The relationship between the plots of Tales of the Black Freighter and the developments in Watchmen is one of the most interesting features of Watchmen. It was clear to me that the role of Bernie sitting at the news stand, where breaking news is related but doesn’t occur, was made to separate the pirate tale from the action while acting as a foil for the action; Tales of the Black Freighter cannot progress the plot but is instead a tool used for reflection.
Below are excerpts pulled from a 2000 interview with Blather featuring Watchmen’s creator Alan Moore explaining his intention behind the symmetry of both graphic novels.
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….
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.
Like the character in The Black Freighter, Adrien Veidt or Ozymandias, embraces villainous acts in order to ensure a better end result but becomes a definitive monster in the reader’s eyes. While arguably having sympathetic qualities, both characters have committed heinous crimes. Having a comic-within-a-comic adds perspective and furthers the reader’s comprehension of at times a convoluted story. Yes, Watchmen has a mostly fluid ability to transition between a range of differing story arcs that connect back to a complete narrative. But also yes, The Black Freighter helps to clarify certain points while simultaneously adding another dimension to the graphic novel.