Monday, May 28, 2012

Watchmen: Chapter V - the Back-Matter

The Back-Matter

With this fifth chapter, Moore offers something new again in the back-matter, a chapter from a retrospective volume of pirate comics titled Treasure Island Treasury of Comics.  This particular chapter examines a much-lauded series published by National, later DC, comics, “Tales of the Black Freighter.”  This is significant because Bernie, the young boy at the newsstand, has been reading a reprint of one of these Black Freighter stories.  In fact, it is the two-parter, “Marooned,” which is highlighted within the text of the back-matter as writer Max Shea, and then-artist Walt Feinberg, at “their blood-freezing best.”  

This retrospective’s chapter, “A Man on Fifteen Dead Men’s Chests,” opens with a distinct variation in the history of the world of Watchmen, with respect to our own.  It notes that the “brief surge of anti-comic book sentiment in the mid-fifties” was soon quashed, allowing EC comics to come through even stronger for it.  The fact that actual superheroes were employed by the government is the main reason given for the favorable attitude toward the comic publishers by Uncle Sam, and is yet another bit of detail added by Moore to flesh out this world in a logical fashion.  In reality, the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings on juvenile delinquency chaired by Estes Kefauver saw the comics medium enter a period of decline as publishers worked to overcome the stigma that became associated with their product.  In an effort to appease the public, the Comics Code Authority was created, and, directly or not, EC comics – which published a line of sophisticated and beautifully illustrated crime, horror, and war comics – soon went out of business after these hearings.

According to this Treasury, “Tales of the Black Freighter” was National’s answer to the EC sales juggernauts “Piracy” and “Buccaneers.”  And though it did not achieve the sales figures of these two books, in this alternate history, Black Freighter became an influential book that cast a long shadow over pirate books that followed.  Ironically, Watchmen became that book in our world – its presence still felt within the medium twenty-five years after its initial publication.  Another ironic connection between Freighter and Watchmen can be seen later in the retrospective, as the author details friction between writer, Shea, and original series artist, Joe Orlando, due to, among other things, the “impossibly detailed panel descriptions” of Shea, a quality famously attributed to the scripts of Alan Moore.  But unlike Shea, Moore, by all accounts, is very open to input from those artists with whom he collaborates.

Perhaps the most important bit of information offered here, which could easily be seen as a throwaway detail, is the name of the writer who helped create Black Freighter, the aforementioned Max Shea.  For first-time readers, this name may hold no significance.  But Shea is the missing writer whose picture was seen on page 1, panel 3 of Chapter III of the main narrative.  And though it isn’t obvious yet, he will become important later in the story.

And one final note – a bit of trivia.  The full page from “The Shanty of Edward Teach” seen on the second page of this Treasure Island Treasury of Comics is the only piece of artwork within Watchmen not drawn by Dave Gibbons.  Joe Orlando, a noted artist who did work for EC before coming to DC comics where he was an editor as well as an artist, actually drew that page.  And, as one can see, he would have been perfect if the medium had gone down the “pirate” road it did in Watchmen rather than the superhero road we have experienced.

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