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
Reading The Hunter sheds light on how much Donald Westlake’s series of Parker novels influenced the ultra-gritty Sin City series by Frank Miller. It seems fair to say that the style of Sin City also influenced Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of its predecessor, bringing it all full-circle.
For example, Cooke sometimes fills a page with a single image and a column of narration on the side, something Miller often did, especially in the first Sin City volume The Hard Goodbye, and which John Byrne later parodied in She-Hulk.
Cooke also shows a fondness for the BAM sound effect rendered in blocky lettering when a pistol fires.
It’s a classic sound that brings to mind Miller’s iconic pages from the sixth issue of The Hard Goodbye where the sound effect becomes the frames for the action, and it reminds us that Westlake’s Parker and Miller’s Marv are cut from the same cloth.
If you crave stories with empowered women, then Parker isn’t for you. Parker’s world is a man’s world. Women are trotted onstage mostly for sex and betrayal. In Cooke’s four volumes, the woman with the most agency and initiative is Alma in The Outfit, since she sets up the heist while having her own secret plans. She wants to be a femme fatale, but her treachery does not end well for her.
Despite depicting a few variations on the female form, Cooke seems to have a default idea about what a beautiful woman looks like, and the faces of women in The Hunter often resemble faces he’s drawn before in his superhero comics. The face of the woman who betrayed Parker could easily be Cooke’s Wonder Woman or Catwoman, and that makes her feel a bit generic.
Oddly, that works for The Hunter, because Westlake built the story around characters who don’t run very deep—whether male or female. They are more like archetypal examples of the tropes of hard-boiled detective and crime fiction, as if they are so primal to the genre that they need little exploration. The Hunter is unconcerned with delving into what makes them unique, remaining entirely focused on the relentless advance of the revenge plot. If you want well-rounded female characters with depth and agency, go read some Greg Rucka or Gail Simone stories—because it ain’t happening in Parker!
This criticism didn’t stop me from being totally caught up in the story. What I love about Cooke’s adaptation of The Hunter is how he chooses when to tell the story wordlessly and when to deliver exposition. We get some narration and one brief line of dialogue on the first page, and then nearly twenty-five pages of story told without a single word or sound effect. But in those wordless pages, all the action is so clear, expressive, and compelling that it comes as a shock when words once again appear on the page.
I also love how Cooke’s stripped-down approach to visuals honors Westlake’s stripped-down approach to prose for Parker. Compared to Westlake’s more lighthearted Dortmunder novels, the sentences in the Parker series are much leaner and tighter. Cooke’s artwork echoes that with a kind of minimalism, a simplicity that only conveys the bare essence of details to create the mood and tell the story. Panels lack borders, and thick shadows and bright light do almost all the work of defining images without lines. Cooke might depict the ironwork on a bridge by only inking its shadows and never drawing the outline of the overall shapes. While I love the detailed linework of artists such as Juan Jose Ryp, Geoff Darrow, or Steve McNiven, Cooke creates compelling environments and people using light, shadow, and monochromatic midtones.
The Outfit relies entirely on purple, and The Score uses a warm, dirty yellow that suits the setting in a hot desert mining town. While Sin City did something similar in a few volumes, those colors were more like occasional highlights than Cooke’s creative midtones.
It would have been fun to see another volume in red. The end of the fourth volume did promise another return of Parker. Sadly, Cooke was taken from us by cancer in 2016 at only fifty-three years old, and we never saw a fifth Parker adaptation.
Volumes two through four had interesting moments. The Outfit abruptly interrupts the established visual style to insert a series of explanations about a series of crimes. We get a multi-page newspaper article about a casino robbery, cartoon guides to horse-race gambling and smuggling cash on airplane flights to pay for heroin, and several pages of how to operate an illegal “numbers” betting operation. Everything I previously knew about “numbers running” came from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, so it was interesting to get Westlake’s rundown on these vintage illegal enterprises.
The fourth and final volume, Slayground, traps Parker in an abandoned amusement park where he comes up with clever ways to use the environment against gangsters who want his money from a job he narrowly escaped. One of his ideas is spraying a blob of paint on every surface in the hall of mirrors, then luring someone in. I’ve seen so many hall-of-mirrors scenes in movies that I hoped to never see one again, but this was a brilliant take that restored my faith in reflective surfaces.
Slayground also delivers powerful moments of cinematic, wordless storytelling such as a four-panel page of a car we just saw lose control on the icy roads on the previous page, and now goes tumbling over our heads into the distance. You can almost feel the impact.
But of all four tales, my favorite is the first: a relentless revenge over a double-cross that made a heist go horribly wrong. It’s harder than hard-boiled and blacker than noir, a morally vacant tale about a repulsive protagonist who gets the job done with his hands.
