One of the marvelous things about the Seattle arts community is its literary heart. Few environments can boast of lit-driven ensembles like Book-It Repertory Theater and the Bushwick Book Club Seattle. Beginning in 2010, Bushwick members have taken great risk in drawing musical inspiration from written works deeply entrenched in the popular consciousness, if not the personal mythology, of its audience.
Bushwick’s latest effort is a set of musical works inspired by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel, Watchmen. Called to the challenge by organizers of Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC), this is Bushwick curator Geoff Larson and company’s second swing at compositions inspired by a comic book, the first being last year’s Batman:The Dark Knight Returns. Timed with the arrival of the 10th installment of ECCC, Bushwick debuted their Watchmen material at Chop Suey on March 29th followed by a slightly truncated version at ECCC on April 1st.
For comic book geeks coming of age in the 1980s, Watchmen was the bolt out of the blue. As a comic it terraformed the literary landscape becoming fodder for college literature courses and ultimately named one of Time Magazine’s top 100 novels of the 20th Century.
At the time, Watchmen was a work elevated so high above its four-color peers as to become a sacred text to hardcore comic book readers. In a perfect world, Zach Snyder would have never gotten his grubby hands on the property subsequently aborting half the beauty of the story by cramming into a cinematic timeframe. In a perfect world, HBO would have funneled several hundred million dollars into 24-part mini series honoring both source material and author. Though full of lovingly adapted imagery, the Snyder film lacked the soul and satire of its source material. Although geeks were offended, sadly none called for jihad.
Musical talent is never in question when it comes to Bushwick Book Club, but with only a month to read, write and perform their work it’s clear the group does little confabulating as an ensemble. Themes tended to cluster and generalize and longer discourse of the story’s elements were often sadly bypassed.
At the same time, several musicians chose to speak to the notion of super heroes as an abstract phenomenon, the violent lifestyle, the blurred moral code and the weighty hubris leaving listeners with snatches of poetic imagery guaranteed to linger and tumble through one’s imagination for days after:
“We never die in our beds…”
“A leather belt stained with blood and tears…”
“Can’t you see, we can control these fools with chemistry…
Of the talent assembled, artists like Sean Storts were most successful at tapping Watchmen’s gamut of pathos, satire and angst. Storts, who confessed he first became enamored of Watchmen years ago while on an arduous round-trip odyssey by Greyhound from Spokane to San Antonio has clearly had greater opportunity to interface with the text. Starting his set with “Walter” a song exquisitely capturing the tangled mind of the anti-hero Rorschach followed by a sea shanty devoted to Watchmen’s tale-within-a-tale “The Black Freighter” all rounded out by a tune parodying Kermit the Frog’s theme song (“It’s Not Easy Being Blue”) barbing Dr. Manhattan.
Due to the nature of the Bushwick Bush Club process, there are bound to be thematic inconsistencies and a lack of balance in presentation, but therein lies the beauty of the effort. The work is raw and sometimes mercurial but there is no mistaking that in this particular outing, Bushwick gets it.
As a literary work Watchmen mediates on many things, both political and satirical and successfully inverts the age-old 13-year-old-male-power-fantasy inherent in superhero melodrama. The book also speaks to a universal longing that comprises good literature. That longing is given outstanding voice (both literal and literary) in at least three Bushwick artists; Bucket of Honey’s Annie Jantzer, Kaylee Cole and Tai Shan.
26 years after the initial installment of Watchmen, publisher DC Comics has announced plans for a series of “prequels” entitled Before Watchmen. Outcries of money-grubbing on the part of DC are being heard from fans and creator alike.
Bushwick Book Club’s Watchmen effort was full of risk and experiment, conveying a keen grasp of the work’s core elements. When all is said and done, Bushwick Book Club gets it. They succeed as artists where the Watchmen’s publishers will inevitably fail, reinvigorating the energy of their source material by seeking celebration over exploitation.
The verdict? Keep watching.