A Pirate’s Life For Me: Lucy Bellwood on ‘Baggywrinkles’
Cartoonist Lucy Bellwood launched a Kickstarter on Monday, July 20, for a collection of her minicomics about tall ships titled Baggywrinkles: A Lubber’s Guide to Life at Sea. Bellwood has sailed on these historical ships herself and channeled this fascination into a project that is partially auto-biographical, partially historical, and partially fun facts about sailing. The campaign has already gone well over its funding goal and hit some important stretch goals, including getting a full color treatment.
ComicsAlliance sat down with Bellwood to talk about the project, her love of pirates, crowdfunding, and her secret plans for the Kickstarter booty.
ComicsAlliance: So first, can you explain what exactly a tall ship is?
Lucy Bellwood: Yes, of course. And I know it’s monstrously confusing because people always say, “Oh yeah, weren’t you working on that tall…boat? Long boat? U-Boat?” So a tall ship is generally what people see if they think of “a pirate ship.” A very loose definition is a ship with tall masts, which encompasses brigs, brigantines, topsail schooners etc.
And they’re generally “traditionally rigged” which often refers to being square-rigged — having yards (the spars the sails hang from) that sit perpendicular to the masts.
(This is all kind of hard to explain without my usual hand-waving, so just imagine that I’m waving my hands around a lot while I describe this)
(It’s actually pretty safe to assume I’m waving my hands around a lot when I’m talking about anything)
CA: And these were “modern” in what years?
LB: Generally we use the term to refer to vessels from the Golden Age of Sail, which can be as broad a period as the 16th-19th century. I mean there was a looooong stretch of time where sail power was the method of transportation around the globe. Trade, warfare, and exploration depended upon it.
CA: Right — although structurally there were likely differences, it’s one big category from a modern perspective?
LB: I would say so.
There are even alternative shipping companies trying to push for a return to sail power in the modern age, as climate change forces us to cut back on fossil fuel use.
Those trade winds that drove ships thousands of miles across the globe are still kicking.
CA: So how did you get interested in 18th century boats?
LB: I didn’t really grow up a sailing kid. Ojai, CA (my hometown) is about a 20 minute drive from the ocean — lots of boats and nautical stuff, good surfing, beaches, what-have-you — but I wasn’t on the water a ton as a kid.
I loved the beach, I loved the ocean, but sailing wasn’t really something I thought about. I think I even *went* on a replica vessel on a school field trip when I was in 5th grade or something, but it didn’t stick.
So in high school I got really into theater (there’s a ton of theater in Ojai since it’s all basically Hollywood ex-pats who got fed up with the rat race and moved to the country), which got me involved with Shakespeare Festival, which got me interested in pirates.
CA: So pirates are to blame?
LB: Always! I always blame pirates. They’re terrible. My childhood best friend and I were… probably a little obsessed. We’d watch Cutthroat Island over and over and make forts in cliffside caves and choreograph fake sword fights on the beach.
I also loved reading Swallows and Amazons as a kid, which my mom gave to me when I was…ten? Eleven, maybe?
But really pirates were the gateway drug. They were very “in” at the time. The kicker with all the pirate stuff was that there wasn’t much to do aside from read history books and historical fiction and wear stripy socks and dress up to go to high school.
Which… I did. A lot.
And Renaissance Faires were really enthralling but, again, lots of walking around buying expensive leather gear, not a lot of actual boat stuff.
CA: Technically I suppose you could’ve murdered someone and stolen their stuff.
LB: I have a sailor friend who made a “Kill pirates and take their stuff” bumper sticker. It’s very popular with tall ship sailors.
Because we get mistaken for pirates all the time! It’s inevitable. Merchant mariner erasure is totally a real thing.
CA: So how did you go from loving pirates to actually working on a tall ship?
LB: So I subscribed to this (bear with me) pirate quarterly magazine called No Quarter Given, and they had a section where they’d talk about replica ships making port visits and doing pirate festivals and things.
And one day in high school I got to googling and found a huge list of tall ships currently active around the globe. The first entry on that list was the Alvei, a vessel based in the South Pacific, and when I clicked through to get website there was a huge banner ad informing me that I could sail aboard a real live tall ship and live the life of an 18th-century sailor.
