Before we begin, a confession: I love Princeless, and I always have. This is the book I started recommending to anyone who would stand still the second I finished it. Yet somehow, as excited as I was to get my hands on the first issue of the new volume, I was still surprised by how well it turned out. If you aren’t reading this book, you are doing comics wrong.
Written by Jeremy Whitley and regularly drawn by M. Goodman, Princeless became critically acclaimed, if far too little known, over the course of three volumes to this point.
A description of the Princeless series reads like a marketing specialists’ dream product, or something Pixar would release in a heartbeat: Created by Whitley so his new daughter would have a book to read when she got old enough, it is a child-friendly story (there’s a bit of swordplay and a couple references to dragons eating people, but this is ‘fantasy action’ a la Pixar, not Tolkein) about knights and princesses, dwarves and pirates where 16-year old Adrianne doesn’t want to follow the family tradition of locking girls in towers to be rescued, so she befriends her guardian dragon and saves herself. Along the way she convinces a dwarven armor-designer to leave an apprenticeship under her hard-drinking father, meets a shapeshifting forest princess, and sets an interesting subplot with her parents’ background into motion.
With the fourth volume Princeless: The Pirate Princess offers an excellent jumping-on point for newcomers, and a familiar place for established readers to rejoin the series.
Echoing our introduction to Adrienne, we meet Raven, the daughter of a self-styled ‘Pirate King’, as he teaches her about the daring exploits of her great-grandmother, archer and Pirate Queen extraordinaire. Raven is going to be the next queen of the seas, and she is ready to go…until her father dies and her brother decides to take that ‘King’ thing seriously by following royal traditions.
Enter the wayward Adrienne and Bedelia, and the adventure begins as the girls take on way more angry pirates then they expected when they saved a random princess from her tower.
Princeless distinguishes itself throughout its run by being smarter than readers of traditional children’s fare expect, and this volume is no different. The earlier volumes of the series hit the notes to be expected in any fantasy with a strong female lead; the inevitable Red Sonja joke is there, never fear, but it is what it does with the unexpected that sets it apart.
A scene early in the series where armorer Bedelia and Adrienne wake in the morning to a beard and a bad hair day respectively both acknowledges that a woman’s beauty routines are socially expected as a way to appeal to men, yet affirms that choosing to shave and straighten their hair is their choice to be beautiful for themselves. I want to have a daughter just to give this page to her the second she can understand it. Adrienne mother and father, developing a sideplot of their own, seem likely to become a testament to the fact that filling the traditional roles of ‘stern father’ and ‘caring homemaker mother’ does not inherently force anyone into the role of villain or subordinate, and their son pushes back against gendered expectations in his own quiet way.
The design of this issue in particular is excellent, in that it establishes and builds on the Asian heritage of Raven without making it the focus, or even a sideplot of the story. Raven looks a teensy bit like Mulan on first glance, but that is the result of using color choices to add meaning to her design. The green of her attire calls back to the traditional meaning of spring, life and growth, while flashbacks to her childhood and her great-grandmother are heavily saturated with the red of war and strength. It raises a question of whether Raven will always see her great-grandmother’s combatant and conqueror attitude as wholly superior to her brother’s diplomatic and alliance building approach.
Unlike Adrienne, who had many hopeful if foolish knights questing after her, Raven has no suitors to battle her guards while she waits. Unlike Bedelia’s contentment with her economic place as armorer and Adrienne’s support staff she comes from a tradition of taking what she is not given, and demanding a place equal to the hereditary, landed kings and queens Adrianne is descended from. Unlike Adrianne’s family who would see her comply to preserve the status quo and follow the path they consider best for her, Raven’s brother is using her as a tool to take respect from others, and stands to lose far more from her rebellion. Finally, while being ‘towered’ took nothing but youngest daughter Adrianne’s agency and ability to choose a husband from her (hardly a small loss, but the point stands), Raven lost her expected equal share of the ocean kingdom her father raised her to rule.
Just how well Adrienne will take sharing the reigns of her adventure (and her dragon) with an assertive new princess who expects equal treatment and is sure to push back more than Bedelia is yet to be seen. Raven may appreciate rescue, but it is clear from the start that she has her own plan, and no intention of becoming the tool of another.
Princeless: The Pirate Princess #1 lays the groundwork for a storyline that adds further depth and interest to an already complex story, and appears ready to jump back into Adrienne’s world of strong women, daring knights, and pink dragons, now with stolen pirate gold and an arrow to the knee to boot. I cannot recommend this series, and this issue, highly enough, to adults, to parents, and above all to girls who need a heroine to remind them who they will someday become.
Princeless: The Pirate Princess #1 releases in stores on February 11th from Action Lab Comics, and is available online at Comixology.com now.