Under the Banner of King Death: Pirates of the Atlantic, A Graphic Novel

Marcus Rediker

Beacon Press, 2023

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

Featuring an African American fugitive from bondage, an undercover woman, and ‘outcasts of all nations,’ an arresting graphic exploration of the resistance and radical vision of 18th-century pirates

A tale of mutiny, bloody battle, and social revolution, Under the Banner of King Death novelizes for the first time the real pirates, an itinerant community of outsiders, behind our legends. This graphic novel breaks new ground in our understanding of piracy and pirate culture, giving us more reasons to love the rebellious and stouthearted marauders of the high seas.

Set at the pinnacle of the “Golden Age” of Atlantic piracy, this novel follows three unlikely companions, who are sold into servitude on a merchant ship and unwittingly thrust into a voyage of rebellion.

They are:

  • John Gwin, an African American fugitive from bondage in South Carolina
  • Ruben Dekker, a common seaman from Amsterdam
  • Mark/Mary Reed, an American woman who defies stereotypes by dressing as a man.

Mutiny ensues against the tyrannical Captain Skinner, who is thrown overboard to make way for democracy aboard The Night Rambler. The crew’s new order provides radical social benefits, all based on real, documented practices of contemporary pirate ships: democratic decision-making, a social security net, health and disability insurance, and equal distribution of spoils taken from prize ships.

It’s not long before the London elites enlist a war-hungry captain to take down The Night Rambler and start a war of high society versus high-seas pirates. Adapted from the scholarship and research of historian Marcus Rediker, Under the Banner of King Death will inspire readers with its tale of those on the bottom fighting back and achieving, against all odds, a democratic and egalitarian social order, if only for a short time.


"This action-packed if didactic graphic novel recasts Rediker’s 2004 history of piracy’s early 18th-century “Golden Age” as a fable of political liberation. Rediker declares in his introduction that the true story of piracy is “more profound than the Hollywood myth,” and the pages that follow strive to live up to that high standard. Lester (Prophet Against Slavery) compresses the original narrative into a concise, sharp tale of a multiethnic crew of disgruntled sailors who mutiny against miserable conditions and transform their ship into a kind of floating socialist republic with elected officers and equal shares of plunder. The script can seem outlandish at times, but centering the action on real people—pirate captain John Gwin, who’d formerly been enslaved; cross-dressing ex-soldier Mary Reed; and their nemesis, the dread pirate hunter Captain William Snelgrave—keeps things grounded. The drawing style is loose, almost slapdash, and is lurid in violent scenes. The escapades of the pirates’ ship, The Night Rambler, are brief but dramatic, particularly a daring raid on a slave traders’ fort, ending in tragedy, as is typical enough of quasi-utopian experiments. While the aims of this volume are laudatory, its frequently declamatory dialogue undermines much of the potential impact. It’s wild, often inspiring material, if a bit shallow in its attempts at mythmaking." - Publishers Weekly