The Cultural Gutter

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Alan Moore Knows The Score

Carol Borden
Posted June 25, 2009

LEG Century 80.jpg“It’s nice to hear all the old songs,
isn’t it?”

–the Devil, The Black Rider

I was surprised to hear the old songs
in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen Century: 1910
(Top
Shelf, 2009). I probably shouldn’t have been.
The chapter title, “What Keeps Mankind Alive”
distracted me, but I kept
reading my water-damaged copy and ran smack into, “Mack
the Knife
.” Like the chapter title, it’s a song from Bertolt
Brecht and Kurt Weill’s
The Threepenny Opera.

In 1910, Mina leads
the league—Raffles, the dapper cat-burgler; Carnacki the
Ghost-Finder; Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s ageless hermaphrodite; and
Allan Quatermain, Jr.—against an occult threat, the coming
Moon-Child. Moore and O’Neill try to capture the feel of the era—the
early Twentieth Century’s eroticism and spiritualism. The cover’s
even kind of Klimt.

But
I’m not really thinking about Crowley or Klimt. I’m thinking about
music in comics. Captain Nemo’s daughter, Janni dives into the
ocean to escape the life Nemo has planned for her.
In England, she takes
the name, “Jenny Diver.”But Moore
has taken the name, too, from The Threepenny Opera.
In German, she is Seeräuber
Jenny
or “Pirate Jenny.” And she isn’t the only
The
Threepenny Opera
character in
Century: 1910. Mack
the Knife himself* and Suki Tawdry
frame the book in song. Jenny’s
Nautilus
(the
Opera‘s ship with
eight sails), becomes the Black Raider, which in such a cabaret
context, sounds a lot like the Black Rider.

In a review of Tom Waits, Robert Wilson and William S. Burrough’s The Black Rider, an adaptation of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freishütz, Edward Rothstein writes:


The real ancestor of this work may be not Weber’s opera but John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera,” which in 1728 played an iconoclastic role in London. It passed over the typical escapades of royalty in favor of the actions of the city’s criminal underworld. It deliberately undercut the dominant operatic style; an excerpt from Handel’s
“Rinaldo” was satirically sung by a chorus of thieves.

The work was designed to undermine. Its polemical charms were updated in “The Threepenny Opera,” in which Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht entertained the bourgeois audience of Weimar Germany with a related tale. Weill captured the spirit of the German cabaret; the catchy, mordant songs satirized the very audience that gave them acclaim.

LEG Century 250.jpgMoore and O’Neill’s book shares
the same ancestry. The polemical charms of
Beggar’s Opera
and
The Threepenny Opera
and even,
The Black Rider,
herald MacHeath’s return, warn against the unforeseen consequences of
a rape, are sung
on the gallows
and then by a chorus of prostitutes and their
protector at the story’s end. These dire lyrics resonate with the
League’s dread of a coming apocalypse, but they also provide
structure for the story. I have written about music in comics before. I said that in Lilli Carré’s
The Lagoon, the
creature’s song
was
unknowable. In Moore’s book, knowing the tune is helpful, but
unnecessary and the Brecht/Weill songs’ didacticism melds pretty well
into a libretto for a comic operetta.

In fact, the
lyrics’ silence might make them less didactic. Musicologist Susan
McClary says that the emphasis on lyrics in so much folk, political
and religious music reflects a distrust of music’s direct effect on
people’s bodies (McClary. “Same As It Ever Was: Youth Culture and
Music.” Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap,
eds. Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers. (New York: Delta, 1999)). But
in a comic, words and songs are silent and images are visceral, so
all the corporal raunchiness comes through color-separated and
directly into your brain. And in Century: 1910, there’s plenty
of raunchiness, lots of erotic and sacred breasts and nipple slips.
Jenny Diver is becoming a wrathful goddess and I suspect there might
be more Crowleyan Scarlet Woman action in the next volume. (And if
you were wondering, there’s at least one repeated motif, the question
mark that keeps appearing whether as a curled mermaid, Orlando’s robe
or a pattern on Mina’s dress).

As with the
previous League books, there’s a final collection of prose that will
build in importance and revelatory power. At least, it should. And it
is cosmic, erotic and full of pop culture promise, including The
Story of O
and the punishment of Fletcher Hanks’ Stardust. The
prose should also bridge the decades between this story, set in 1910,
and the next, set in 1969, then from 1969 to now.

The
volume is laying so much groundwork for later that it doesn’t really
feel like a story in itself. At the same time, so much is compressed
in the volume. I feel like it could be a longer work with more time
for these characters and their adventures. Maybe there will be. As
it is, the Jenny Diver and the evil cult stories sit a little
awkwardly together. Are they competing narratives or counterpoints?
Was
The Threepenny Opera a rack to hang
only this volume on? But while I hate writing about parts rather than
wholes, I will just trust that the story will be awesome in its
whole because, as the
song says
, fancy gloves wears Moore, so there’s not a trace of
red.

*Sung here by Bertolt Brecht

~~~

Just a jackknife has Carol Borden / and she keeps it out of sight.

Comments

2 Responses to “Alan Moore Knows The Score”

  1. Nefarious Dr O
    July 7th, 2009 @ 7:46 am

    Wow. The first time I saw “Mack the Knife” I was in high school and it was a little bit beyond me, then. I saw it again in college and couldn’t understand why I’d hated it when I was younger. Somehow, I never expected Alan Moore to draw upon it, but I’m happy to see he’s once again stretching his wings a bit.

  2. Carol Borden
    July 7th, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    the first time i read it was paired with the beggar’s opera in high school, but it is very adult. i think the threepenny opera requires some real experience with cynicism. i haven’t seen it in years myself, which is probably why i need to make the following correction. the character who sings with mack isn’t mrs. peachum, it’s suki tawdry.
    i haven’t decided if i think it works or not. right now, i feel like brecht and weill overwhelm and escape the work. but maybe after reading the other two chapters, the songs will seem much more integrated.

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