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Tales of the Black Freighter - Watchmen (film)

Tales of the Black Freighter is a swashbuckler anthology pirate comic book series. It was published by National Comics (which later became DC Comics) and was contributed by writer Max Shea and star pirate artist Joe Orlando, who was later replaced by Walt Feinberg. Tales of the Black Freighter tells the stories of sailors and other seafarers who damn themselves in one way or another and end up crossing paths with the titular phantom ship.


Shying away from mainstream adventures, Tales of the Black Freighter's radical and innovative stories show a disturbing reality against metaphysical terrors and perverse comments on the human condition. They narrate the dark and sinister tales of the Black Freighter (named after a song in The Threepenny Opera). It is a hellish phantom ship that collects souls of evil men to serve its bloodstained decks, captained by a mysterious, demonic figure that is also perhaps an undead sailor.


Tales of the Black Freighter was first published May 1960 by National Comics and the first six issues included the back-up feature Galapagos Jones (which was not drawn by Orlando). Although it never topped the critically acclaimed Piracy and Buccaneers by EC Comics, it made a lasting impression and its early success was thanks to Joe Orlando's majestic artwork.

The first nine issues were drawn by Orlando until friction with Max Shea forced him to leave. Starting from issue #10, the remaining issues were drawn by Walt Feinberg and saw Shea's developing writing skill.

The comic was cancelled after issue 31 and the departure of Shea but the classical stories had a lasting impact, as they were rediscovered and reexamined. Many were attracted by the controversy surrounding the last issues. They are mint priced for a thousand of dollars according to Overstreet Guide. The classical first 30 issues are reprinted successfully by DC Comics in 1984 and 1985.

The success of the series allowed National/DC Comics to rise as a major competitor to Entertaining Comics, which had dominated the industry up until that point.[1]

Known Issues[]

  • 1: Published in May 1960, it has the frame story of three sailors of different origins who meet in an abandoned tavern and narrate how they got there. Each narration is a tale of treachery with a plot twist; the first tale includes a fight between two ghouls with shovels in the tunnels under a churchyard. In the end, a captain who spies on him silently tells them they are worthy to be hired on his ship. They eagerly board and realize their horrible fate on the Black Freighter, which sails away in the white mist. The story is described as sturdy but cliched and predictable, compared to Max Shea's later stories.
  • 3: Between Breaths: A man is drowning, his viewpoint alternating between flashbacks of his previous life and the experience of drowning, with horrific descriptions that create a suffocating effect. The story ends with the undead walking on the ocean bed and climbing the anchor rope of the Black Freighter.
  • 6: Last issue featuring Galapagos Jones.
  • 7: The Shanty of Edward Teach: The most famous collaboration between Shea and Joe Orlando, it has the undead Blackbeard reminiscing his life in rhyme. The story ends with a memorable close-up of Blackbeard directed to the audience saying that the world of the living is no better than his. This issue introduces the dark and pessimistic moral sensibilities of Shea.
  • 9: This was the last issue drawn by Joe Orlando.
  • 10: The Death Ship: First issue drawn by Walt Feinberg.
  • ???: The Figurehead: Deals with homosexuality.
  • 23-24: Marooned: A harrowing one-character tale narrated mainly in captions. It chronicles a castaway's increasingly desperate attempts to return home to warn his family of the impending arrival of the Black Freighter. To escape the deserted island he uses the gas-bloated bodies of his former crewmates to float a raft, fending off sharks en route; to infiltrate the (supposedly) pirate-controlled Davidstown, he murders a trusting couple and returns dressed in the man's clothing; to save his family he attacks a night watchman who is patrolling the house. However, this watchman is actually his wife, and he soon realizes that there has been no attack and his efforts have only brought about his own destruction. The man returns to the beach to see the Black Freighter approaching, ready to claim the only life it truly desired - his. He boards eagerly.
  • 25: Beginning of a controversial run of issues. They have to do with plundered books (including forbidden tomes headed for the vaults of the Vatican) in the library of the Black Freighter. Four of the five projected issues were rejected, described as 'blatantly pornographic'.
  • 31: Final issue.


  • Tales of the Black Freighter alludes to the song "Seeräuberjenny" ("Pirate Jenny") from Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera.
  • In the world of Watchmen, Tales of the Black Freighter and other swashbuckling pirate adventure stories serve as a substitute for superhero stories since the existence of actual costumed vigilantes lead to the downfall of the genre in comics books and, as a result, fictional superheroes such as Superman stopped being popular only after a few years of their creation in the late 1930s.

Behind the Scenes[]

  • Tales of the Black Freighter is featured throughout Watchmen. Its covers of discarded issues are seen all around the background. It includes the title Marooned, which is partially seen by Bernie, a teenage boy who reads it.
  • A pirate comic book was conceived by Alan Moore because he and Dave Gibbons thought that since the inhabitants of the Watchmen universe experience superheroes in real life, "they probably wouldn't be at all interested in superhero comics." Gibbons suggested a pirate theme, and Moore agreed because he is "a big Brecht fan".
  • The real-life artist Joe Orlando is credited in Watchmen as a major contributor to Tales of the Black Freighter.

Animated Adaptation[]

Tales of the Black Freighter was adapted as a direct-to-video animated feature from Warner Premiere and Warner Bros. Animation, released on March 24, 2009 as a tie-in to the Watchmen movie.[2]

See Also[]