(Clara, Cora and Celia Banks)
The Banks was a 2019 indie graphic novel. Art by Ming Doyle and Jordie Bellaire , writing by professor/activist/writer Roxanne Gay .
It’s about 30% heist movie, 35% crime thriller, and 35% familial drama.
As usual we’ll focus on the characters rather than the plot. *But* a key dynamic of the book is the flashbacks and dialogue gradually revealing the characters’ backstories. So I’d consider that this entry nevertheless has S P O I L E R S.
The Banks’ protagonists span three generations – Celia Banks, her mother Cora Banks, and Cora’s mother Clara Banks. During the story Celia is 24, her mother is 48 and her grandmother is in her late 60s.
Powers & Abilities
The Banks likely are the top thieves in Chicago.
Not because they’re super-ninja – the setting is at most low-cinematicThe level of power and (un)realism found in a spectacular action movie.. But because they are smart, *careful*, experienced professionals with strong technical skills.
They are also exceptionally collected. Or at least Clara and Cora are.
They have a strong presence.
Perhaps the most valuable skill Clara and Cora Banks have is to know when *not* to do a job. That’s what kept them out of prison for decades. Most cops do not think that the rumoured “Chicago South Side Crew” actually exists.
They are also well-connected with the Black Chicago underworld. In particular, they have a solid working relationship with fences.
Clara’s formative years were the late 1960s and the 1970s. So her most practised skills are with mechanics. Primarily lockpicking using old-fashioned picks, but also safecracking using a stethoscope and speciality drills.
However, she has kept current. For instance, she knows how to defeat biometric locks using fingerprint moulds.
Clara is also short, which helps with fitting into tight spaces, cramming herself through small apertures, etc.. But in her youth she seemed physically well-conditioned. Perhaps as a combination of farm work then waiting tables.
She knows some pain compliance holds, usually done by grabbing the wrist. Perhaps she had training in her youth. There was a wave of classes offered by feminist movements during the 1960s (with the traditional preference, ever since the days of the suffragettes, being jiu-jitsu). And Clara implied that she had ties with those.
With age, she became farsighted.
Cora has skills similar to Clara’s – but she’s a bit less technical.
However, she’s also taller and stronger. She may be pushing 50, but she seems to be in solid shape. She presumably works out.
Celia’s primary skill is HNIFilthy rich persons., taxation-averse investment banking.
However, she also has a talent for computers and electronics. That includes considerable computer hacking chops.
(She seems to be one of ’em yoofs who’d have made fine engineers but ended up working in investment banking to grab the enormous compensation. Le sigh. Presumably she studied CS with an emphasis on security.)
Celia is very well-educated, and has fine people skills. She’s especially used to hiding her reactions and maintaining a pleasant, smiling façade.
She has a good, innate level of dexterity.
Many of 2019’s biggest hit songs were pretty good. So a chronologically and thematically appropriate soundtrack ain’t hard to find. Let’s go with Lizzo.
(Yes, Truth Hurts is technically 2017, but most people first heard it in 2019.)
Clara was born in Mississippi, near Jackson . But her father was a violent drunkard, and she left as soon as she could pay for that Greyhound ride.
In 1968, she reached Chicago.
The first job she found was at Buster’s Blues, a South Side bar and live music club. It also was a meeting ground for Chicago’s Black underworld. The crowds were tough, but the new barmaid/waitress was no shrinking violet.
(The South Side neighbourhoods of Chicago are one of the main African-American areas. The city has a stark history of racism, segregation, racial property covenants, etc.).
At the club, Clara met one Melvin Banks. He was handsome, funny, kind… and a full-time thief. Clara was wary about dating a criminal, but they married and had a daughter.
Clara volunteered to help Melvin, and learn his trade. Melvin was notoriously skilled, and his wife soon became about as good.
Though they kept a modest lifestyle to avoid attention, they did acquire good loot.
In 1972-ish, they had a daughter. But in 1974, Melvin finally overreached while robbing a pawn shop. Cornered, he elected to rush the owner and let himself be defeated.
Clara thus could safely slip away, with no hint of a second burglar having been present.
The couple had enough loot stashed away that Clara could carry on with just her waitress pay. But as she waited for Melvin’s release, she continued robberies on her own – and taught lockpicking to little Cora as she grew up.
Even after pleading guilty, Melvin only left Stateville Prison in 1985.
Cora joined her mother in the life once she was old enough. They operated as second-story women.
Cora also met a close friend, a bloke named Nelson. Though they were both gay, they decided to start an unofficial family.
The pregnant Cora was then hit on by her ob-gyn, Dr. Addie Shea, who referred her to another physician so they could date. Cora and Addie married in 1996 or 1997, with Nelson moving more toward an uncle role.
(The ceremony wasn’t an official one – this wasn’t legally feasible back then. Since same-sex marriages weren’t possible in Illinois until 2014, one can imagine that the couple did get their official marriage papers in another state. The earliest possibility was Massachusetts, in 2004).
