlan’s “Roi Rose” tells the tale of “the great ship of despair,” helmed by Peter Maus and his first mate Petit-Pierre. When the story opens, the undead crew has been sailing for two centuries without rest, “without ever seeing anything new”. They are doomed to roam a world that holds no more pleasure, their appetites intact but unslakable, for “their mummified bodies no longer served them.” When Petit-Pierre makes to dash a bottle of wine to pieces, furious that he cannot drink it, Maus stops him, for then they will be denied even the pleasure of miming drink, their nightly charade. In story and comic alike, much of this exposition is dispatched quickly, in summary and conversation; but in two places David B. cannily expands on Mac Orlan’s paragraphs for set pieces.

Naturally, the pirates have a death wish. They yearn feverishly “for unhoped-for rest… watching for the liberating reef that would plunge them into true death, death without legend,” but from these reefs from which “divine currents always distanced them, no matter how precise their maneuvers.” David B. preserves this narration in captions, but by dramatizing one such attempt in scene, is able to insert his own invention: the spectacular visual of the scarlet leviathan.

Even its tentacles do not deign to touch the cursed crew. “God of Mercy, you are a cheater!” howls Petit-Pierre, addressing Him with the French familiar tu.

God exists,” asserts Peter Maus. “Who could doubt that, now that we are damned for eternity?” Though the nature of the curse is never made clear — Maus is described as a “perjurer” — the crew turns its hatred on the living, thoughtlessly enjoying lives the crew can only savor in memory. In his wrath, Maus makes a wish: o, for a human, plump and alive, whose torture would afford them some pleasure and avenge their condition. Where in the original this hatred is presented as ongoing, in David B.’s retelling, the leviathan’s rejection leads logically to a renewal of it, in turn motivating the ransack of an ocean liner and murder of its crew — a stunning, nearly wordless 6 page action sequence. The pirates, at first delighted by their booty of goods and belongings, soon realize how useless it is to them. They dump it overboard, the desperate futility of their existence redoubled.

From the dead of night emerges a ship headed straight for Dutchman, larger than any the pirates have ever seen and bathed in an eerie glow. So apparitions of the Dutchman are usually described in folklore. In the comic, it is clearly a looming ocean liner, but in the short story the pirates, falling to their knees, greet it as their long-awaited deliverance, “a magnificent and redeeming vessel more ghostly than their own.” And it surely is, though not the immediate end they expect. The ship explodes. No reason is given, but when the pirates lower their rowboat and rescue a plump infant from the debris, the likely explanation is war, as in Lord of the Flies, when at the end the boys’ seemingly island-bound barbarity is echoed in the global conflict of their naval rescuer. Beside man’s savagery to man, even the damned are uncomprehending victims of chance, their depredations paltry and almost innocent.

Petit-Pierre stops Maus from killing the child right away by proposing to raise him, fatten him, and kill him when he reaches the age of communion, thus avenging themselves on the living, and getting a cabin boy out of it. The pirates name the child Roi Rose — literally, “King Pink”, and in the U.S. version, “Tiny King” — for his ruddy, sanguine, fleshly air: “he was like those roses, at once fragile and hardy, that adorn the old graveyards of small churches in poor villages”. A comic episode ensues, communicated partly by a newspaper clipping dated 1921, wherein the pirates ransack a Japanese cruiser in search of tinned milk, falling over themselves in their bumbling attempts to provide for the baby whose needs are so unlike their own. (The newspaper blames the attack on the Bolsheviks.) Predictably, in a turn reminiscent of stories from Three Godfathers to Three Men and a Baby, the boy becomes a favorite of the crew, their beloved mascot. Though undead, the pirates are reduced to lovable rogues by the child’s anarchic energy: irrepressible life, which is but a memory in their withered marrow. “And the dead were as stones and old furniture around this pink child… and the dead frolicked and thought, ‘What a nice little dead man Roi Rose will make. Then for all eternity shall we slake our souls on his acts, his words, his shouts, his insults.’” Of course, the boy notices he is not like his beloved pirates. They smell, and do not drink milk. “Here on this ship we are all dead men,” Peter Maus explains. “Then I want to be dead like you!” replies Roi Rose, “with handsome browned skin and bones that clack in my hands.” Astride a cannon, presiding over the pirates’ diabolical carousing, Roi Rose reaches the age of twelve with a skewed understanding of what it means to be living, cobbled together from the crew’s invective. “Life seemed a distant disaster to him, so distant he could not manage a clear idea of its size.” For isn’t life the disaster that cast him into the sea? Here David B. elaborates on what the book elides, depicting the fruits of Roi Rose’s imagination, the living transformed into surreal monsters, and the thematic heart of the book.


