Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Who Plunders the Pirates?

As they were no doubt supposed to do, the teaser photographs from the upcoming film of Watchmen have wafted a warm breeze of reassurance over comics fans. “Look,” they say, “We are being faithful to the comic. Why, there’s even that boy reading Tales of the Black Freighter.”

And yes, that is a detail faithful to the disembodied story. But in the move from one medium to another, much of its meaning has washed away.

You’ll recall that, in Watchmen, two changes from our world have a myriad of consequences, large and small. Because some oddballs actually did become costumed vigilantes in the 1940s, and because one genuine super-powered being appeared in 1960, geopolitics are different, the economics of energy are different – and so are matters of taste in styles of clothes and methods of smoking tobacco.

One consequential change is in comics. In an America with real superheroes, no-one wants to read about them in comic books. So, instead, the dominant genre is the pirate story. This is a particularly effective move on the part of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, because it brings home directly to the reader that the very comic he or she is reading is the product of contingency; that the fact that Watchmen is a superhero comic is itself a product of the odd chances of history; that chance is everywhere in this garden of forking paths.

On film, this direct address must be lost. If cinema had a single dominant genre, then something similar could be done by having characters watch films from a wholly different genre instead. But the first condition simply does not apply, and that news-stand photo suggests that the film-makers have not attempted to find such a parallel.

In addition, time has undermined the choice that Moore and Gibbons made. In the mid-1980s, pirate stories were a moribund genre that never really had been that popular (how many issues did EC’s Piracy last?). A pirate story with overtones of supernatural horror, like Tales of the Black Freighter, was a real oddity that paralleled the strangeness of the superhero story which comics readers so took for granted. But now a mix of pirates and supernatural horror doesn’t seem strange at all. Even the most goldfish-memoried movie-goer will be reminded of Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley fighting CGI’d monsters on the Black Pearl. The oddity is lost.

So, in the end, Tales of the Black Freighter becomes a minor piece of set dressing, the equivalent of a poster advertising an unfamiliar perfume. The mere whiff of Nostalgia.

Photograph of Watchmen, taken from Warner Brothers, found via the Forbidden Planet International Blog

1 comment:

Walaka said...

That was an elegant and exquisite essai, Steve. Thanks.