Watchmen at Thirty, Coda: Tales of the Black Freighter


"Tales of the Black Freighter," the pirate comic story that works its way through the Watchmen saga, doesn't quite mirror the larger story, but it's purposefully refractive: a lone survivor of a shattered paradigm/ shipwreck, hellbent on a plan to save the world he knows (his family in Davidstown), instead brings about their mutual destruction. Through a glass darkly, much the same way Misery's Return, the fake novel Paul Sheldon is writing for Annie Wilkes in Stephen King's Misery, or the fake play in Hamlet obliquely retell their larger respective story.

We get its (in-verse, i.e. fictional) backstory in the backpages of issue 5 ("A Man on Fifteen Dead Men's Chests.") In the alternate history of Watchmen, EC, instead of being forced at congressional gunpoint to drop its horror line, is virtually bankrolled by Uncle Sam to protect the image of certain comic-book inspired agents in their employ. EC flourishes, and their pirate line of comics is the most popular. 

Enter: Tales of the Black Freighter by Max Shea and Joe Orlando (later Walt Feinberg.) 

Of the three gentlemen just mentioned, only one (Joe Orlando, above right - well obviously not the above left I guess, though he did draw it) is real. And Orlando did indeed start at EC and migrate later to DC, where he stayed for decades. In the Watchmen world, it is DC that is reprinting the original Shea-penned "Freighter" stories along with new material from the author. 

"Problems set in for the book around issue twenty-five, when Shea began his controversial run of issues based around the contents of plundered books in the library of the Freighter's captain, including banned tomes supposedly originally headed for eternal suppression within the vaults of Vatican City when stolen en route by pirates. Described as 'blatantly pornographic' four of the projected five stories were rejected by DC which brought about the argument in which Shea quit the book and comics as well, going on the write such classic novels as the twice-filmed FOGDANCING."

Not sure what the FOGDANCING allusion is, but it's funny Moore so accurately foresaw his own departure from DC.

These backpages also bolster the story of Max Shea's disappearance in the whole Veidt Island Conspiracy. Beyond the ways it plays counterpoint to the other aspects of Watchmen, though, it's also a fantastic little gruesome tale for its own sake.  

The Motion Picture Comic that I've utilized for the past twelve posts came with the short animated film based on "Freighter," as adapted by Zack Snyder and Alex Tse, and directed by Daniel Delpurgatorio (what a name!) and Mike Smith.

As narrated by Gerard Butler
with some fiendish help from Jared Harris.
It's straight-up animation, not a Motion Picture Comic. I'm not sure if it's a Special Feature on the Watchmen DVD or not.
Okay I just checked Amazon. It appears to only be for sale as paired with the MPC.

It's a great little adaptation. Opinions remain divided on Snyder's overall stewardship of Watchmen, but I give him credit for extending the experience to this animated short and the MPC. I hate when someone gets carte blanche with a project and spends his or her time twatting off on Twitter or whatever. Coordinate a multi-front mass media / Easter Eggs offensive if you've got so much time, twitter-man!

For what it's worth, I give Snyder's Watchmen an A-.

There are phrases in "Tales from the Black Freighter" that embedded themselves instantly in my thirteen year old mind and have been recalled fondly - and sometimes with chills - ever since. Chiefly among them:

I wish I could tell you that everytime I head east - and living in a city-on-a-grid like Chicago, I know exactly when I'm heading east so theoretically I could do this everytime I leave the apartment - I mutter "east... borne on the naked backs of murdered men..." but I'm not that cool. Or creepy. Maybe I'm that creepy, I don't know. I'm not headed-to-Davidstown-creepy, though, thank Christ, so I'm not sweating it. Anyway, this lovely bit of Moore-penned hysteria is my own personal marker for purple prose: if you aspire to gothic horror, you have to hit around or above this line.

Other turns of "Freighter" phrase that have stayed with me over the years:

Amongst horrors must I dwell.
I don't find occasion to say this one as often as I'd like. And finally:
"Whoever we are, wherever we reside,
we exist on the whim of murderers

Alan Moore, ladies and gentlemen. Whatever the occasion calls for, whatever the genre demands, when he casts his Saturnalian eye upon it he reveals the horrible, pulpy truth.