Taking the fall
In 2007, the semi-retired Melvin Banks was contacted by one Mr. Alenko (no relation). This mobster demanded that Mr. Banks steal back $15M in coke from a rival.
Melvin had little choice but to do the job.
However, bad luck led to his car being inspected by cops, who found the repossessed coke.
He was condemned to 30, and did not defend himself. He knew that if he didn’t take the fall, the Alenko mob would come after his family.
Melvin Banks was released in 2012 – presumably due to his age. But he was soon murdered by Alenko.
Celia Nelson Banks
Between Addie’s income as a physician, and Cora’s “liberation of valuables”, Celia was raised in an affluent home in the suburbs.
In particular, her mothers ensured that she could attend all the best schools.
However, young Celia was a bit of a drama fiend. She made one of her biggest scenes when her mum Cora confirmed that she was indeed a professional thief.
Not wanting to be associated with criminals, Celia mostly turned her back on her family once she was in college.
(Clara mentioned that Celia stopped speaking to her when she was 16. Which implies that Celia was a brilliant student who started college earlier than usual).
Celia Banks came to work for the Morrow, Williams & Klein investment banking consultancy.
By 2019, she was shortlisted to make partner – and manage the “Dirk Johnson” portfolio, one of the largest overseen by the firm. She was the only woman, and the only Black person, among the managers.
However, she was unexpectedly not promoted. Having a good idea of why, the furious Celia met with her mother and grandmother.
She wanted the three of them to rob the “Dirk Johnson” estate. Which held a fortune.
The Johnson heist
The elder Banks were sceptical. The score was too big.
There also was a new detective with the Robbery Division, Juanita Vasquez, who was actually doing her job. The Banks wanted that heat to pass.
Furthermore, as Celia eagerly stole info from her firm, she realised that “Dirk Johnson” didn’t exist. None of the documents used to work with this account were digitized, and the account owner seemed actively paranoid.
Clara and Cora cased the “Johnson” mansion, to assess feasibility. But while taking photographs, Clara recognised Victor Alenko on the premises.
Both Clara and Cora have kept their hair short through their life – since they normally work with a balaclava on. By 2019, Clara had a very short layered pixie cut, and Cora was rocking a semi-butch shave – about 3mm.
Clara usually wears sensible clothing in warm colours, and large golden hoop earrings.
Cora prefers practical, work clothing in neutral tones – such as a plain white T-shirt and blue jeans. Both her arms are covered in rose tattoos, with a central heart reading “Celia FOREVER – Mom”.
Unlike her ma and grandma, Celia still has to bother with looking good for men. She has shoulder-blade-length straightened hair, and is almost always dressed in a smart casual business style.
Clara Banks is, as they said back in her days, one tough mama.
She built herself a life in a hostile environment, where few people considered her a human being. And she didn’t achieve that by acting demure and pleasant.
This ability to speak up, stay in the game and always hit back (or, better, hit first) is foundational to the Banks. Their lives and characters are shaped by the expectation of bad crap always being around the corner. And being the sort of woman who can stop it cold.
The Banks women are therefore almost always in Real Talk™ mode. They say what they mean, and mean what they say. Knowing where everybody honestly stands is far more important than sparing feelings.
People from cultures with more emphasis on face-saving — including many White Americans — might thus find them abrasive and confrontational. Not that the Banks would care.
Melvin Banks had a simple policy. He’d only steal from White people – for political reasons, and so as not to burn any bridge with Black Chicagoans. This way he still had a support network – and particularly Buster, a key fence in Chicago.
Clara and Cora likewise have a “steal smart” policy, which has kept them out of prison. They never steal too much, and carefully select their targets.
They also extensively plan and rehearse. It is routine for them to buy duplicates of the security equipment they’ll have to crack, and train on that.
With age and the loss of her husband, Clara became grumpy and somewhat bitter. Melvin had been the first good thing in her life, and she loved him dearly.
She’s very goal-oriented, and doesn’t suffer fool business at all. She’s also very much used to playing rough – and enduring to survive.
Clara is proud of her B&EBreaking into a closed property, like burglars do. skills, which she approaches in a somewhat engineer-like fashion.
She mostly speaks in mainline American English, but from time to time uses an old-fashioned AAVE turn of phrase.
Cora’s main interest in life has always been her family.
Robbery with her mother is just how she gets the moolah, so her wife and her little girl could enjoy the benefits of a household with two good incomes. She does it well and professionally, but it’s just a job.
The marriage she’s so focused on seems to be working remarkably well.
During the story, Cora is often caught between her mum and her daughter not getting along. Being a Banks, her usual response is to abruptly leave and make it clear that neither of them is talking to her until they’ve gotten their crap together.