It’s no spoiler to tell you that Parker makes it out of The Hunter alive. Westlake wrote twenty-four of these novels, and Cooke adapted four. At this point, you go into the series knowing the stakes are not life-or-death for Parker.
That does lower the dramatic tension. If you know the main character can’t be killed, then that lowers your investment in his success. In a series such as Sin City or Criminal, where individual stories are told out of order, a character might very well meet their end in any particular episode—and often does. Investment is high. You never know what’s coming next.
With Parker, we know he is unstoppable. The fun comes not from wondering whether he will live or die, but discovering how he bends circumstances to his will no matter what life throws at him. Parker’s world is a grim place, and he is not a role model nor even likeable. But he is enjoyable as an immovable object in a world of irresistible forces, or maybe the other way around. He possesses a singular focus and physical strength, and a superior insight into his amoral world of crime, lies, and power that helps him make it out alive—and, if he’s lucky, with a bit of money in his pocket.
Collector’s Guide: You can currently get the complete four-volume set of Cooke’s Parker adaptations in digital format for about $40 through Kindle/Comixology. Each volume was also printed in hardcover and paperback editions.
This is the second time a book published by DC Comics has broken the rules and earned a place in my indie short box. This time, it’s Metalzoic by the legendary team of Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, and there’s not much about it you can call “mainstream”. Metalzoic takes place in a future where the Earth is ruled by intelligent, mechanical beasts patterned after modern and prehistoric animals — and boy, do they love to fight!
Yes, you just witnessed a brutal showdown between a gorilla with a saw blade on his head, and a lion with a chainsaw for a tongue and metal skis for feet. Do I really need to say anything about the story’s plot, or is that cool enough for you? Two of my favorite pages show a shark attacking a caravan of wooly mammoths during a trek across the ice.
It’s like some sort of psychotic nature special! I can almost hear David Attenborough narrating it for a BBC documentary.
O’Neill always delivers wonderfully twisted artwork, but he pulls out all the stops to illustrate Metalzoic‘s endless mecha-menagerie.
The story is interesting, especially since the main character — the saw-blade gorilla — is a brutal, amoral hell-raiser whose brawn and ferocity might be the only thing standing between the Earth and total destruction.
And just look at him go!
When all this takes place and how it came to be are slowly revealed throughout the story. We don’t get a clear timeline until about 50 pages in. It might have been helpful to see a historic summary earlier in the story, so here it is.
If you’re like me, and you wish Godzilla movies would cut out most of the human-related nonsense and just show more monster fights, then this 64-page epic adventure is the book for you!
Collector’s Guide:Metalzoic; DC Comics Graphic Novel #6, 1986. Though it’s often out of stock at MyComicShop, you can usually find it on Amazon for between $15 and $30.
T. Rex Generations stars four young rexes we meet under the watchful eyes of their parents as they hatch from eggs. In their youth, the rexes learn to survive, scavenge, and hunt. They meet a beautifully illustrated assortment of cretaceous creatures they must battle or escape. Author and artist Ted Rechlin creates even more dramatic page and panel layouts than in his 2017 brontosaurus book, which makes for great fight scenes. And in a world of monsters just as fierce as they are, not every rex will survive.
This book will delight dinosaur enthusiasts and comic book fans, and though it has a lot of physical conflict, it isn’t graphic or gory. Adults and kids can enjoy this all-ages action-packed story together.
My dislikes are mostly minor details: seeing the same double-splash page of empty landscape repeated where more story pages would be welcome; anachronistic phrases such as “so the siblings ease off the gas” that seem out of place millions of years before cars; and a couple spots of clunky exposition such as saying “as was previously noted…” when repeating something from a few pages prior.
My only major concern: why do the young rexes not get named until the final page? Characters we care about in a story usually get identified by name right away, and the parent rexes are identified just after the babies hatch. It isn’t clear why the younger rexes don’t get names until late in their adolescence, unless we see their climactic edmontosaurus kill as a rite of passage into adulthood. But even though a caption describes that as a “first kill”, it seems more likely that a predatory reptile who has been larger than a pickup truck for years has killed more than a few things. After a wild romp in the cretaceous, the last page left me with more confusion than conclusion.
None of that stopped me from enjoying this adventurous addition to my library of dinosaur books and comics. T. Rex Generations is a fun read and a joy to look at. The full-page and two-page illustrations of the rexes and dakotaraptor, edmontosaurus, and ankylosaurus would make great prints or posters.
Even though retail prices have come down from their 1990s peaks on Amazing Spider-man issues by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane, collecting them all could still put a big dent in your wallet. Those readers on a sacred mission to collect every issue of Amazing Spider-man will overcome this challenge. The rest of us wouldn’t mind having them collected in three trade paperbacks.
Marvel complicated things by publishing the three paperbacks under two different banners. Readers searching in databases at retailers or libraries might find one, but not the other. Let us clear things up for you.
