Tales of the Black Freighter is a classic comic book magazine within the Watchmen universe. 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.
Tales is one of the many pirate/swashbuckling-themed comic books. The magazine was published by National Comics and was created by new writer Max Shea and star pirate artist Joe Orlando, who was later replaced by Walt Feinberg.
Shying away from mainstream adventures, its 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.
It was first published May 1960 and the first 6 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 E.C., it made a lasting impression and its early success was thanks to Orlando's majestic artwork.
The first nine issues were drawn by Orlando until friction with 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 Max 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 85.
- 1: Published in May 1960, it has the frame story of 3 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 2 ghouls with shovels in the tunnels under a churchyard. In the end, a captain who spies on him silently tels 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 Shea's later stories.
- 3: Between Breaths: A man is drowning, his viewpoint alternating between flash-backs of his previous life and the experience of drowning, with horrific descriptions that create a suffocating effect. The story ends with 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 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 Orlando.
- 10: The Death Ship: First issue drawn by Feinberg.
- ???: The Figurehead: Deals with male 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.
A pirate comic book was conceived by Moore because he and 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 Black Freighter alludes to the song "Seeräuberjenny" from Brecht's Threepenny Opera. The real-life artist Joe Orlando is credited in Watchmen as a major contributor to Tales of the Black Freighter.
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. It was originally included in the Watchmen script, but was changed from live-action footage to animation because of the $20 million it would have cost to film it in the stylized manner of 300 that Zack Snyder wanted; this animated version, originally intended to be included in the final cut, was then cut because the film was already approaching a three-hour running time. Gerard Butler, who starred in 300, voices the Captain in the animated feature, having been promised a role in the live-action film that never materialized. Jared Harris voices Ridley. Snyder had Butler and Harris record their parts together. The Ultimate Edition has a cut with the Tales of the Black Freighter scenes woven in.
The Tales of the Black Freighter DVD also includes a documentary named Under the Hood.