She treats her mama with love and respect, and loves her daughter. But Cora won’t hesitate to get in their faces when they’re not behaving constructively.
As her loving mother will readily admit, Celia can be a spoiled little shit. She does have a tendency to launch into despairing dramatics whenever she encounters a setback.
This clashes with her rocksteady mother and grandmother.
There’s also a generational divide, plus an educational one. Celia simply lives in a different world than what’s familiar to her ma and her yaya.
But underneath her spoiled aspect, Celia has a lot in common with her gran. In Cora’s words they’re both “stubborn-ass heffas”, though honesty compels to note that Cora is only marginally less stubborn. And during the story, a lot more backbone emerges within Celia than what most would expect.
Like her ancestors, Celia is highly invested in her relationships. She’s considering marriage with her colleague Winston Windsor (a.k.a. “the White boy” for Clara and Cora).
What launches the story is Celia dramatically reacting to the humiliation of not making partner. She’s just fed up with having to work twice as hard for half the results, and with her tendency for melodrama she reacted *strongly*.
But before that, she was dead-set against being a criminal.
Celia usually addresses Clara as “yaya”. This is derived from a Yoruba term for an elder woman.
Clara: “I ain’t trying to hear all that ‘who shot John’ shit.”
Celia: “Just hear me out, yaya. And stop being so damn salty.”
Cora: “Both of y’all settle down. Mama, hush. Go on, Celia.”
Cora: “Get that bass out of your voice, Celia. We don’t steal just anything. We never take too much, and we don’t steal from the wrong people. We’ve made your life possible, and we’ve stayed out of prison, because we steal *smart*.”
Celia: “You didn’t keep granddaddy out of prison…”
Clara: “You keep that fine man’s name out of your mouth unless you are showing his memory the respect he damn well earned.”
Cora: “I’ve done a bit of research on this Gregory Mencken. The money is real.”
Clara: “Of course it is. But so is prison. A man with money like that isn’t going to let just anyone get over on him.”
Cora: “We’re not just anyone.”
Clara: “True that.”
Celia: “I can bypass the cameras, yaya. We don’t need to crawl, or any of that old-school stuff.”
Clara: “How do you mean ?”
Celia: “I will come up with some code and… look, it’s too complicated to explain. But I promise I can get us in and probably disarm the safe.”
Clara: “And where did you learn to do that ?”
Celia: “In school. Where people learn useful things.”
Cora: “Simmer down, Celia. Mama doesn’t want us to pussy out.”
Celia: “There’s no need to use a gendered term like that.”
Cora: “I swear, sending you to college was the worst decision I ever made.”
DC Universe Adaptation
(This section proposes ways of using this character in DC Universe stories).
The Banks prolly work better in the Great Lakes area.
Chronicled DC Comics super-hero activity in Chicago has historically been light. And it’s mostly people whom the Banks would be able to dodge.
DC Heroes RPG
Tell me more about the game stats
|Dex: 02||Str: 02||Bod: 02|
|Int: 03||Wil: 04||Min: 04|
|Inf: 03||Aur: 03||Spi: 04|
|Init: 006||HP: 015|
Acrobatics (Climbing): 03, Charisma (Persuasion): 04, Detective (ID systems): 05, Martial Artist (EV): 03, Thief (Locks & Safes, Security systems): 05, Thief (Stealth): 03, Vehicles (Land): 03
Area Knowledge (Chicago).
Street (Low), Buster (High).
Age (Old), Dependents (Family), MPR (Farsighted).
|Dex: 02||Str: 02||Bod: 03|
|Int: 04||Wil: 03||Min: 04|
|Inf: 03||Aur: 03||Spi: 04|
|Init: 009||HP: 015|
Acrobatics (Climbing): 04, Charisma (Persuasion): 03, Detective (ID systems): 04, Thief (Locks & Safes, Security systems): 04, Thief (Stealth): 04, Vehicles (Land): 04
Area Knowledge (Chicago)
Street (Low), Addie (High).
|Dex: 02||Str: 02||Bod: 02|
|Int: 04||Wil: 04||Min: 04|
|Inf: 03||Aur: 03||Spi: 04|
|Init: 009||HP: 015|
Artist (Actress): 03, Charisma (Persuasion): 04, Detective (ID systems): 04, Thief (Concealment): 03, Thief (Security systems): 04, Scientist (Computers): 05, Vehicles (Land): 03
Expertise (Investment Banking).
Dependents (Family, Winston), MIA toward Melodramatically Overreacting to setbacks.
I’ve counted Cora’s wife as a Connection, since she provides pro-level medical care without any traceability.
If you want to use the Banks in a cinematic or super-heroic setting, you’ll likely need to amp the Mental Attributes and Skills.
Here they are stated for grittily realistic stories, where people normally have 02s and 03s. And little if any Hero Points.
Source of Character: The Banks (TKO Studio).
Writeup completed on the 24th of June, 2021.