I mentioned some of the parallels to the larger story. I didn't want to get bogged down with spelling them all out, and I figure most of you reading this know all of this stuff already. Here then are some moments that struck me along the way of this reread that I saved for this end of the line aperitif:

So yeah, just a great, grisly piece of writing, and admirably brought to life by Snyder, Butler, Harris (particularly Harris - his voice is so perfectly suited to the oozy death and despair on the raft), Delpurgatorio and the gang. It even ends with the "Black Freighter" song ("Pirate Jenny") from Brecht's "Threepenny Opera," a work to which Moore returns time and again in his subsequent work.

Also on the DVD is a 45-minute-ish 20/20 pastiche entitled "Under the Hood," which is drawn mostly from the Hollis-penned memoir excerpted in Chapters 1 through 3 and from Chapter 9's personal-effects of Sally Jupiter. 

With a sprinkling of backpages material from other chapters, as well.

Not bad. The lesser of the two efforts, compared to the "Freighter" cartoon, but it's a blast for me to see all the levels of Watchmen's world given their due. 

The levels of verisimilitude and worldbuilding in Watchmen were unprecedented at the time and remain so over-the-top and wonderful thirty years on. This was a fun series to start almost-a-year-to-the-day ago, and it'll be an unpleasant adjustment to not engage with it on a monthly basis in 2017. 

I mean, not that I still couldn't, but along with y'all, I mean. 

Final Verdict: "The classic of comic book literature" still lives up to its rep, thirty years on. It's a shame the situation surrounding it became what it did and we'll never have Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore, John Higgins, Len Wein, and Zack Snyder (and whomever else) chairing a panel on it at some convention, or a commentary track on the DVD, or a new HBO show with all of them weighing on it, etc

All we have is the art itself, still as rewarding, challenging, and satisfying as ever.



  1. I can still remember my response to the Black Freighter stuff the first time I read "Watchmen." For a while, I thought it was shit. What the hell was this pirate crap showing up in the middle of my superhero comic?!? I had not, at that point, hepped to what I was actually reading. But a few chapters in, I did, and by the end I thought the pirate stuff was sheer genius.

    That's still my opinion. Of the whole thing, but of that stuff in particular.

    I enjoyed the animated version. I think the movie overall gets a bit too much flak from people. If nothing else, Snyder's heart was in the right place. I can't think of too many adaptations that had fun offshoots like the "Black Freighter" and "Under the Hood" shorts. It's a little shocking that Warner Bros. agreed to finance those; my guess is that the bloom was not yet off the rose of DVD sales, and they figured it would be an easy way to get people to shell out for a second version of it on home video. Either way, I salute them for trying to be that thorough!

    If you actually DID find opportunities to use the phrase "the buccaneer's whore deserves no pity," that might make you the single most metal person alive. Now that Lemmy's dead, there's a spot open.

    1. The reaction I remember back in the day was "What the hell is this pirate stuff? As if there's not enough to keep track of, I - wait, he lashed together the dead, bloated bodies and made a raft out of them? (pause... slowly does metal salute, head bowed.)

      If people's reaction against the film wasn't as negative as it seems to me, I'd probably be more critical of it, but I get defensive about it because like you say, the heart of it is where it should be, and whatever else you can say about it, it's a pretty visually generous play-by-play of the original story.

      Too much of his slow motion CGI stuff, sure. I'm not a huge Snyder fan all around, but fans of the series who hate the movie perplex me. It just doesn't make sense as a hate-able movie, to me.

      In the interests of accuracy, the actual line is "A buccaneer's whore..." not "THE" but when I wrote it as "a" with that picture up there, it didn't look right. I confess to the crime.

  2. For me the influence of Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" is all over this one.

    It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Coleridge's idea popped into Moore's mind at some point, and then maybe he thought "You know what would have been great? If EC had run a "Tales from the Crypt" special on this poem, like they did with Poe's "The Raven" in Mad Magazine".

    I don't say that's how it happened, it's just an idea of what the "potential" background for the "Black Freighter" might be like.

    I just love the "what if" of EC having survived both Wertham and Congress to thrive into the modern era. One can only imagine what they would have been able to accomplish if given free reign. It's quite possible that they could have rivaled both EC and Marvel.


  3. I too am very intrigued by that EC aspect of the alternate reality of Watchmen. I totally want to browse the Ur-Kindle of that dimension!

    I can easily see "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" EC-idea you describe being the impetus for "Black Freighter." Although, given Moore's preoccupation with "Pirate Jenny," perhaps we need only look there. But either way, it makes sense thematically and the one is worth considering in the light of the other.