Monday, September 8, 2014

Alan Moore's Century: 1910 and the Black Freighter

When the Watchmen came out, Alan Moore was interviewed in the Comics Journal #116, July 1987 in which he gave a strikingly familiar account of Bertolt Brecht's the Threepenny Opera which he based the Black Freighter portion of the Watchmen on. I have copied the passage from the interview here and superimposed pictures from Moore and O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; Century: 1910 for comparison. Enjoy.

PERSON FROM THE AUDIENCE: "Is the Black Freighter anything to do with Bertolt Brecht?"

MOORE: "It certainly is, you clever cultured boy. For those cultureless people in the audience, Bertolt Brecht, Bert as I call him, wrote The Threepenny Opera with Kurt Weill. It’s a magnificent story set around the coronation of King Edward in England. It’s where the song Mack the Knife comes from, and it was originally a very nasty bloody song, whatever Bobby Darin did with it. One of the prostitutes in the story, a girl called Jenny, sings a song called Pirate Jenny. She works in a hotel, scrubbing floors,"

page 26, Sung to the tune of Mack the Knife

"and in her head she’s thinking about all these guys smoking cigars who’re sneering at her,"

Page 29, sung to the tune of Pirate Jenny depicts Nemo's daughter Janni Dakkar attempting to escape her fathers control by taking the job of cleaning woman in some dive port hotel. It plays with the original Threepenny story of a woman dreaming of being a pirate queen with the League story of Janni really being a pirate queen.
page 30 is preparing us for Janni's eventual brutal rape by talking about all the men gawking at her.
page 46 depicts the aftermath of her brutal rape at the hands of many men and is the impetus that pushes her to call her father's men to raze the hotel to the ground and kill the guilty men.

"and there’s a black freighter waiting out at sea and one day it’s going to come into town with guns firing from its bow, and the pirates are going to teem off the ship and run through the town, and they’re going to be piling up the bodies."
"It’s this horrible black vision of this ship coming in with a skull on its masthead. Everything’s still in the town, with everyone wondering what’s going to happen, and then this prostitute says, “I step out, looking pretty in the morning with a ribbon in my hair, and a cheer splits the air.” In her dream, she’s the pirate queen, and they’re going to kill all the rich people and they’re going to say to her, “Shall we kill them now or later?” and she’ll say, “Kill them now.”

"At the end she goes out on the Black Freighter. It’s such a powerful image, this death ship coming in, and in the Watchmen another sort of death ship is coming in — the nuclear war that’s looming. The idea of death that you can do nothing about just coming in on the tide just seemed to tie in so nicely that I thought, “I’ll rip that off. I’ll take the ‘Black Freighter’ and bring it into the Watchmen as one of the pirate comics,” using it as a counterpoint."

In recent times people have accused Moore of never doing anything truly original and ripping off others for all of his best known work. For example his Marvelman is a character from the 50's and even his take on it may have come from Robert Mayer’s book Superfolks; The Watchmen was inspired by the Charlton Comics characters, and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen takes from so many sources of fiction throughout the last two centuries. In this case Moore takes pretty obviously from Bertolt Brecht's the Threepenny Opera. So the question is, is it stealing or is it homage? Is Moore taking something from others and claiming it as his own original work? Is he adding anything of significance to the original source to justify it's existence? I would say, yes, definitely, in this case. This is definitely a homage in the best sense honoring it's source material with it's obvious similarities while at the same time adding, not only to the source material but adding to the whole body of the League books in a clever way.
This is what Moore does best, he combines ideas in clever ways that are unexpected and surprising. In this case he references the Threepenny Opera which happens to be about pirates just as his Nemo character is a pirate. He takes Nemo's daughter Jannie and fits her into the Pirate Jenny song and story and while Moore does use the tune of Jack the Knife and Pirate Jenny, he pretty much creates whole new lyrics for the songs and revitalizes them and makes them greater than they were.
It's also very clever the way this fits into the whole League concept of combining fiction of various eras into a whole alternate universe of period fictional characters. The Threepenny Opera fits in perfectly and interestingly into the greater League universe.
So, yes, Moore does add something of significance to the source material of The Threepenny Opera in this case and I'm really excited he did and after all these years he is still creating cool and interesting work that surprises and thrills us. I can't wait to see what's next!

Lotte Lenya performs Pirate Jenny from the Threepenny Opera
 You people can watch while I'm scrubbing these floors
And I'm scrubbin' the floors while you're gawking
Maybe once ya tip me and it makes ya feel swell
In this crummy Southern town
In this crummy old hotel
But you'll never guess to who you're talkin'.
No. You couldn't ever guess to who you're talkin'.

Then one night there's a scream in the night
And you'll wonder who could that have been
And you see me kinda grinnin' while I'm scrubbin'
And you say, "What's she got to grin?"
I'll tell you.

There's a ship
The Black Freighter
With a skull on its masthead
Will be coming in

"Pirate Jenny"
from The Threepenny Opera
by Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht.
The English lyrics are by Marc Blitzstein.


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