It blew my mind.
CA: How long was it between finding out you could do that and actually doing it?
LB: So I think that research rabbit hole was sometime during my junior year of high school, and obviously I wasn’t going to get the cash together to fly halfway around the world and work in New Zealand for six months, so I looked closer to home.
The Lady Washington and her sister ship, the Hawaiian Chieftain, come through Ventura every January on their West Coast tour. Every year we’d read about them in the paper and then totally fail to get our shit together and go visit.
But that year I was so ready. I hounded my parents until they agreed to book us on for a 3-hour Battle Sail, where the two ships go out into the harbor and fire black powder guns at each other for a while.
I still have some old disposable camera photographs from that first sail and I’m just beaming like a lunatic the whole time. There’s a series of lines called brails used to haul in the big sail at the back of the vessel (called the spanker — I know) that generally take a lot of hands to haul in, so I got to jump in and volunteer during the trip.
It was totally intoxicating — all the shouting and heaving and running around. And the crew were so cool. They were grubby and sunburned and obviously having the time of their lives.
I asked them how I could sign up to volunteer as soon as we started heading back to the dock, and two months later I spent my entire spring break in the Bay area doing my two week training on board.
CA: I imagine that it is not easy work.
LB: The shouting alone burns at least 800 calories. But then I was a shouty kid so it seemed pretty perfect.
The Lady’s volunteer program involves that two week training period (and keep in mind you’re living on board the whole time, sleeping in a bunk in a compartment with seven other people and next-to-no privacy), and then you can stay on as long as you like working as a deckhand or training to take on a paid position.
So after that spring break trip I impatiently finished up at school before going back twice in the summer/fall, and then returning for a three-month tour the following spring.
CA: What was that like as a woman? I ask because obviously at the time the ships were made, it was almost entirely men on board so they’re not really set up for women.
LB: The thing I loved about going to work on the ship for those first two weeks was that nobody cared how old I was or what gender I was or really about anything that would’ve mattered socially in high school. I was enthusiastic and willing and I pulled my weight. That was enough. It was so refreshing, being seventeen and constantly worrying about fitting in or behaving the right/wrong way.
In terms of practicalities, modern tall ships do have marine heads so you don’t have to hang your backside off the headrails to pee.
CA: That is a major benefit.
LB: Though the wind on your nethers is a pretty nice sensation, I must say.
The folks who gave me grief for being a lady sailor were almost exclusively passengers and the general public. Mostly older guys who would call me little lady and insinuate that I didn’t know port from starboard, which got old.
CA: How much time, total, have you spent on tall ships to date?
LB: Haha, not nearly enough.
Maybe six months total, which is peanuts compared to most of my full-time sailor friends.
CA: Let’s talk about the fact that you have “full-time sailor friends” — what do they think about your comics work?
LB: The trouble was I went away to college after that first long stint, and then would sneak away to visit friends working on other southern California vessels, or see the Lady when she came to the northwest, but everything was being shoehorned in around school or, later, starting my career as a cartoonist.
Every sailor I’ve spoken to about the comics loves them, which is the sweetest and best thing.
I won’t lie that I have some anxiety about putting this out as a proper book collection, because the readership will grow wildly and I may get a load of people coming in to tell me that I’ve got all my facts wrong.
Fact-checking generations of oral tradition and hearsay can be, uh… a little tricky.
CA: So, with the book — you did a bunch of minicomics about tall ships. Are they fiction? Auto-bio? Historical?
LB: A messy blend of all three! Haha.
The series started as a short comic about how I got into tall ship sailing, and some of my first impressions from being aboard.
As I started adding more issues, it became a platform to document some of the neatest things I’d learned while sailing — traditional nautical tattoos, weird sailors tools and terms, etc.
In Issue #4 I capitulated and did a pirate-based story about the facts on “walking the plank” which, as I had long suspected, wasn’t nearly as popular or practical a method of execution as many suppose.
