When Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale helped bring “The Blair Witch Project” to life in 1999, the filmmakers (Sanchez as co-director and Hale as producer) blurred the lines between fiction and reality to create a newer vision of horror than cineplexes had seen in years. A decade later, the pair are aiming to do the same in comics, but rather than push pure fiction into a realistic realm, they’re bringing real life into an epic narrative with “Blackbeard: The Legend of the Pyrate King” from Dynamite Entertainment.
Written with frequent collaborators Robert Napton and Jamie Nash and drawn by artist Mario Guevara with John Cassaday covers, “Blackbeard” is surely not a horror project like Sanchez and Hale’s most famous effort, but rather the biographical story of the legendary 18th Century pirate captain. The book promises unleashes more than a few tantalizing tales of extreme piracy when it ships this October, but the creators were quick to tell CBR News that not all of the worst bits came at the hands of Blackbeard himself.
“It’s a matter of context. Blackbeard was a villain in a world of tyranny,” co-writer Jamie Nash told CBR. “During a time of slavery and oppression, Blackbeard employed democracy on his ships, had Africans serve as crewman and even as his quatermasters and right-hand men. Even merchant crews were harshly treated by their captains – often beaten and killed for insubordination – and often forced into service or ‘pressed’ as it was called. It was so bad, the merchant crews weapons were kept locked away lest they use them against their merciless captains. I think within the context Blackbeard waged his reign of pirating…it’s a grayer shade than might be expected.”
Keeping close to the historical record of the world Blackbeard lived in stands key for the creators, who started their exploration of the pirate’s history years ago. “It started with me getting into pirates in general and then finding out more about Blackbeard, in particular,” said Hale, who with Sanchez preps early story drafts to be scripted as comics pages by Nash and Napton. “I approached Ed and Jamie about doing a screenplay based on Blackbeard’s life and we worked on that for well over a year. We ended up with a 150+ page screenplay that would have easily cost $200 million to produce.”
“The objective here is to write a great comic,” Napton noted. “We aren’t writing for a movie – we want the comic to work as a comic and when it finds its way back to a movie, then that will be approached differently I’m sure, but for now, we are taking a great screenplay that had a strong foundation and reinventing that into what we hope will be a great comic.”
All that prep work went towards divining who the “real” Blackbeard is, both in terms of his methods and manners to the particulars of his years on the seas. As Napton explained, “There is an arc to Edward Teach’s life which we dig into in this comic that will reveal a new way of thinking about Blackbeard. He was more than just this guy out for treasure – he had a code and quest, and we get into that subtext in this comic which will create I feel a more three-dimensional view of Blackbeard. Historically, we know that Blackbeard showed mercy on bystanders, he wasn’t this blood thirsty savage – he in some ways was the ultimate marketing machine – creating this persona and adding to his legend so he could create fear in his opponents so they might surrender at the sight of him. The legend of the burning rope in the hair and those things are all examples of how he tried to use his persona as an instrument and tool of piracy. So he was a highly intelligent, complex individual.
“The political pressures that influenced him are also on display in this comic, which one doesn’t hear about too often – but we’ll see that he wasn’t just seeking riches – he was after something else, which I think becomes clear as the comic story unfolds, a clear theme of his life. That and a lot of pirating, so it’s an interesting mixture of action and character which we hope people new and old to the legend of Blackbeard will really enjoy.”
In the first issue of “Blackbeard,” readers meet Edward Teach immediately, seeing the fully grown man in action during his first commission as a sailor before flashing back to the horrible circumstances that led him to a life on the open water.
“‘Impressment’ was all too real – also known as ‘the press’ and press gangs were those doing the pressing – and basically amounted to kidnapping and forcing someone to join a ship’s crew. Drafting at gunpoint,” explained Napton. “We can’t be sure if Teach was pressed but history believes as a young man he was a privateer which is basically a ship given sanction to raid ships and loot the cargo if they are carrying the enemy flag. So in a sense sanctioned piracy. The somewhat apocryphal ‘A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates’ written in 1724 says Teach went to sea as a young man and a privateer, so that’s the foundation of his back-story that we played with.”
“For us, writing the screenplay and, later, the comic, we wanted to have this aspect of ‘The Wheel of Pain’ from the Conan movie,” added Hale. “Teach has gone through this hellish life as a pressed sailor from a very young age so when we see him in his 30s at the beginning of issue #1, he’s this freakishly tough Ã¼ber-sailor.”
Standing opposed to Teach’s development is Captain Richards, his vile commanding officer. “A lot of Edward Teach’s early life is a mystery so we had room to play there. Richards represents a form of oppression and oppression is something Teach has to contend with in his adolescence,” Napton explained. “There were all forms of oppression, not just governmental – but the legend of Teach and Blackbeard is he had a very antagonistic relationship with certain powers that be, and that followed him all the way to the grave – so there’s a great deal to play on for the comic in terms of the powers lined up to oppose young Teach and later, Blackbeard.”
“The Captains on British ships ruled with a ruthless hand,” Nash said. “Flogging and other torturous punishments were common practice during the time of Blackbeard. In contrast, pirate ships were more democratic, pirates got fair shares of the loot and were generally treated as partners. It’s important that this distinction is shown early, as the psychology present here is a large part of what makes Blackbeards tactics of turning crews against their captains work later.”
Extending their historical accuracy outside plot and timeline, the writers Dynamite’s “Blackbeard” gathered plenty of visual research to help cover artist John Cassaday and interior illustrator Mario Guevara mix their styles with savagery. “We wanted something that’s historically accurate but also something cool and different enough to capture readers’ imaginations,” Hale said. “Initially, we sent Mario a ton of research and then just depended on his artistic vision to bring Blackbeard to life. I love Cassiday’s take for the cover of issue #1; it’s a classic depiction that captures the essence of Blackbeard’s almost mythical legend. But I’m super psyched to unveil Mario’s look for Blackbeard once the full-blown personae is revealed. It’s freakin’ scary.”
“We wanted to go the other way and show the unglamorous side of that period and really get the clothes, buildings, weapons, etc to be period accurate as opposed to this amalgam,” Napton added. “We have a research assistant Steve Fussell who put together a ton of reference for us to pass along to Mario – it’s really been painstakingly researched and it comes across on the page. We have a brilliant artist in Mario Guevara and he interpreted everything wonderfully with his illustrative style. But it wasn’t just to be accurate for history’s sake, we wanted to create a sense of a world-the world Edward Teach inhabits. Language became an important factor as well so we created a sort of speak that we felt had the right lingo but also the right sound for a modern audience so it wouldn’t get in the way of the storytelling.
“I saw Mario’s work first on ‘Lone Ranger and Tonto,’ and I really wanted him for this because he has this strong illustrative quality but with a modern appeal, so he really hit the look we needed just with his natural style as an artist. I think his work on ‘Lone Ranger and Tonto’ and ‘Solomon Kane’ were great, but I feel this is maybe his best stuff ever, so I’m really excited for people to see what Mario has done.”
Ultimately, the seven-issue series plans to be just the first step in an in-depth exploration of Blackbeard’s life. “This first run of books will take us basically from deciding to be a pirate up to point the Blackbeard personae is born,” Hale said. “If the series is successful, there’s a ton more stories to tell. Blackbeard’s demise is pretty well known but we could have a lot of fun leading up to that including possibly doing more flashbacks depicting events prior to those we see even in the first issue of this series.”