"Under The Banner of King Death" puts pirates in their place — in the history of workers' rights

Folklore and mythology have always mixed fact and fiction. But we're all fortunate (or not) to exist in a time when our access to folklore and mythology — really, our entire cultural presentation of history — is most accessible through corporatized media franchises. And corporatism (vis a vis colonialism) means the stories that we're getting — the mythologies thrust upon us at impressionable ages — are neither fully representative of historical fact, nor rooted in the needs of the common people like other oral traditions.

Now let's talk about some fuckin' pirates.

Under The Banner of King Death is a new graphic novel adaptation of Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, a non-fiction pirate history book by acclaimed historian Marcus Rediker. Illustrated by David Lester, Under The Banner of King Death smartly transforms Rediker's history lesson into a tightly-focused, character-driven adventure. I assume it's slightly fictionalized, but it feels accurate to the broader ideas of Rediker's book (or at least, the part I've read of it). Which is to say: what if the real-life pirates of the 18th century Caribbean were actually one of the earliest models of the workers' rights movement?

Building off of Rediker's history, Lester introduces readers to John Gwin, a Black man who escaped slavery in South Carolina; Ruby Decker, a working class white seaman from Amsterdam; and Mark Reed, a white American who — mild spoiler for dead people from history — is actually a woman who's been living in drag to order to work on ships and have more freedom than she otherwise would have been granted as some man's property. Right of the bat, this is an intriguing cast — much more diverse than the pirate stories that you're used to, but in a way that feels natural, and frankly, more realistic, given what we actually know about the Triangle Trade Industry in the Atlantic Ocean.

John, Ruby, and Mark aren't off seeking gold and sunken treasure. They're just sick of being mistreated. They want to put in a hard day's work, and be compensated fairly, without fear of being lashed by the snooty captain of the ship in his stupid wig and frock. Over drinks, they discuss their frustrations with their working conditions, and realize that there's strength in numbers. If they can build solidarity with the rest of crew — hell, even those African prisoners in the cargo bay, en route to being sold as property — what if they all stood up together, and told the Captain they weren't taking any more of his shit, and also, they wanted better pay?

Emboldened by the barroom rumors of similar working class uprisings, our trio makes their move, staging a mutiny and commandeering the ship. The bulk of the black-and-white graphic novel focuses on what happens next, as they try to build their own anarcho-communist society on the sea. The crew learns how to make decisions through direct democracy — which of course, includes some struggles — and agrees to split things more evenly. No one's looking for treasure; they just want to survive, and enjoy life, in exchange for some labor. When attack other ships, it's usually for one of two reasons: to liberate Africans who have sold into slavery, or to get some supplies. As far as these pirates are concerned, the captains of these "legitimate" ships are all corrupt, greedy bosses anyway. They abuse their crews and exploit the resources of indigenous people, so it's fair game to treat them just like they treat other people.

This, of course, as an affront to the self-important bureaucrats of European colonizers. These be-wigged bastards believe in rules, you see — in law and order, I say! But history has shown, most of those "laws" were just little scraps of paper created specifically to justify horrible atrocities, and punish anyone who tries to push back. Pirates may have a reputation for being these debased, immoral savages — but that reputation only exists to help the bosses keep their workers in line. Sure, they engage in wage theft, whipping, and literal slavery — but that's different from those savage, race-mixing pirates, reveling in the pleasures of life.

And so, like all workers' rights movements, Under The Banner of King Death is a tale that inevitably heads towards a confrontation between the workers, and the enforcement arm of the bosses and landlords (aka, the cops). This goes about as well as it usually does. But that's what makes this such an interesting story: realizing how much more you and me and every Starbucks worker has in common with these pirates than with the so-called legitimate sea captains, who will whip and lash you 'til the profit's in the black.

Overall, Under The Banner of King Death is a quick, fun read that twists the conventions of pirate stories into some fascinating ways. The ending draws some parallels that are particularly poignant, if you've ever had to fight for rights in the workplace, or in society. Lester's sketchy artwork is simple enough to carry you through the story, while sparking just enough synapses that your mind fills in the bigger, brighter pictures. There a few points where the artwork gets a little muddled, but ultimately, none of it took away from my understanding of the story; even if I couldn't tell who specifically did X thing, I still got enough of the gist to keep going.

Pirate solidarity!

Under the Banner of King Death: Pirates of the Atlantic, a Graphic Novel [David Lester and Marcus Rediker with Peter Buhle / Beacon Press]