Maus, moved to see the child has no future among them, decides to maroon Roi Rose where he belongs, among the living. Perhaps the gesture will redeem them, he suggests. “You old scoundrel,” Petit-Pierre cackles, mistaking the captain’s motives as purely selfish. Maus, prickled by conscience and stung by the insinuation, calls Petit-Pierre a traitor. In the story’s deepest moment of characterization, the two come to blows. Their quarrel even manages to startle the usually impassive witnesses of the deep.


The captain leaves Roi Rose on the Breton shore with a few coins to buy candles and pray for their souls, saying, “Here is the land whence you came, and whither you must return. You cannot remain among us. God will not allow it. Oft have I spoken wrathfully of God, but I was wrong. I spoke as will all damned men, as you will know if ever you become one. God Almighty gave you life; we can give you nothing but death.”

The wails of the terrified and grieving child pursue Maus as he rows back to the boat. The scene takes its place in a long tradition of tearful goodbyes between pirates and boys. Mac Orlan’s final words are “Adieu, Roi Rose,” but David B.’s last panel, as the Dutchman sails into the Leviathan’s embrace, hints at a grace Mac Orlan leaves hanging.

Mac Orlan was a figure as famous in his time as he is now forgotten, a noted bohemian personality, the author of more than a hundred books and a handful of classic songs in the French cabaret tradition. His wrought and artful sentences locate his colorful tales of devilry and lowlife somewhere between the adventure tale and the prose poem. In his 1937 essay collection Masks Made to Order, he coined the term “le fantastique social” to characterize his own work, seen as a link between Surrealism and German Expressionism. Detecting a malaise in European life after the Great War, he became obsessed with the use of setting and surface to convey character. In his writing, he wed an older folkloric romanticism to contemporary settings of squalor and economic decline, as in the 1922 Mainz of “Malice”, or the Montmartre of Marguerite of the Night, both variations on a Faustian theme. “Roi Rose” is taken from the 1923 collection Malice, whose title novella ranks among his most famous works, along with Le Quai des brumes [Port of Shadows], later made into a film by Marcel Carné. In his essay for the Criterion DVD release, Luc Sante provides context for the film:

a definitive example of the style known as ‘poetic realism.’ The ragged outlines, the lowdown settings, the romantic fatalism of the protagonists, the movement of the story first upward toward a single moment of happiness and then down to inexorable doom…

The term can perhaps best be understood by reference to the popular music of the time, specifically the style called chanson réaliste. As made famous by Edith Piaf, Damia, Fréhel, and Lucienne Delyle in particular, this genre evokes a world-weary romanticism with untrained and frequently raspy voices, minor-key melodies, and dark narratives set more often than not in semicriminal milieux. What made it realistic was its scorn for happy endings and bucolic settings; even if it amounted to another sort of fantasy, it was at least a fantasy that was congruent with working-class lives.”

Although Sante makes no mention of Mac Orlan in his piece, his descriptions fit much of Mac Orlan’s output, from fiction to songs: tales of seedy magic among rogues and vagabonds, in cabarets of ill-repute and lonely cafés where lost souls rendezvous, people critic Jean-Baptiste Baronian has “an aristocracy of bad luck, with their louche pasts, their setbacks, their fleeting joys, their strayings”.

David B.’s symbolic, iconic, metaphoric, anti-psychological style is ideally suited to adapting the expressionistic, theatrical fantastic tales of a man originally trained as a painter. Mac Orlan, with his finger on the pulse of Europe entre-deux-guerres, was very much a man of his time, but his expression of its reigning malaise through fantasy, his use of décor as fate to overdetermine behavior, is worthy of closer consideration, perhaps more so in squalid city settings than in this tale of high seas adventure, as a precursor of contemporary urban fantasy.

The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Clarion alumnus Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright foundation, the Centre National du Livre, and the American Literary Translators’ Association. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Other publications have appeared in F&SF, LCRW, Podcastle, Postscripts, Subtropics, The Harvard Review, The Southern Review, Conjunctions, AGNI Online, Tin House, and PEN America. He is the contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, and translates comics for Archaia, Lerner, and Top Shelf.

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