Then Jim Mockford, a friend to the Lady Washington and a maritime historian in his own right, proposed collaborating on a historical anecdote about the original Lady Washington, so we got to do a bit of a tone shift for that.
It’s been pretty varied, but I’ve really enjoyed it as a path to figuring out how best to make this a more extensive series.
There’s still so many topics to cover.
CA: What is it like to combine the two things you’re seemingly most interested in into one project?
Okay serious answer: it makes a lot of sense to me. I can’t bring myself to make comics about stuff that doesn’t keep me up at night.
And every time someone says, “Wow that’s such a, uh, niche market. There must not be a lot of folks who wanna hear about that” and I say, “Are you kidding?” because sailors (who are mostly huge nerds) are generally thrilled to see what they do accurately reflected in a medium that doesn’t normally acknowledge their existence. And the general public are fascinated by the idea that you can still actually do this stuff in the 21st century.
I think that’s where the autobio element really sells it — I’ve been there. It happened to me. That means people approach it as something they could really do.
The Lady’s sail training program doesn’t require prior experience, it’s not impossibly expensive, it’s all possible.
CA: I mean, sailing isn’t my “thing” but I’m plenty obsessed with history (mostly the roles of women between 1770 and 1930) and I think that a lot of “geeks” are too.
LB: And that was totally what drew me in to the pirate thing, too — clinging to whatever scraps of female pirate history I could find.
CA: And I would absolutely go live as a pioneer in a log cabin for a few months if I could and still survive.
LB: There must be a program for that somewhere!
CA: Main problem being requiring the internet to make money to pay bills.
LB: Aren’t there reality shows about that? Where a family goes and lives all old timey for a month?
CA: Yes, there are!
LB: I mean that’d be the worst possible way, probably, buuuut.
This is the thing that I find scary about going back to sea now!
So much of my job is ‘The Internet’.
All the time.
CA: But like, I think there’s a much larger set of people — particularly avid readers — who are really into history and stories about history framed with modern context than anyone would expect.
I mean I’ll listen to anyone talk about most anything if they’re excited and knowledgeable about it.
CA: And you are quite obviously excited and knowledgeable about this. You’re running this Kickstarter to fund a print collection of these minicomics you’ve done.
LB: Haha oh right comics man now I’m just thinking about sailing.
Yes. A book. I’m making a book. My first, shockingly.
CA: Are you secretly going to take all this Kickstarter money and run away to the high seas?
LB: I did think about that.
I’ve got a lot of fans pushing for me to buy a boat and take them for a ride. That’s…probably not going to happen.
I mean it’s Kickstarter; everything’s possible.
CA: I imagine a boat, especially a boat like that, costs more than $15,000.
LB: Ooooh yeah. And the upkeep is where you’ll really go broke.
Honestly I’m amazed Grays Harbor Historical Seaport (the nonprofit that owns the Lady and Chieftain) can keep running. It’s a close thing a lot of the time.
CA: Much like comics, I assume it becomes a labor of love, not a labor of rolling around in all the money you made?
LB: Totally. There’s not a lot of common ground between someone’s shiny white plastic luxury yacht and an old leaky wooden boat.
CA: So back to comics. Haha. Tell me about the Kickstarter. And what you’re going to use the money on that’s not a boat.
LB: In addition to definitely not buying a boat, I’m putting together my very first book with a spine. The campaign will (at least right now) cover printing 2,000 copies of a 100-ish-page collection featuring all the current issues of Baggywrinkles plus a new issue on the history of scurvy.
Since we keep blasting through stretch goals, the book will also be in color, which I’m kind of in shock about. I’ve got Joey Weiser and Michele Chidester standing by to color the whole book.
CA: That’s awesome! And you want to make this an ongoing thing, right? Since there’s so much left to make comics about?
LB: I’m notoriously flighty about committing to a single comics project — I love being able to bounce around from topic to topic, so I may not be starting the weekly series, Oh Joy, Boat Buoy, anytime soon (though Erika Moen and I have joked about it), but I definitely have more Baggywrinkles comics in me.
Also I feel like I’ve finally got a handle on how I want the series to go, content- and style-wise.
