Like nearly everything related to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel Watchmen, the new DVD tie-in Tales Of The Black Freighter requires some explanation. At the end of Watchmen’s fifth chapter, Moore threw in a brief history of a nonexistent ’60s DC Comics series called Tales Of the Black Freighter, about the damned crew of a grotesque ship. Throughout Watchmen, a boy sits beside a New York newsstand, reading the Black Freighter story “Marooned,” in which a shipwrecked captain fashions a raft out of his shipmates’ gas-bloated corpses, so he can sail home and warn his family of the black freighter’s imminent arrival. Moore and Gibbons juxtapose images from the comic with similarly composed images in their story, drawing attention to the parallels between two narratives about men trying to save their loved ones by becoming that which they abhor.
Zack Snyder, director of the Watchmen movie, commissioned an animated version of “Marooned” to be threaded throughout his Watchmen, then cut those segments when the movie ran too long. Oddly enough, the 25-minute Tales Of The Black Freighter cartoon is in some ways better than the movie from which it was excised. It’s definitely more consistent in tone, telling one grim story, with vivid Gerard Butler narration and effectively gory imagery. Given how much Snyder’s Watchmen fractures and streamlines Moore and Gibbons’ original structure, it’s hard to imagine how the “Marooned” footage will fit into the promised director’s cut of the main feature. The book emphasizes symmetries, going for a postmodern effect that’s all about the sparks generated by the clash of the familiar. Snyder’s Watchmen largely misses that, instead playing up the book’s sex and violence, and flattening out Moore and Gibbons’ layers. Even the animated Tales Of The Black Freighter, though well-made, is as much about blood and guts as about linking Bertolt Brecht, EC Comics, and the theory of mutually assured destruction, the way Moore tried to do in the book.
In that regard, the most intriguing part of the Tales Of The Black Freighter DVD may be its backup feature, Under The Hood. In the Watchmen graphic novel, Moore produced excerpts from a memoir by retired superhero Hollis Mason to fill out the last few pages of each of his first three chapters. This DVD adaptation takes the form of a 40-minute episode from a fictional 1985 TV newsmagazine, The Culpeper Minute, which digs into its own archives for clips from a 1975 interview with Mason. Stephen McHattie (who plays Mason in Watchmen), Carla Gugino (who plays Sally Jupiter), and others answer questions about the superhero craze of the ’40s, and why the era came to an end. The actors’ performances are far more natural than they are in the Watchmen movie—it’s especially nice to see more of Matt Frewer as the pointy-eared villain Moloch—and their down-to-earth descriptions of costumed adventuring feel more in line with Moore and Gibbons’ version. Mainly, Under The Hood seems more Watchmen-like because it doesn’t try to reproduce anything from the book directly. Instead it takes pieces of cultural detritus—60 Minutes, superheroes, grainy stock footage of the grimy ’70s New York—and asks us to hold them in our heads at the same time. What we do with that juxtaposition is up to us.
Key features: A half-hour featurette about how Tales Of The Black Freighter and Under The Hood fit into the Watchmen book and movie.