The first of the three is under the “Visionaries” banner. You can find many good stories from Marvel’s flagship characters in various Visionaries collections. The Todd MacFarlane one includes Amazing Spider-man #298-305, notable for taking Spidey’s black suit from the first Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars and bonding it to Eddie Brock to create Venom. Spider-man Visionaries Todd McFarlane #1 is listed at MyComicShop and Amazon.
Marvel then moved the series over to the “Marvel Legends” banner. The first of the two Marvel Legends collects Amazing Spider-man #306-314, plus a story from Spectacular Spider-man Annual #10 with McFarlane art. This one may be our favorite of the series. We can’t find it at MyComicShop, but it is listed correctly on Amazon despite not having the right cover currently.
Marvel wrapped it up with a second Legends collection that includes Amazing Spider-man #315-323, #325, and #328. Although the listing on Amazon doesn’t have the right cover at the time of this post, it is the right book.
The collections are an enjoyable romp through Spidey’s rogues’ gallery, with drama, humor, and interesting developments in the lives of newlyweds Mary Jane Watson-Parker and her wall-crawling hubby. Michelinie breaks with the “hard-luck hero” tradition of Spidey. Peter Parker marries an incredibly fun, smart, super-model. He gets famous for his Spider-man photos in the Daily Bugle and goes on a book-signing tour. Peter and Mary Jane move into a nice place. They have some money for a change, and even Aunt May has a cool boyfriend now. This was a fresh approach to the character at the time. It reminded us that even though Parker has lots of bad luck, he still totally kicks ass.
Spidey looks great zipping through these books in a mass of webs with a look McFarlane seems to have invented. The webs have since been copied, but we don’t recall ever seeing anyone draw Spidey’s webs like McFarlane before these books.
The creative team brought back one of our favorite Spidey supporting characters: the Prowler. In the Prowler’s claws, mask, and swirling cape, you might be witnessing McFarlane get the ideas for his Spawn character worked out on the page in these Spidey stories.
The following bonus “pin-up” was also printed as a postcard by Marvel, and we’ve always loved this image.
Venom’s gleeful sadism and obvious mental illness are good signs he might be a keeper as a Spidey villain.
Another nut job and total loser from Spidey’s gallery of bad guys shows up: the Scorpion. The Scorpion never looked so awesome as he did in this story. Spidey must rescue J. Jonah Jameson from the guy in green armored tights with a fatal tail. It’s a hoot.
Spidey looks pretty awesome crouching in the snow in a graveyard.
And that’s all the photos we had time to snap before selling these wonderful books on eBay. We read them not long after they first came out, in their original single issue form. It was fun to read through them again and enjoy them in these collections. It’s a good chunk of Spidey stories that deserves a place on even a casual Spidey collector’s shelf.
IDW has lately been reprinting the earliest and original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics from the 1980s. Back in the 80s, prices of first prints of the original comics skyrocketed, and they still retain a fairly high collector’s value. In response to their limited availability to all but the wealthiest collectors, First Publishing produced four, full-color, oversized graphic novels from the original black-and-white stories.
The unique and gritty visual style of Eastman and Laird’s reptilian martial artists comes through even in color. First did a wonderfully professional job on this production. They wisely included the Leonardo one-shot, since its story leads right up to the events of issue #10. And, First thoughtfully preserved the dramatic three-page fold out from issue #10. We have scans of the original black and white pages in our archives for comparison.
All of the splash pages look great, and the binding and paper quality of these turtle tomes remains evident decades later. From the first issue to the battle with Triceratons in space to the hilarious Cerebus crossover, all of the Turtles earliest adventures rock hard in this graphic novel format.
Let us offer a few suggestions for those seeking some high-quality Turtles reprints. You can still find copies of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TPB by First in stock at reasonable prices ($10-$15 for a Fine copy,) though you may need to go to eBay to get a complete set all at once! IDW printed the stories in single issues in full color as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Color Classics, but it seems they left out the Leonardo one-shot to include issue #11 which more or less wraps up Eastman & Laird’s original plot line.
A second volume of color classics reprints some excellent adventures from the subsequent stories, including a reprint of the glorious Return to New York storyline this spring. Those who want these stories in black and white should get the excellent seven-volume Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Collected Book produced by Mirage in the 1990s. IDW more recently gave us The Ultimate Collection in hardcover which wisely includes the one-shots from the 80s as well as the original title.
Despite the availability of recent reprints, the old ones have held onto their collector’s value due to their limited runs and high production values. The First Publishing collection also gives you a much larger page size than, say, Mirage’s normal-zized Collected Book reprints.
IDW has much to gain by reprinting these collectible issues, but they also do readers a great service by keeping these classics in print. We sold both the First TPB set and the Collected Book set on eBay last year, but you can bet we would like another copy of Return to New York in our hands before all this is over!