Story: Roxanne Gay
Art: Ming Doyle
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Ariana Maher
What They Say:
A high-stakes heist thriller about the most daring and successful thieves in Chicago: three generations of women from the Banks family.
For fifty years the women of the Banks family have been the most successful thieves in Chicago by following one simple rule: never get greedy. But when the youngest Banks stumbles upon the heist of a lifetime, the potential windfall may be enough to bring three generations of thieves together for one incredible score and the chance to avenge a loved one taken too soon.
From NY Times bestselling writer Roxane Gay (Hunger; Black Panther) and artist Ming Doyle (The Kitchen).
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
In the 1960s, Clara and Melvin Banks made their money in one of the most old-fashioned ways possible: they stole it. Specifically, they stole primarily from white people who made their money by ripping off others. They were thieves with principles. Due to their crimes, Melvin spent his life in-and-out of prison, but he always made sure to shield his wife and their daughter, Cora, from any suspicion.
Now, in the modern day, their granddaughter Celia has lived a life that has benefitted from the money Clara and Melvin (and eventually Cora) stole. She went to the best schools, had a lavish lifestyle, and now she is a lawyer on the cusp of making partner. And yet, she is embarrassed by her family. She never knew the source of their money until she went to college, and since then, she has distanced herself from them, feeling that their dishonesty is going to drag down the supposedly ideal life she has fashioned for herself. But when she is passed over for partner in favor of a legacy kid with nowhere near the portfolio or work ethic that she has, it becomes abundantly clear that regardless of her efforts, she is unlikely to ever break through. So when the account of a client passes her notice, she realizes she is sitting on the score of a lifetime, and the family business no longer seems to be quite as disreputable as before. The question is whether or not Celia and Clara can let go enough of the resentment each has for the other to make this work, especially as the job suddenly becomes more personal.
The Banks is a graphic novel that took me a bit by surprise. I went into it expecting a good heist story, but it isn’t really that. While the heist is certainly the driving force of the story, this graphic novel is more about the ties that can bind a family together. In fact, it mostly fails as a heist novel. There’s some interesting twists and turns, but it does not really do a whole lot to fully explain how they accomplish what they do. We just have to accept that they are good at things and they can handle it. Clara has been stealing for fifty years and has skills. Cora has been stealing for thirty years and also has skills. Celia hasn’t been stealing, but she’s a computer whiz who can bridge the gap into the modern era to get around security issues that the older women don’t really understand. Heist stories love to go into intricate detail about how the thieves are accomplishing their tasks, but the trickier details in The Banks are mostly explained that these are capable women who know what they are doing.
But as a story about a disintegrating family that is finally finding some common ground to mend the bridges across multiple generations? That’s what this graphic novel is great with. While set in the modern day, it expertly weaves in flashbacks to various points in the three women’s lives to explain how we got here: how Clara is brought into Melvin’s world, how Melvin did everything for his family, how Cora got involved in the family business, how spoiled Celia was as a child, and the moment Celia learned the truth and the rift that arose due to it. These are all details and scenes that are inserted into the tale at the exact appropriate time to explain why we are where we are. It’s very well done.
And what we are left with are three protagonists who are very flawed, very relatable, and very interesting. Celia is an entitled brat who was spoiled by her parents growing up, but that sense of entitlement comes from a determination to do things the right way and a belief that hard work is all a person needs to get ahead. Clara escaped an abusive father as a young woman and is immediately drawn into Melvin’s world of crime, enthusiastically so. She knows that what she does is wrong, and she has a streak of stubborn pride that keeps her from fully accepting her granddaughter’s change-of-heart, but like her husband, everything she does is to provide a better life for her family, and in the end, she will always do what is right for them. And Cora is the bridge between them, a woman raised in a life of crime who—through her gynecologist wife—keeps her feet planted in the real world, too. Cora is probably the least interesting of the three women, but the real conflict is between granddaughter and grandmother, anyway, but Cora is also the blunt spoken mediator who abruptly pulls the other two up short any time they are being silly (I love the running joke where every time Clara and Celia start bickering, Cora just walks away saying “Call me when you two decide to make up” and leaving the other two embarrassed). They are a great crew to follow as they work through their issues.
And, of course, the racial component of this title has to be noted. The Banks are a black family, and as I noted above, they prey entirely on white folks, but at the same time, this does not feel entirely like a piece about Black Power. Clara and Melvin’s targets are white people, but they target people like money lenders and pawn shop owners who prey on the misfortunes of others to make their money. When Celia is passed over for partner in favor of Anderson Whitney, her frustrations aren’t with Anderson specifically, but rather the environment which favors his whiteness.
What this means is that we have a story in which the Banks are not rebelling against white people in particular but rather against a system that was designed to primarily benefit white people. That might sound like a fine distinction, but it is a distinction, nonetheless. I found it very interesting that Celia has a white boyfriend, Winston. It is never explicitly mentioned, but it initially felt like an extension of her rebellion against the values of her family, and any time she does go see them, she refuses to take him and introduce them. However, as Celia gets more involved in the planning of the heist, and gets more secretive around Winston, his concern eventually leads him to seek out Cora and Clara for advice, and they welcome him with open arms. There is no judgement on their parts.
Maybe it is my own whiteness speaking here, but for me, this made them much more compelling characters because they recognize that their problems with society are not just racial as a general concept, but again, the system in place that benefits one race over the others, and that system, for better or for worse, affects everybody. For people like Gregory Mencken, Victor Alenko, or even that pawn shop owner that use the system to get over on others, then yes, they will take them for all they are worth, but everybody else is caught up in it just as much, and that realization, for me, at least, makes their motivations and actions all the more powerful.
The Banks is a tale about a family putting their differences aside and coming together when it really matters disguised as a heist story. If you go into it wanting a heist story, you’ll probably be left a bit disappointed, as it tends to gloss over a lot of the details that make heist stories entertaining. But as a family drama that spans generations, there is a lot to love here. Even in their incessant bickering, you can see the love that the three Banks women have for each other, and it’s nice to root for them to realize it for themselves. The heist is just a fun bonus that helps keep things moving. Recommended.
Content Grade: B+
Age Rating: 16+
Released By: TKO Studios
Release Date: December 1, 2019