William S. Burroughs begins his novel Cities of the Red Night, the first book of his Western Lands Trilogy, by describing a pirate alliance and anarchist governance in the Caribbean. In that introduction, he writes about a certain Captain Mission. Burroughs quotes from Don C. Seitz’s text Under the Black Flag and the Captain’s mission to “better adjust the affairs of mankind…..”(xi) Burroughs describes the ship of Captain Mission, its governance as a self-directed democracy, the solidarity the crew received and offered to the enslaved and oppressed throughout the world, and the brutal reaction of national governments of all kinds to the pirate utopia they had created on an island off the coast of Madagascar. Beginning with this excerpt Burroughs continues, doing one of the things he did best; he considered this pirate democracy and in that fictional trilogy pushed it to the psychedelic fantasies of and beyond human possibilities.
Marcus Rediker wrote further on this in his text Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Both a fascinating history and a sociopolitical explication of the reasons sailors became pirates and how they organized themselves once the brigandry had begun, Rediker begins his story with a description of the hanging of pirate John Fry in Boston in 1726. Defiant to his end–not even Cotton Mather could make him repent his deeds. After Fry rejected the Christian preacher’s demands he apologize for his attacks on the wealth of the merchant class, Mather and his class collaborators had Fry’s corpse hung in chains at the entrance to Boston harbor as a warning to seamen of all stripes.
It is Rediker’s text that provides the basis for a new graphic novel titled Under the Banner of King Death. The book is drawn by David Lester, the guitarist for the band Mecca Normal whose previous comics include another collaboration with Rediker in the work Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay, A Graphic Novel, and a graphic presentation of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The editing and the afterword were done by longtime historian Paul Buhle, who has made radical presentations of history via the graphic novel form a primary undertaking of the last several years.
The story here begins with the hanging of a pirate, who his fellows note remained defiant until the end. The rest of the story involves a fugitive slave who fins himself an indentured sailor named John Gwin on a slave ship owned by the Royal African Company. The abuse of the crew by the Captain James Skinner forecasts the captain’s death and the takeover of the ship by its crew. John Gwin is elected leader of the crew and they sail forth after freeing the human cargo under the name the Night Rambler. The crew carries on, raiding merchant ships belonging to various corporate entities and rousing the fear and anger of the governments that those corporations conspire with. A counterattack is undertaken. In a more personal aspect of the tale, it is revealed that one of the crew is a woman disguised as a man. The rich and powerful finally decide enough is enough when John Gwin’s ship lands on the African coast and frees dozens of slaves being held for transport and sale in the American colonies. The ship returns across the Atlantic to Caribbean. The mercenary pirate hunters are ready and waiting. The story of the Night Rambler becomes a yarn told among sailors and others who desire freedom. It also becomes a warning to ship captains, wealthy merchants and governments.
Lester’s artwork is in black and white. Dark penciling and occasional shading that is reminiscent of charcoal drawings. The panels evoke the shadows of ships below deck and the taverns of seagoing folk. The action scenes of fights vibrate with a certain tension that serves to emphasize the blows that are portrayed. The story is told solely by conversation with a timeline and short notes before and after. It is the graphics that take center stage. As they should.
As Marcus Rediker reminds us in the last paragraph of his book Villains of all Nations, “we love pirates because they are rebels.” Truer words may never have been written. This graphic novel reminds the reader of this statement’s veracity.