The Quest for the Hiss-Paniola
Written & Drawn by Craig Phillips
Cats. Pirates. Pirate-cats. One of those excellent ideas for a middle-grade graphic novel where you think of course kids are going to want that!
Jack Scratch: The Quest for the Hiss-Paniola is the first in a series of middle-grade graphic novel adventures starring a young land-lubber cat called Jack Scratch who sets out to sea with a great mariner called Catnip in search of a shipwreck with fabled treasure. Along the way they face hostile-seas, desert islands, canine cannibals, booby-trapped temples and ghosts that aren’t what they seem, all the while trying to evade the claws of the villainous, peg-legged pirate, Billy Fishbones, and his scurvy, no-good pirate-cat crew.
The plot is action-packed and twisty and great fun for the age group it is aimed at.
While the story probably contains every pirate trope around, including the requisite tavern scene, desert island stranding and discovery (read: theft) of one very important map, it also contains enough originality and genuine plot twists to keep it interesting for adults and kids alike. The scripting is tight and the story progresses at a good pace with mysteries and discoveries included throughout to keep things interesting. Action and tension are broken up nicely by quieter moments that allow for the solid development of character and backstory, and plot reveals are nicely heralded so that, when they occur they seem natural to the story rather than materialising out of nowhere for convenience. In the end, all of the characters’ story lines converge in a climax that is both exciting and satisfying (even if victory does hinge upon an odd world-building quirk that cats can’t swim).
I particularly loved the use of sea-shanties, ballads and stories threaded throughout this, especially the misadventure of the Tigress and the legend of the Hiss-Spaniola, to create a sense of a world and a history much bigger than the story at play.
If I had any quibble about the plot, it would be the rather bumbling happenstance in which Jack and Catnip first obtain their map. That being said, middle-grade books have to get into the story quickly and in this regard Jack Scratch achieves. As such, Jack and Catnip don’t question whether the map is even real or whether it is wise for them to leave Catnip’s tavern in a state of affray in the middle of the night; they just set off.
There are other logical handwaves like this: at one point our heroes are adrift for days with food but presumably no water; cats in this world mysteriously cannot swim; and in the temple scene, booby-traps are included more for their humour opportunities than any real tension or danger; but at the end of the day, all of this works out fine since the story makes no secret of being light-hearted and fun, and goes along with its tongue firmly in its cheek.
The characters are well-designed with their own distinct personality and backstory. As a lead character, Jack is enthusiastic and loud with a rather underdeveloped sense of self-preservation and a penchant for touching things he shouldn’t. As such, a lot of children will probably identify with him. His Uncle, Tom Silver, is kindly, quick thinking and good at cooking. Catnip is capable and stoic with dry humour and a tragic backstory. And new friend, Paw, is smart and brave and skilled at survival.
Fishbones is an effectively blustering, treacherous villain, but I particularly loved his offsider, an emotional French Sphinx cat with a hook for a hand (his left-hand of course, because he is the captain’s right-hand man).
Where the casting does fall down a bit is in gender balance. There is a single female character in what is a rather big cast once you include crew and while Paw is tough and sarcastic and definitely no damsel in distress, she is also semi-defined by her romantic relationship to Catnip. As such, I hope her character is not relegated to supportive girlfriend roles in future volumes and that she continues to be imbued with her own goals and agency. As one of the more capable characters, I was pleased to see her elevated to co-captain by the end of this story, implying that there are plans to continue her in a leadership role.
The artwork in this is highly accomplished. Craig Phillips does an excellent job with dramatic seas and daring escapes and his panels are rich with movement, mood and colour. There is more than enough detail to imbue the world with a strong sense of place, and the design-work of the locations, from the tavern interiors to the ships and islands is well conceived. One particular image to keep an eye out for is the external view of the ancient temple, which is a gorgeous full-page spread, rich with slanting sunlight and dappled shadow.
The artwork makes especially nice use of weather to develop mood and tension and amplify the remoteness and scale of many of the locations. There is a particularly lovely section where four thin panels show the moments of a sun going down on three characters adrift in a small lifeboat. A tragic story has just been told and this glorious, fading sky adds to the sense of ocean-cast desolation and sadness very nicely.
Care has also been taken with the non-story elements such as the opening map depicting the Mediterranean Sea and the small anchor icons that mark some of the blank pages. From what I can tell from the PDF review copy, it is a nice production.
From a content warning perspective, parents of younger readers should be aware that the villains do come to a rather permanent end (cats can’t swim). That being said, for all the violence implied by cats carrying cutlasses and dogs carrying spears, there is no bloodshed.
In summary, I enjoyed this and look forward to the next volume. Middle-grade kids are going to like it a whole lot, given it ticks the boxes of cats, pirates and high adventure and I would not be surprised if Jack Scratch comes to a television screen in the near future.