You can't teach a whole class on pirate comics without coming to terms with Tales of the Black Freighter. Max Shea and Walt Feinberg's masterpiece isn't just the genre's high-water mark, it's the reason why I wanted to study pirate comics in the first place, and as such it was the reading I've been looking forward to all semester long.
Some of the students were still hesitant to apply the tools of literary criticism to a pirate comic, and not a few were unprepared for the graphic sex and violence, but most of them made that leap after reading Johnny Craig's work on Buccaneers. If Craig still has the power to shock us, even in an age that should be numbed beyond all capacity, then Shea and Feinberg offer something still more revolutionary, still more important--an attack on the very foundations of the pirate genre.
But before we could cover any of that, we had to talk about the vexing legacy of Max Shea.
As always, a couple of the students wanted to talk about the circumstances of his mysterious disappearance, and as always, all I could do was try to redirect the conversation to those areas we can discuss with more certainty. The case remains as mysterious today as it was almost thirty years ago, its particulars occluded by more urgent crises, and I'm under no illusions that we could do anything to illuminate them. All I can say is that I hope his vanishing act was entirely voluntary and I hope it offered him some refuge or solace from his troubles. Certainly he would not be the only person to witness the horrors of 1985 and recoil from the world, or worlds, that birthed them.
We have to discuss Shea nevertheless. Some of my students, like many other pirate fans, have a tendency to lionize him as a visionary who left us--or was taken from us--too soon. And I tell them that while we can and should admire his work, we must not romanticize the man.
It would be all too easy to imagine the trajectory of his career had he continued to work in comics. His difficult and demanding temperament are well established; in their Treasure Island Treasury of Comics, Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs describe the "impossibly detailed panel descriptions" that were the bane of so many artists, not to mention the "ego of the writer" that drove comics legend Joe Orlando off the book just as Shea was hitting his stride (60). Jones and Jacobs also mention Shea's struggles with his editors and publishers at DC Comics, culminating in the censorship that drove him to quit the company and the comics industry. (Unfortunately, they don't address the rumors that DC president Jack Liebowitz pulped an entire issue of Black Freighter because it contained a reference to a hygiene device not mentioned in polite company in the 1960s.)
But comics fans tend to forget that DC was not the sole author of Max Shea's problems. While his displeasure over the first film adaptation of Fogdancing is understandable, his very public refusal to have any further involvement with Hollywood, even to the point of turning down his royalties, certainly did the second one no favors. Shea made a habit of alienating his collaborators, even those whose talents had served his work well, and although he typically dressed up these disputes in a moralistic and absolute language of artistic freedom, after a while you have to look at all the abandoned projects and broken friendships and realize the only common element was him.
In the final years before his disappearance Shea had managed to drive away all but his most fawning admirers. His work turned hermetic and ingrown while his interviews became antisocial and paranoid; Shea wasted no opportunity to attack his critics, his imagined rivals, and even his own fans. His public break-ups and departures grew more acrimonious while his social contacts dwindled in a series of concentric but ever-shrinking circles until finally the ring closed around him, and he was gone.
If Max Shea had remained in the public eye, would his work have continued to grow and mature? Would he have made good on his many promised retirements, or come back for a series of diminishing returns? Or would he have ended up like his Black Freighter collaborator, Walt Feinberg?
Feinberg still wins accolades for his pirate work, and justly so, but it is increasingly difficult to appraise his career without accounting for his later work as a political cartoonist for the New Frontiersman and other far-right publications. His cartoons express an animosity to modern culture that is completely at odds with his earlier comics, and his use of racist caricature is simply indefensible--though this has not stopped some of his most ardent fans from pardoning these cartoons on the spurious grounds that they offer historically accurate depictions of a "Sambo" character who has been misunderstood and maligned by subsequent generations. These claims have been thoroughly debunked elsewhere and we need not rehash those battles here.
Other fans, unwilling and unable to apologize for his recent work, will more understandably look to the past. They typically point to Feinberg's collaborations with Shea, particularly their positive portrayal of homosexuality in stories such as "The Figurehead," as proof of their tolerant and humanistic sensibility. This is true so far as it goes, although it went there decades ago and stopped going any further.
There is still much to admire in Tales of the Black Freighter, from Shea's lurid and versatile narration to Feinberg's mastery of page layout to their mutual assault on the conventions of a genre that had already grown long in the tooth. But just as present misdeeds cannot wholly eclipse past virtues, neither can those virtues justify future misdeeds--especially when even Shea and Feinberg's best work contains the seeds of their later problems. Shea could never resist a gimmick or keep himself from running it into the ground (his final issue, with its laborious parallels to the banned book within the book, is especially strained) and Feinberg's callous indifference to certain kinds of human suffering is already on display. If "The Figurehead" is remarkably progressive about homosexuality, it is also shockingly blasé about the rape that fills its pages and too many others from Shea's corpus. Sympathy for one group does not excuse the exploitation of another.
About the best that can be said of Feinberg today is that his cantankerous nature occasionally works in his favor. He did not give his blessing to DC's ill-advised prequel project, Tales of "Tales of the Black Freighter," or to the big-budget motion picture that proved his illustrations were not enhanced by the addition of slow-motion violence and Leonard Cohen sex scenes.
Perhaps it is also for the best, creatively speaking, that Shea was not around to see his masterpiece so travestied. He did not have to watch the comics and film industries cannibalize his best work; we did not have to watch him fail to live up to it. We can no longer disappoint Max Shea, and he can no longer disappoint us.