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How We Brought the Radical History of Pirates to Life

David Lester, image courtesy Beacon Press

The term graphic novel was first coined by artist Will Eisner for his 1978 book A Contract with God, a series of short graphic stories about impoverished Jews living in a tenement in New York City.

In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s genre-defining Maus: A Survivor’s Tale won a Pulitzer Prize. Maus was referred to as a graphic novel despite being non-fiction, in part to distinguish Maus from the generally short form of sequential art known as comics and to give legitimacy, commercially and intellectually, to an art form that had a somewhat lowbrow reputation. Graphic novel now refers to any kind of book of sequential art, whether it is a novel or non-fiction work.

The graphic novel form has power to communicate in ways that traditional history books do not by removing barriers for potential readers who find history boring or intimidating. In the case of wordless graphic novels, readers of all backgrounds, education, and language can engage.

I have spoken to high school teachers who said that some of their students are increasingly unable to read longer texts, like books. But young people do have a sophisticated understanding of visuals and text. Educators have found students are extremely receptive to graphic novels and their use is now essential in the process of teaching. These students will be the future activists, the future union leaders, the future voters. A lot rides on the power of graphic novels.

The story

Under the Banner of King Death: Pirates of the Atlantic, A Graphic Novel explores the subculture and resistance of early eighteenth-century pirates and how they created a democracy onboard their ships. The pirates voted on who would hold ranks and other major decisions. This was at a time when poor people in the world did not have any right to vote. All plunder, food and drink were shared equally. The actions of the pirates were nothing short of a revolutionary challenge to the reigning social order. Unlike life as an ordinary sailor, pirates generally treated each other with dignity and respect.

Under the Banner of King Death features John Gwin, an enslaved African American who escaped bondage from a plantation in South Carolina, Ruben Dekker, a seaman of lowly of birth from Amsterdam and Mary Reed, a working-class American woman who dressed as a man.

These three became pirates and experienced a democracy that they would never have known as regular sailors. News of their dangerous experiment reached the men of property in London who decided that all pirates must be wiped out. The clever and ruthless Captain Snelgrave was assigned the task of tracking down and annihilating the pirates.

Writing the script

The process of writing Under the Banner of King Death began with Marcus Rediker’s detailed outline of the story based on his book Villains of All Nations. I broke down the outline into scenes much like a film script. I sent my draft script to Rediker and Paul Buhle, an historian with a body of work in graphic novels, who was acting as an adviser and editor. They responded with text and structural changes. The script went back and forth between us over the course of a few months.

The script reflected an approach to telling history known as “history from below,” which is defined as the narratives and perspectives of common people, the oppressed and the marginalized, rather than the ruling class.

It was important to convey that sailors became pirates in resistance to life on merchant and naval ships that involved deadly working conditions, cruelty, rotting food, starvation, and the brutality of the captain.

Historical research was constant during the writing of the script, particularly, questions of how people spoke in the 18th century.

After the script was finalized, my partner Wendy Atkinson and I acted it out to test the flow of the text, particularly the dialogue. It was extremely instructive to say the words out loud.

Visual research

Visual research involved finding out how people dressed in the 18th century, from the working class to the ruling class, lawyers, merchants, clergy, soldiers, sailors, and of course pirates. What did people eat, smoke and drink? What songs did they sing, how did they dance? What were taverns and coffee houses like?

I examined how pirates have been depicted over the last 300 years. Thanks to Paul Buhle I discovered the pirate art of Howard Pyle, who lived from 1854 to 1911. Pyle was known as the Father of American Illustration. I also studied the Piracy comic series published by EC in the 1950s, and films on pirates from the silent, sound and color eras. I did avoid Johnny Depp movies.

Drawing the book

I approached drawing Under the Banner of King Death with the idea of taking the reader to the 18th century. Most of my work in graphic novels has involved telling gritty, social justice history and for that I’ve used a raw, rough drawing technique that reflects the content.

For the art, I used watercolor paint, with brushes, pencils and pens. In some cases I cut up the drawings, reassembling them in a way that disrupts the static nature of a drawing on a page. My aim was to achieve a sense of movement.

I often looked at the work of Kathe Kollwitz and the murals of Diego Rivera before I started drawing for the day. But ultimately my raw art takes a punk rock approach much like an extended distorted chord. Just as the sound of that chord bleeds outward, so does the ink bleed across the page on to the next page and the next page.

One of my methods in the process of making a graphic novel is to make clay sculptures of characters, and even scale models of locations. These miniature versions help enormously for drawing by allowing me to try out multiple angles and shadows using a flashlight as a means to control the light source.

But in the case of Under The Banner of King Death, one of the main characters is an 18th century galleon. So, it seemed logical to build one. I found a suitable scale model kit of a galleon but this kit was listed as, frighteningly, Level 5 -- the highest level of complexity and difficulty. I hadn’t built a model since I was a 10-year-old, so this was a bit of a stretch. My partner Wendy agreed to help as she'd always wanted to build models when she was a girl, but curse those damn gender roles.

Thousands of pieces were assembled, glued and painted. Wendy became an expert at the painstaking work of threading the rigging using a trick she learned from sewing. It took us seven months to complete (in the 18th century, we could have sailed across the Atlantic in that time).

Having a scale model was indispensable in creating drawings from multiple angles that I couldn’t find in other sources. It also gave me a feel spatially for what it must have been like to live in that wooden world.

Does this book matter?

In a world of increasing authoritarianism, Under the Banner of King Death has an exceedingly contemporary and relevant story to tell. It’s an inspiring reminder of a time when those on the bottom fought back and achieved, against all odds, a democracy, if only for a short time. Under the Banner of King Death is rebellion in action, and one that activists can heed as the fight against exploitation continues 300 years later.

As Marcus Rediker pointed out, pirates were “thinkers and doers who saw that another world was possible.” Pirates show us that social justice and resistance to tyranny is not new, but has a long powerful history.