[Note: As will be customary for this series, Watchmen spoilers ahoy.]
Continuing my journey through the Annotated Watchmen v2.0, the notes for page 4 of issue 1 addresses the frequently-recurring comic within the series, Tales Of The Black Freighter. Here’s what the annotations have to say:
“The Black Freighter” is the name of a song in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s opera The Threepenny Opera. It is sung by a woman who tells of a black freighter that comes into town in order to kill everyone in town but her.
Well, no, not really. As I found out when I rented the 1931 movie version of Threepenny Opera, there is no song called “The Black Freighter.” And by the way, despite its name, The Threepenny Opera is not an opera. It’s a musical.
In any case, there is a song in the show called “Pirate Jenny”, which seems as though it might fit the rest of the description. Funny thing, though: I listened to that song in the movie, and it never mentions a black freighter at all. Now, granted, it was in German, but the captions seemed pretty clear. Jenny sings “Und ein schiff mit acht segeln”, which the captions translate as “And a ship with eight sails.” It’s no black freighter, or at least the lyrics never say so.
A fascinating thing about the Criterion version of the movie is that its second disc provides an entirely different version of the same film. In what was apparently not an uncommon practice at the time, director G.W. Pabst shot two Threepenny Opera films at once. Right alongside the German movie is another one in French, with different actors using the same costumes and sets, as well as a few plot details changed. Knowing this, I thought perhaps that it was the French version which mentions the black freighter, but no. The French lyrics are captioned something like, “There’s a ship at full sail.”
At this point, I felt pretty sure that “Pirate Jenny” was the song to which the annotations refer. But where does this black freighter come from? I didn’t think the annotaters would have just invented the connection from whole cloth. So I dug a bit more, and unearthed Nina Simone’s version of “Pirate Jenny.”
Holy. Crap. My friends, I believe we’ve found our black freighter. Not only that, we’ve found an astonishingly powerful rendition of “Pirate Jenny,” one that sheds a clear light on parts of Watchmen. Upon rereading the book, I found it a little bit odd that “pirates” was the genre that replaced “superheroes” in the comics of the Watchmen world — don’t they really serve entirely different emotional purposes? But the black freighter of Simone’s “Pirate Jenny” is just as visceral a power fantasy as any issue of Wolverine, albeit rather darker. Its pirates exact revenge on the narrator’s oppressors in ways that the Comics Code Authority might never approve, but any bullied kid certainly would.
It also seems no accident that the freighter is black. The racial subtext in Simone’s rendition is clear — so clear really that it’s a stretch to call it “subtext” — but it wasn’t her who injected the black freighter into the lyrics. That was the work of Marc Blitzstein in his 1954 Off-Broadway adaptation of the show — the same translation which launched many a successful cover of “Mack The Knife.” So the freighter’s blackness preceded Simone’s apocalyptic invocation of black revolution — in fact, it was Lotte Lenya who sang the role of Jenny in the 1954 production… just as she had in the 1931 movie. Its blackness, then, is just the blackness of doom, which the narrator anticipates eagerly.
In Watchmen, the freighter also symbolizes not revolution but doom, albeit the doom that the so-called “world’s smartest man” imagines to be a revolution. Ozymandias, like Jenny, envisions his triumph atop piles of corpses, but unlike her, he cloaks his bloodthirsty dream in images of final peace and harmony. He seems genuinely surprised when Jon reminds him of the obvious: there is no “final” peace. Nothing ever ends.
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Ice Cream Jonsey
Dude, I could read your take on Watchmen and related references for months. Great article, and thanks. Watchmen is my favorite comic, but I always get the impression that I get about a tenth of what is really going on with it every time I read it.
Thanks, Robb! I’m glad to hear you say that, because I probably will be writing them for months!