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Alan Moore and David Gibbon's classic graphic novel masterpiece Watchmen contains an incidental character who, over the course of several parts of the series, is seen reading a comic entitled "Tales of the Black Freighter".

The contents of that comic are shared with the readers of Watchmen, and it is an entertaining, and very dark tale in and of itself.

However, what is the purpose of including this story within the story? Aside from the obvious meta self-referential aspect of a graphic novel contained within a graphic novel, why was this included? Did it have some symbolism within the overall story?

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Alan Moore has said that Tales of the Black Freighter as a whole is an analogy of Adrian Veidt's story within Watchmen, but specific aspects of it are references to the other characters and their actions.

From an interview with Moore:

Q: There are some interesting microcosms in Watchmen, like "the Black Freighter". The protagonist asks "How had I reached this appalling position with love, only love as my guide?" whereas in the main story someone's committed genocide in order to save the world.

A: Yeah, there's even a bit where I think Adrian Veidt says at the end that he's been "Troubled by dreams lately, of swimming towards - " and then he says, "No, it doesn't matter, it's not important" and I mean it's pretty obvious that he's dreaming of swimming towards a great Black Freighter. Yeah, there's a parallel there. The pirate narrative was again something that emerged by accident - it emerged by accident in issue #3 - and yet originally it just grew out of a kind of incidental comment made by me and Dave. We were trying to work out the texture of the world and so we sort of said "Well, what sort of comics would they have? If they've got superheroes in real life, they probably wouldn't be at all interested in superhero comics" and I think Dave said "What about pirate comics?" and I said "Yeah, sounds good to me," so we dropped a few pirate comic titles into the background, including "Tales of the Black Freighter" because I'm a big Brecht fan.

Q: Yeah, they're all commenting on each other.

A: Yeah and I suddenly realized what a benefit it was having this pirate narrative embedded in the overall narrative I could refer to and use as a counterpoint. I mean yes, it eventually does end up being the story of Adrian Veidt but there's points during the pirate narrative [where] it relates to Rorschach and his capture; it relates to the self-marooning of Dr Manhattan on Mars; it can be used as a counterpoint to all these different parts of the story and after I'd done that it's kind of manifested in a lot of work since then.

From Wikipedia:

According to Richard Reynold, the mariner is "forced by the urgency of his mission to shed one inhibition after another." Just like Adrian Veidt, he "hopes to stave off disaster by using the dead bodies of his former comrades as a means of reaching his goal".

From the Watchmen wikia:

The first part was read coinciding with the placement of a Fallout Shelter sign and the presence of a man who held a sign reading "The End is Nigh". It indulged in the heartbreak of the young mariner and his realization that this place where dead bodies were piled beside him was not Hell, and he was alive.

The second part is read to coincide with the Fallout Shelter sign that was similarly being placed on Doctor Manhattan's door during his decision to leave to Mars and its inclusion in the newspaper. The mariner recalls the disaster of the attack and thinks about his unsuspecting family, imagining their onslaught. He then buried his shipmates, and along with them hope of his family's survival.

Issue 24 continued on in Chapter V: Fearful Symmetry, coinciding with Bernard raving about the war's affect on everything. As the sun rose, the mariner decided to find a way back home and unburied his shipmates so he could use their gas-bloated bodies to support his raft. He left at night and ate gulls that flew near to him. He began to drink salt water in small amounts, then could see fins approaching. The sharks took away his shipmates' bodies and then he was attacked by a large shark that he stabbed in the eye. It eventually died, and provided him with food and support for his raft since it was entangled with its cords.

The next part of the issue was seen in Chapter VIII: Old Ghosts, surrounding Rorschach's escape from prison and the knot-tops decision to kill Hollis Mason. With thoughts of his dead family, the mariner in blunt terms, 'chose madness.' He decided to leap from his raft into the sea only to find he had arrived. He considered himself a spectre of revenge on the flow tide home.

The "Old Ghosts" could be seen as Mason (the first Nite Owl), or Rorschach and his dark past.

