"The kid reading the pirate comic at the newsstand" is one of Dave Gibbons' most famous images from "Watchmen," yet the "Tales of the Black Freighter" portions themselves are rarely discussed. Naturally, due to Moore's scheme of juxtaposing only short passages against the larger story of "Watchmen," the pirate tale is generally thought of as a powerful narrative device; a comic-within-a-comic, but not really a remarkable story in its own right.
Well, just when you thought there was nothing left to say about "Watchmen," one inspired fan splashes his hands into the steadied waters of hyperbole and pulls out something we've never seen before. In a move so ingeniously simple, Oakland, California's Steven Johnson has, in the best "nerdeological" tradition, excavated and reassembled all that exists of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "Tales Of The Black Freighter: Marooned" into a complete and uninterrupted narrative on the Web.
Frankly, we're shocked and ashamed no one's thought of this before now. CBR News spoke with Steven Johnson about how he came to create this clever project.
"The idea occurred to me sometime in 2005," says Johnson, a "Watchmen" fan since its original publication in 1986. "At one point I just kind of wondered, 'hmm, does this [pirate] story work on its own?'" Johnson began scanning issues of the lauded series and, in his words, "picked out the 'piratey' bits and, over the next few months, eventually got something I thought would work."
As you can see from the graphics, Johnson digitally removed all non-relevant artwork and text from the scanned pages, leaving only captions and art from the "Black Freighter" portions of "Watchmen." He then printed out what "roughs" he'd created and spread them out on his kitchen table and experimented with layouts. A software engineer for Adobe Systems and Macromedia, Johnson admits, "I know [my process] is kind of alarmingly low-tech for a guy who writes graphic software for a living, but sometimes going analog is just the right approach."
In Johnson's version of "Tales of the Black Freighter," captions are re-situated in such a way that allows for a surprisingly satisfying and emotional read, reminiscent of the lettering-heavy storytelling experiments of Dave Sim in "Cerebus" and Frank Miller in "Sin City."
"I tried to keep the 'original' panel layouts as much as possible...obviously there are a few 'complete' pages [of the pirate story] which were left pretty much untouched, but having those also implied where some page boundaries were. I took the liberty of expanding some panels in order to get nicely integral page breaks."
The story of the marooned sailor flows perfectly well in Johnson's new version despite the "missing" artwork, which Johnson had reasons for not creating himself.
"I completely and totally suck at artwork of any sort," Johnson says. "Dave Gibbons did spectacular work and I can't even begin to guess what he'd put in the 'missing' panels. Maybe someone can commission him to finish them? I think the readers' imaginations will do a far better job of filling in those blanks than I ever could."
The pages used in Johnson's re-compilation were scans from the original printings of the 1980s issues. Older comics obviously contain a good deal of "yellowing" in the captions and lighter portions of the artwork, thusly creating a very evocative "old timey" type of aesthetic. Johnson says this look was not deliberate, although it is a fortune side-effect of his process.
"I have the original trade paperback (the [direct market] edition with the 'breaking-glass' cover, not the mass-market edition with the 'smiley face' cover. How geeky is it that I know the difference?)...[but] I scanned from the originals mainly because it was easier to scan the thin comics than the fat trade paperback."
Naturally, a "Watchmen" fan as enthusiastic as Steven Johnson would of course have read the recently released "Absolute Edition" of the story. Ironically, the only complaint Johnson has of the special volume pertains to the "Black Freighter" portions. "They took the approach of exaggerating the halftone-dot size to make ['Tales of the Black Freighter'] more of an obvious 'old-timer comic' look, which really distinguishes the pirate panels from the other panels, but to me the effect was a little too exaggerated and detracted too much from the legibility."
Likely to be the unofficial authority on this area of "Watchmen" for years to come, Johnson feels the comic-within-a-comic definitely stands up on its own, removed from the overall context of "Watchmen."
"I think it's pretty damn good," Johnson says of Moore and Gibbons' tale. "Even knowing how it goes, it still sucks me in. This poor guy has the absolute best of intentions and does horrific things to try to make things right...only to find that he's done more damage than the Black Freighter ever planned. It's a story that still feels relevant today."
Johnson also remarks that with pirate properties being so hot today, DC Comics would surely wish to take advantage of the trend, ideally with an ongoing "Black Freighter" series or anthology.
"I actually 'finished' [my project] a few months ago and thought, 'maybe I should put this on the web, someone else might be interested...'"
Johnson's hunch was correct. His Black Freighter website has been inundated with hits since going live just a couple of weeks ago. In just that short time, Johnson's work has been not only linked in Wikipedia's extensive "Watchmen" entry, but Dave Gibbons himself offered Johnson his most rewarding praise.
"He sent a note saying, 'Nice work,'" Johnson says. "Which to me was kind of like shooting hoops in the back yard and having Michael Jordan phone to tell you, 'nice shot!'"
Staff writer Andy Khouri wishes it to be known that he, too, knows the difference between the "breaking glass" and "smiley face" trade paperback covers; that he also owns the direct market edition; and that he knows you know you want it.