I averaged about an issue a year in-between all the other work I was doing, so right now the series feels a little scattered to me — there’s some big leaps in skill from #1-6.
Starting a Patreon last year has also really changed the landscape of my comics life. I’m making enough that doing a bi-weekly strip is actually something that could be possible for me now.
That’s intensely heartening.
CA: I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, but I think crowdfunding (particularly Kickstarter and Patreon) has really changed the indie comics landscape.
LB: I’m trying really hard not to just throw down the caps lock and bellow about how incredible I think it is right now.
But really, it’s an incredible time to be coming up in comics. Everything is changing so fast and there’s so much that wouldn’t have been possible for me just ten years ago.
I got into this because of seeing webcomics ladies like Erika Moen and Danielle Corsetto publishing their own stuff without anyone telling them they didn’t have a right to be there.
That seemed like a normal, feasible (albeit terrifying) model to me.
CA: It eliminates any gatekeepers and goes straight to the audience.
LB: Totally! And without crowdfunding (for my first comics project), I wouldn’t have had the courage to dive straight into freelancing right out of college.
It’s a game-changer when people go from saying, “Oh you’re such a good artist oh this is so pretty oh you’re really good,” to shouting, “Shut up and take my money“.
I still remember the shock of that first Kickstarter, when it was still mostly friends and acquaintances rather than “an audience.” Like, some of these people barely knew me. And they were giving me tens of dollars.
CA: Something I don’t think people talk about enough, though, is that running a crowdfunding campaign is a lot of work. It’s not just “make comics = get money,” but a lot of balancing customer service and finances and things like that. You mentioned you’re dedicating a lot of time to this right now.
LB: Absolutely. It’s been my full-time job for the last two months. I’m not even joking. And Patreon made that possible! Without the support of my Patrons I would’ve been juggling this around freelance illustration work to keep myself afloat.
But yeah, I think it’s also not a mechanism to “get an audience.”
CA: Right, it’s hard to fund something if you don’t already have at least a few people out there who know of you.
LB: I always tell people that they need to have some kind of network before they show up. And if they don’t they need to make a hell of a case for why their product is worth investing in.
CA: I’m sure people look at Kickstarters and think people are asking for a lot of money — assuming that $15,000 is a lot to print a graphic novel — when in fact given the amount of work that goes into it and the costs associated, it’s very little really.
LB: I put a ton of energy into the video for my first Kickstarter, and I had a really strong community of social dancers in Portland who rallied around me and funded the campaign, which got it onto the Staff Pick radar. Many, many people who discovered me through that campaign told me they’d only backed it because the video was so compelling.
But that first campaign was aimed at… $1200? Something really small. It felt like a fortune to me at the time. And I was totally nervous coming back asking for $15k this time around, even though I know that’s what it takes. Also I was a wee Kickstarter babby last time and didn’t budget for taxes or shipping supplies or any of that crap, so it was good that I overfunded.
I learned so much.
CA: You’ve hit your stretch goal to do full color, but does that change your timeline? When do you expect the full book to be done?
LB: Joey and Michele are pretty speedy workers, and we’re going for a fairly simple “look” in the comic, so I’m guessing it won’t add a ton of time. I deliberately set the book’s ship date for February 2016 because I know how these things can go wrong.
Books are coming from China, proofs need to get checked, paper samples decided on, blah blah blah. There’s a ton of work still to be done, but a lot of it is administrative.
So I don’t think the ship date will change, but I’ll definitely be spending a couple more months getting everything wrapped up and looking pretty.
The convention debut will definitely happen at Emerald City next year, so March for sure. I can’t wait.
CA: So once this is done, what’s next for you?
LB: Five years is enough time to get really sick of mini comics, haha.
That’s my goal. I want to be putting out new comics twice a month. And one of those will probably be Baggywrinkles-related and the other will be whatever’s grabbing my interest that week, but I think it’s high time I started holding myself to a more regular schedule.
I do have an inter-generational story kicking around in the back of my mind that I may put a pitch together for, but honestly these short stories are a ton of fun for me right now, so I want to pursue that for a while and see where it goes.