The next part is seen in Chapter X: Two Riders Were Approaching... surrounding Rorschach and Nite Owl's search to find out about Doctor Manhattan's disappearance. Two horse-back riders came by the shore and saw his body infest raft. The mariner killed them both and left for Davidstown upon their horses.

The "Two Riders" are quite obviously Rorschach and Nite Owl.

The last part of Issue 24 is found in Chapter XI: Look On My Works, Ye Mighty..., surrounding Adrian Veidt's ploy and the 'two riders' arrival in Antarctica to stop him. The mariner finds Davidstown and enters his once own home, that he now knew to be the home of the pirates. He attacked the first figure he could find and upon realizing it was his wife, he fled from the town and saw the Black Freighter out in the water. He swam towards the massive ship and reached for the rope, to climb to his destiny, now that he was marooned from his home, the world, his life.

Here, Rorschach and Veidt have both decided to eschew life. Rorschach chooses to die because he is stuck between a rock and a hard place: He can't bring himself to maintain the lie about what caused the disaster Veidt created, but he also knows that the lie and peace is a better option than the truth and a global nuclear war. Veidt has chosen exile, if not outright death, and remains marooned in Antarctica.

Some of the analogies are easier to see, as in this panel. The description by the narrator of The Black Freighter is overlaid with the fallout shelter sign, and the newspaper vendor's ranting about the impending war:

image

The black sails parallel the black triangle of the fallout shelter sign, the yellow skies are a metaphor for the yellow background of the sign, and the narrator's account of men's thoughts of war could almost be describing the newspaper vendor's words.

From a thesis titled Watchmen: As a Work of Literature, written by an Oregon State University undergrad student named Elizabeth Strobel, which is incredibly insightful:

One of the most interesting narrative devices in Watchmen is the frame narrative within the story, where a minor character is reading a pirate horror comic book that provides a parallel symbolism for the actions of several of the characters, such as Rorschach and Ozymandias. The story of “The Black Freighter” is juxtaposed against the current action, including the images from the comic book, creating a dialogue between the two texts.

The text of the comic is usually combined with the monologues of the newsvendor, and they both comment on and reply to each other. For example, the comic text “The waves about me were scarlet, foaming, horribly warm, yet still the freighter’s hideous crew called out, ‘More blood! More blood!”’ is placed with the newsvendor’s rant, “I’m a newsvendor, goddamnit! I’m informed on the situation! We oughtta nuke ‘em till they glow!” (Ch. 3 p. 1.3), which creates a connection between the newsvendor and the Black Freighter’s bloodthirsty crew through their desire for violence.

Both texts exist separately, that of the pirate comic and the newsvendor’s rant, but together they form a new dialogue that provides commentary on the events of the Watchmen world. This frame story adds to the tone of despair and horror that accompany the dread of nuclear war the minor characters in New York discuss. The opening of “Tales of the Black Freighter” plays appropriately against the image of the nuclear sign on a fallout shelter, as the narrator speaks of war, and describes the Black Freighter’s “black sails against the yellow Indies sky” (Ch. 3 p. 1.1), connecting the Black Freighter to the atomic bomb.

The story is read by a young black man named Bernard, who sits next to the man selling newspapers, and the text that he reads is shown in boxes that look like parchment, curling at the ends. The comments of the newspaper man are projected in speech bubbles, floating around the story the young man reads, so we read both the comments and the story, just as the young man reads the story and hears the comments.

One example of the interaction between the story of “Tales of the Black Freighter” and the commentary of the newsvendor is in Chapter 5, page 12.7. The narrator of “Tales of the Black Freighter” says, “This sudden confrontation with mortality induced an odd clarity within me,” and directly next to his statement is the newsvendor saying, “I mean, all this, it could all be gone: people, cars, T.V. shows, magazines...even the word ‘gone’ would be gone.” The “clarity” that the narrator of the comic discusses when facing death is also echoed by the newsman, and seems to be an extension of the narrator’s thought, even though both men are in very different situations, as one is alone floating on a raft made of dead men trying to prevent the destruction of his home, and the other is worrying about World War III.

