Yarrr! It be time for another voyage upon the seas of Watchmen analysis, and ’tis no place for a lubber who’s never clapped eyes on the book, for it’s spoilers ahoy, just off the port bow! Fairly warned be thee, says I.
Also appearing for the first time is Treasure Island, a comics shop which reappears a few times. “Treasure Island” is named that probably because of the kinds of comics it stocks (the pirate comics popular in the Watchmen world). Its name is taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel of the same name about pirate treasure.
So I read Treasure Island. (And I’ll be spoiling it below, too.) I’d never read it before, and I quite enjoyed it. As expected, it suffers a bit from Raymond Chandler Syndrome, which is to say that its genre inventions were so successful and so widely imitated that now the original sounds like a cliche. For page after page of Treasure Island, you can watch Stevenson inventing our pirate iconography right before your eyes — wooden legs, talking parrots, buried treasure, and all.
In fact, on the very first page, an old salt named Billy Bones, with a “tarry pigtail” and a “livid white” scar breaks out in an “old sea-song” that’s very familiar to us now: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest — / Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” It’s not at all clear in the story what the lyric means, but it’s certainly evocative. Those words are original to Stevenson in 1883, but thanks to a host of adapters, including the likes of Broadway and Disney, they sound to us as if they’ve been around since the 16th century, and they are synonymous with the concept of pirates, as is much of Treasure Island.
Watchmen memorably leverages this familiarity with its inversion of the “fifteen men” image, as is made explicit in the supplemental material to Chapter 5 — an excerpt from (what else?) the “Treasure Island Treasury Of Comics.” As that text explains, instead of “fifteen men on the dead man’s chest”, the “Marooned” story from Tales Of The Black Freighter gives us a man on fifteen dead men’s chests — the sailor who lashes together a raft and uses the corpses of his former shipmates as floats for it.
This is a grim, gruesome image, and it only gets worse. The Tales material interspersed through the book performs many functions, a minor one of which is to do some meta-commentary on the medium of comics itself. In Watchmen‘s world, superhero comics faded in popularity as “real” superheroes appeared on the scene (and themselves became unpopular.) However, where there were no superheroes, there was also apparently no Fredric Wertham, and no subsequent Comics Code Authority. Consequently, EC Comics was never knocked from its perch, and became the ascendant comic book company. DC was the scrappy upstart, and there was no sign of Marvel at all. This may have been a bit of… I dunno, is there a publisher equivalent of fanservice? Bosservice? Whatever. Putting DC in Marvel’s 1960s position was no doubt partly driven by the fact that DC published Watchmen.
Anyway, no comics code also means that stories can be just as gory and disturbing as they want to be, and Tales Of The Black Freighter wanted plenty. Even aside from the horrifying twist of the story, and its allegorical relationship to the plot of Watchmen, just the details of “Marooned” are awful: a gull eating a dead man’s brains, a man eating a live gull raw, a man’s skull bashed open with a rock, and so on.
Treasure Island, on the other hand, is essentially a boy’s adventure story. Its hero, Jim Hawkins, is a lad in his early teens — clearly young, though his exact age isn’t specified. While Jim certainly sees his fair share of mayhem, Stevenson keeps the gore to a minimum. Most of the narrative conflicts play out either as intrigues or as long-distance violence like cannons or musket shots. Jim even kills a man late in the story, but it’s very clearly in self-defense, and again, is done from a distance and almost by accident. There is nothing of the eeriness of “Marooned”, nor certainly its horror. Everything is bright and burnished, a proper Victorian page-turner in which the virtuous emerge triumphant, and scoundrels pay for their crimes either with their lives or their exile.
In fact, its sensibility differs little from that of Golden Age superhero comics, which were also stories for young boys, featuring adventures that were colorful and exciting, but very rarely disturbing or upsetting. As I read through the novel, it occurred to me that Treasure Island is to Tales Of The Black Freighter what Golden Age superhero stories are to Watchmen itself. The anonymous “Treasure Island Treasury” commenter could have just as easily been talking about Watchmen with comments like this one:
Readers who came to the series expecting a good rousing tale of swashbuckling were either repulsed or fascinated by what were often perverse and blackly lingering comments upon the human condition.
Moore has said several times that part of his aim with Watchmen was to showcase the strengths of comics, and one of these is juxtaposition. I swear, if it hadn’t been called Watchmen, the book might as well be called Juxtaposition. From the very first pages, we get cop dialogue over fight flashback, set next to pictures of the cops investigating the scene of the crime. We get ironic overlays like the elevator operator’s dialogue “Ground floor, coming up”, pasted onto a shot of The Comedian being thrown through his window. Pretty much every scene transition involves some sort of ironic or thematically connected overlap, and as the book goes on we get panels reprised in new contexts, such as in Dr. Manhattan’s time-jumbled narrative of Chapter 4.
With the pirate story, this juxtaposition is relentless. Nearly every panel of it intersects with the main story world in some way, with either pirate narration laid over story-world panels or story-world dialogue over pirate panels. It becomes almost musical, a harmony and counterpoint to the main melody of the story. The juxtaposition happens within each panel, as well as from one panel to the next.
Thus do Bernie’s comic books inform “real life,” and vice versa. To Bernie (the younger), the stories “don’t make sense”, but we can see exactly how much sense they make, and know from the commentary that they are in fact reprints of comics from the early 1960s. In our world, the Comics Code Authority had long since banished such stories by then. The CCA loosened up a bit in the 1970s, and thanks to the rise of the direct market in the 1980s, Watchmen itself could forgo the CCA seal altogether. (Indeed, if it had had to submit to the Comics Code, Watchmen as we know it today wouldn’t exist.)
Even then, the fear that had engendered the CCA drove out transgression, homogenizing artistic expression in the name of protecting children. (Also, every loosening of the Code prompted an artificial spurt of production, such as the glut of monster comics that appeared when the Code decided that vampires and werewolves were okay again.) Decades of mainstream comics went by under this oppressive curtain, until it was finally cast aside in the early 21st century.
Watchmen‘s world is bleak indeed, but it has no Comics Code, and the unfettered stories that resulted are its buried gold:
…like so many of the fascinating sunken treasures lurking just beneath the surface of this fabulous and compelling genre.
Their existence is a clear rebuke to the Comics Code Authority and all it wrought in our own world. And all it took to get there was to eradicate superheroes from comic books.