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“Amongst Horrors Must I Dwell” — Josh Reviews the Tales of the Black Freighter!

March 30th, 2009
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“Delirious, I saw that hell-bound ship’s black sails against the yellow Indies sky, and knew again the stench of powder, and men’s brains, and war.”

So begins the Tales of the Black Freighter, the famed “comic within a comic” from Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons.  It’s one of my favorite elements of the graphic novel, and also one of the most bizarre (which might be why I like it so much!).  Starting in the very first panel of Watchmen‘s third chapter, and then recurring periodically throughout the remainder of the story, the horrific narrative of this pirate comic (being read by a young boy hanging out by a street-corner news-stand) weaves in and out of the larger story being told.

In the Black Freighter story, we follow the ordeal of the lone survivor of a sailing ship that has been ambushed and destroyed by the pirates of the Black Freighter.  Fearing that the pirates’ next target is his home of Davidstown, where his wife and children live, the survivor (whose name is never given) goes to desperate efforts to make his way home before the Black Freighter arrives.  Needless to say, things don’t go well.

In my review of the Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation of Watchmen, I wrote how I found it hard to believe that I was actually watching a Watchmen movie.  Who’d have believed that this brilliant, violent, weird graphic novel had ever been made into a film — and, even more incredibly, one so faithfully translated from the source material??  Well, as much as I had doubted that a Watchmen movie would ever come to be, it was positively inconceivable to me that Tales of the Black Freighter would EVER be included in such an adaptation.  In bringing such a large and complex work as Watchmen to the screen, surely the first thing to be done would be to determine what elements could be jettisoned, and surely the Black Freighter digressions would be at the top of that list!

And, indeed, the version of Watchmen released to theatres last month did not, in fact, include the Tales of the Black Freighter.  But, bless their hearts, Snyder and his team did actually adapt the Tales of the Black Freighter.  In order to capture the “comic within a comic” and differentiate it from the rest of the movie, they made the savvy choice to create it using animation.  And so the twenty minute Tales of the Black Freighter short film came to be.  It was released to DVD this past week, and it will be edited back into the Watchmen movie for a super-duper special edition DVD to come.  

So how is it?  Pretty good!  The brutality of the tale is rather remarkably preserved.  I had a few moments of quite giddy joy at watching iconic moments from the comic (such as the vicious shark attack) brought to life before my eyes.  

Gerard Butler (300, RocknRolla) is perfect as the voice of the sailor — grim and foreboding and increasingly desperate.  A phenomenal choice.

The quality of the animation, though, was a little disappointing.  The colors are gorgeous and the characters and backgrounds are very detailed and well-designed, but I found the character animation to be a little stiff.  Having so much detail on all of the characters probably made animating them smoothly more of a challenge.  (Part of the reason that Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series designs worked so well was their simplicity — with so few lines on every character, they looked great even on episodes where the animation was sub-par.) 

The tale also loses some of its power when taken out of the greater Watchmen story and presented on its own.  Much of the meaning of the Black Freighter story lies in the way it provides a parallel (or, one might argue, a counterpoint) to the story of a major character in Watchmen.  (I am trying to avoid spoilers here, so forgive my vagueness!)  Black Freighter presents a hard to resist argument that sometimes the best of intentions can lead to the foulest of results, and that dovetails beautifully with the story of Watchmen.  On its own, Black Freighter loses that potency.

Also, in the graphic novel, a great part of the fun is the way that Moore & Gibbons wove the Black Freighter comic in and around the other events being told in their story.  In a striking example, the stranded sailor remarks about the wooden figurehead of a nude woman, broken off from the bow of his destroyed ship, that had saved his life by keeping him afloat: “I could not love her as she had loved me.”  In a playful bit of business, that caption is placed over a panel of Dr. Manhattan and Laurie making love, an event which is interrupted by Laurie’s horror at Manhattan’s growing distance from him.  Manhattan is unable to love her the way she had (once) loved him.  As I watched the animated Black Freighter, I often found myself distracted, imagining the animated scenes inter-cut into Snyder’s live-action movie, and how they would play.  (I can’t wait to see that version!)

There are other fun features on the DVD, in addition to the animated Black Freighter short film.  Under the Hood is about 40 minutes long, and is a faux 60 Minutes/Charlie Rose style TV special about the super-heroes of the Watchmen world.  Under the Hood is the title of Hollis Mason’s tell-all biography about his life as the first Night Owl.  This is mentioned a few times in the Watchmen movie, but it’s a much larger element of the original graphic novel, in which several lengthy “excerpts” from Mason’s text are included in- between the early chapters.  In the comic, these excerpts help flesh out the back-story of the world of Watchmen, giving us additional insight as to what prompted some people to dress up in costumes in order to fight crime.  The fake Under the Hood TV special does a lot of the same things, as we get to watch lengthy interviews with Stephen McHattie as Hollis Mason, Carla Gugino as the first Silk Spectre, and several other actors reprising their roles from the Watchmen film.  The special is a little dry, but then, that’s exactly what it was designed to be.  Nothing revelatory here, but it’s fun.  

There is also a night featurette with behind-the-scenes commentary on the making of these two supplemental pieces of the Watchmen story.

If you’re a Watchmen fanatic like me, the DVD is definitely worth your time.  If you’re not, then hold out for that eventual super-duper edition!

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