In the last few frames of “Tales of the Black Freighter,” the audience is put in the position of the narrator, now actually seeing through his eyes, implying that they are now completely in his head, whereas before they were more objective observers. The narrator says, **“The world I'd tried to save was lost beyond recall. I was a horror: amongst horrors must I dwell.” This explanation of why he joins the crew of the Black Freighter reflects the Nietzsche quote from Chapter 61, “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.” The narrator of “Tales of the Black Freighter” has become a murderer just like the crew of the Black Freighter in his own deluded efforts to save his town from being destroyed by them.

The ending of this story is a commentary and an indictment of Adrian Veidt, and his actions in what he saw as saving the world. It also follows Rorschach's story, as he hurts people to help people, saying how when making an omelette, one must break a few eggs. However, this comes full circle for him, as he refuses to condone and live with Veidt's mass-murdering lie, proving that he cares more about individual humanity than Veidt, and he escapes from his role as a monster...

The warning of Nietzsche’s quote1 also comes back later, echoed in the ending of “Tales of the Black Freighter” in Chapter 11. At that point, the reader understands that the comic book story is a sort of allegory for the actions of Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias, who has gone farther than Rorschach in his attempt to solve the world’s problems. Since Ozymandias has killed the Comedian and half of New York as a by-product of his plan to scare the U.S. and Russia into making peace, he has become like the evil of nuclear war that he fights, becoming a monster while fighting monstrosity.

Even Rorschach balks at Ozymandias’ methods, saying “Evil must be punished” (Ch. 12 p. 23.5), which shows that he still values life, and has not become the monster that he sees Veidt has become. The application of Nietzsche’s quote no longer fits Rorschach so well, and in the end fits Veidt entirely. When the reader reads “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster” back in Chapter 6, the quote also foreshadows the end of the heroes, and the climax of the entire work. Moore does not do it on his own, but pulls in the tradition of nihilism by evoking Nietzsche, and adds another layer to his story.


1 The title of Chapter 6, The Abyss Gazes Also, is a reference to Nietzsche:

Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
- Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Aphorism 146

Or in the original German:

Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich.
- Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft, Aphorismus 146

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My philosophy of "Tales of the Black Freighter" is that it is demonstrative of the powers of perception and fallibility of man. The essence of the story is that a man is corrupted by circumstance and blindly fights against innocents he blindly perceives to be his mortal enemies. In achieving victory against his supposed enemies he joins the ranks of his actual enemies.

I think the essence of the story is that you have to to temper the battle against evil lest you become the villain. This is a key message from Watchmen. I think it epitomizes the phrase "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (Who watches the watchmen). People who spend all their time running around attacking people who they perceive to be the villain, making on-the-spot determinations of guilt and enforcing the ultimate sanction (vigilante execution) without any oversight are doomed to make mistakes. And in defending the innocents, becoming justice, how many wrongs can be tolerated? How many innocents can you injure or kill without ultimately becoming the very monster you fight against?

I think the authors were really using the Watchmen not as an example of the need for people to take the mantle of justice upon themselves but as a message that vigilantes are ultimately doomed to become the monsters they fight against. The main story is the example of the message contained within the "Tales of the Black Freighter."

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My secret interpretation is that the Tales of the Black Freighter was the story Moore really wanted to tell. What I do know for sure is this parallel:

  • In "regular" Watchmen, an abominable act is performed for the greater good (make a fake monster, kill lots of people for world peace)
  • In Tales of the Black Freighter, an abominable act is performed for the greater good (make a raft out of dead bodies, get to shore, start killing people in order to save the inhabitants of a village)

Both Ozymandias and the captain kill/use death as an instrument to save others. Tons of questions can be spun: are they both crazy? justified in their acts? etc.

The Wikipedia entry is also very rich in information on this.

