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Despite my long-standing affection for EC Comics, I was unaware of their pirate stories until I recently read the massive, epic, hardcover tome The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood, Volume 1. Wallace—who apparently hated the nickname “Wally” and preferred for his friends to call him “Woody”—drew two stories for EC’s seven-issue pirate series. Its full title is Sagas of the Sea, Ships, Plunder, and PIRACY!

The title is apropos because not all the stories are about the classic Atlantic Pirates. The gritty tale Nazi U-Boat, for example, features artwork by the legendary Bernard Krigstein, and The Dive depicts a modern man on an ill-advised mission to find a galleon with sunken treasure. Some stories involve the Atlantic slave trade, complete with EC’s editorial insistence on exposing the evils of racism.

By destroying others, you will destroy yourselves!

The result is a spicy mix of seafaring murder and mayhem, mutinies, miscarriages of justice, beatings, bashings, bloodshed, and brutality. On the first page of the first issue, EC’s introduction makes it crystal-clear that these aren’t cuddly, romanticized, Disney-style tales where pirates are glamorous, good-hearted heroes. These adventures are down-and-dirty explorations of dastardly deeds and the depraved depths of an ocean much darker than the sea itself: man’s inhumanity to man. PIRACY promises to present pirates as they really were.

Well, hell yeah, baby! Sign me up! That’s my kind of story!

Man’s inhumanity to man! ‘Tis a sickenin’ and frightenin’ thing!

The collected PIRACY does a damn good job of delivering on that initial promise. The hyper-dramatic prose is among the best I’ve read from EC’s writers, and what stylistic quibbles I have with it as an editor are more than made up for by combining it with consistently awesome artwork. You can get away with a bit too much “telling” in prose when it is married to pictures that do the heavy lifting of “showing”. And even though long-time fans of EC will be able to predict some of the “shock” endings of EC’s often-imitated, last-minute twists, there were many final moments I did not see coming.

Thousands of starving rats!

But as relentlessly unforgiving as these stories tend to be, do they truly show us pirates “as they really were”? The answer is: sometimes. The cliché of “walking the plank” is trotted out several times, but that trope has been discredited in scholarly works such as David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag.

And the story featuring both Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet is a complete fabrication that absolutely butchers the historical record. Stede Bonnet, whose tale is told at length in the General History of the Pyrates, was a rare exception to a statement I made a couple of years ago: “No one rich ever became a pirate.” The main detail EC got right about Stede is that he was a fairly well-to-do guy who just thought being a pirate would be fun or something. Every other aspect of his collaboration with Blackbeard and eventual death is, in the EC version, totally wrong. The EC version of Jean Laffite is also mostly imaginary, especially regarding the end of his life, despite referencing a few historical events and places.

The decks surged with the violence of combat!

One other curious thing. Despite the gory prose, the illustrations are completely bloodless. People constantly get shot, stabbed, crushed to death, and subjected to all forms of physical horrors, but the illustrations avoid depicting any blood. It’s an odd choice, and not one I understand. Perhaps even EC needed to draw some kind of line to avoid the censorship that would eventually snuff out the company’s life anyway.

The blood-crazed plunderers leaped aboard!

These minor shortcomings in depicting the reality of the classical pirates’ lives don’t make the PIRACY series any less enthralling. The collected volume presents captivating tales of triumph and tragedy with thoughtfully reconstructed colors, and the ebook version will let you zoom in panel-by-panel for a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

Collector’s Guide: The print version is currently going for around $100, but you can easily get the digital collection for $14. Hardcore pirates can try collecting the hard-to-find original single issues or plunder the more-often in-stock Gemstone reprints.