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Under the Banner of King Death is a recent graphic-novel adaptation of one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Villains of All Nations by Marcus Rediker. It takes a few liberties with history but conveys the primary themes of the source material: namely, that Atlantic piracy of the 1600s and 1700s was a labor revolt against intolerable conditions for the working sailor, that the ruling class would rather hang revolutionaries by the neck until they are dead than give up one cent of profit, and that the pirates formed their own democratic, multicultural societies while having no illusions that their pursuit of freedom would not result in their deaths.

Rediker’s introduction to the tale summarizes these main points from his own book—one of many of his works that give greater insights into the values, lives, and torturous working conditions of these historical sailors who were horrifically abused by naval commanders and experienced first-hand the deplorable conditions of the Atlantic slave trade. The afterword by Paul Buhle discusses the depiction of pirates in popular fiction, and I was pleased to see it give several shouts-out to the EC Comics series Piracy I recently reviewed.

Between those pages lies some adventurous artwork that might be too scratchy for mainstream tastes but succeeds in conveying the brutality of the pirates’ lives. David Lester employs a number of techniques to de-glamorize every aspect of piracy that has been “Disney-fied” over the years. For example, he will take an act of violence that could be presented in one panel, but cut the panel into pieces so there’s no way we could think it looks “cool” or “awesome”. Even when he uses traditional panels, they often overlap so that foreground and background bleed into each other, despite panel borders.

The result is a tale that captures both the misery and the nobility of raging against the machine in an age of corporate tyranny where labor is utterly de-valued and profit reigns supreme—an age that in many ways remains unchanged.

My only problem with the tale is its inaccuracies in depicting the life of Mary Read. From all historical accounts, she was indeed a fighter and brawler and one hell of a pirate. Although this story borrows details from her life, she is heavily fictionalized to serve the narrative’s purpose. Her true story is fascinating enough without being substantially altered, and I don’t know why Rediker allowed this adaptation to take such great liberties when his books are noteworthy for their historically accurate accounts.

Still, despite its fictionalization of documented events, Under the Banner of King Death captures the spirit of piracy and the central ideas that Rediker’s books on the subject illuminate in greater detail. As an adaptation, it does a remarkable job of bringing the realities of Atlantic piracy to life.

To a merry life.

Collector’s Guide: This graphic novel is currently available in print at MyComicShop and in print and digital on Amazon