Moore stated that the story of The Black Freighter ends up specifically describing "the story of Adrian Veidt" and that it can also be used as a counterpoint to other parts of the story, such as Rorschach's capture and Dr. Manhattan's self-exile on Mars.
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    Moore's also said that in the Watchmen universe, where there are no superhero comics, Black Freighter is the comic that Moore would have been writing. – Tynam Sep 3 '12 at 8:37
  • @Tynam "where there are no superhero comics" seems odd... weren;t comics made out of all the Watchmen? Dr. Manhattan is prime candidate for superhero. – Lexible Aug 29 '14 at 18:36
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    @Lexible It's implied not; in the Watchmen universe, superhero simply isn't a normal genre in the medium of comics - as it could easily not have been in our universe. (Why would comics be made about the Watchmen? It's not the usual medium for biography.) – Tynam Aug 29 '14 at 22:21
  • @Tynam And yet comics were shown made in-world about Ozymandias, and about Laurie's mom. – Lexible Feb 21 '15 at 18:45
  • @Lexible: Yes, but Ozymandias is deeply famous, and gets merchandising in every genre. In Watchmen's universe, the comics about Ozymandias (and Dr. Manhatten, if any,) are the equivalent of my comic biography of Winston Churchill. They're not fiction such as Moore writes. (He might have written the one about Sally, but that was porn... another genre entirely.) – Tynam Feb 21 '15 at 21:35
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At one point in the novel (near the end), Veidt actually mentions something about a recurring dream he has about "swimming towards a…" I suspect the author was pointing out that he thinks of himself as the character in Black Freighter. Him and the narrator both have very similar views of the world.

  • This is an excellent observation, which also highlights Veidt's existing doubts about the righteousness of his deeds (that he wants, but cannot get, refuted by Jon), and that his soul might ultimately be doomed for what he did. – TARS says Reinstate Monica Aug 29 '14 at 18:13
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I gave a personal and dual interpretation to the tale of the Black Frighter. I think that the marooned sailor could stand as a methaphor for every human being. He has to fight through the hardships of life in order not only to save himself but also his loved ones. Some people's hardships, though, are harder than the ones of others, and some people psychology is more delicate than the one of others. Some people are unwillingly shaped and transformed into monsters by the contingencies of their lives. Those we see as criminals and villans are people less fortunate than us that were transformed, by a hard life, criminals and villans, repudiated by society, and as such, the sailor finally does not see any other fate for him but to accept his monstrousity and join the black frighter.

A further analysis that I made is connected with the first one. It is also a metaphor of our lives and the hardships we have to overcome. Some put in peril ourselves some put in peril our loved ones. We all are driven to try to overdo, trying to control everthing, and try to save our loved ones at the same time than ourselves. At times we even focus more on others than on ourselves. This can be seen as a way to ignore our own problems that seem harder to overcome than the ones of others. But the sailor at the ends up hurting his loved ones. He should have first thoght to save himself and only after to save others. This could be true for everyone. Into trying to save others, into seeing their problems and miseries, without first thinking about our owns, we risk to hurt everyone and our actions might become redundant. As redundant are the actions of the Watchmen, that are all psycologically troubled. They decide to help others in order to fill their psycological gaps. But the result is that they do not really cure the ill of the society but only contrast its symptoms. Furthermore they end up causing more trouble and injustice, as the sailor does, and they also end up being banned by society.

I am not sure if Adrian could be interpreted as the superhero that is able to overcome his own psycological limits (and therefore the only one not represented by the sailor) and actually do something to help the human spieces from extintion. A necessary act, to save a species too troubled within to be able to save itself. The human spiecies is equivalent to the man who fights a redundant and unnecessary psycological war within himself, that would finally lead him to destruction or madness. The only way to save him is to bring him back to reality, that lays outside himself. A common external suffering or evil that brings back to reality and cures the man from all his hypocondrias.

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    Welcome to SFF:SE! This isn't a discussion forum in the usual sense. We prefer answers based on canon material and interpretations that are supported by primary sources. Can you offer some evidence for your intepretation from comments by Moore himself? – Praxis Feb 17 '16 at 14:36
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The Black Freighter is the equivalent of a musical score to me, underpinning the Watchmen comics, creating added tension along the way.

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    This is your opinion at the moment though it does answer the question. It would be a lot better if you could edit it to flesh it out into why this is the case and how significant it is. – TheLethalCarrot Jun 13 at 9:15

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