Tales of the Black Freighter is a comic book within the Watchmen universe, an example of post-modern Metafiction and comic-within-a-comic that also serves as a foil for the main plot. Issues 23 and 24, comprising the story Marooned, are included within Watchmen itself. They are read by a teenage boy named Bernie, who sits outside a newsstand through all his appearances.
According to the document attached to Chapter V: Fearful Symmetry, which is an excerpt from the fifth chapter of Treasure Island Treasury of Comics, the comic book was written by Max Shea and was first published May 1960 by National Comics. The first nine issues were drawn by Joe Orlando (a real-life comic book artist) and the remaining issues were drawn by Walt Feinberg. The comic was cancelled after issue 31 and the departure of Max Shea but was republished by DC comics in 1985.
- Main article: Marooned
Marooned chronicles a castaway's increasingly desperate attempts to return home to warn his family of the impending arrival of the Black Freighter, a phantom pirate ship which houses the souls of the damned. 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.
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.
The comic is read by a teenage boy while he sits beside a newsstand, whose proprietor contemplates the latest headlines and discusses them with his customers. This juxtaposition of text and images from the comic-within-a-comic and its framing sequence uses the former to act as a parallel commentary to the latter—which is the plot of Watchmen itself. Specifically, Moore has said that the story of The Black Freighter ends up describing "the story of Ozymandias" (who admits, in his final scene, to having a recurring nightmare resembling a prominent image from The Black Freighter). In addition, the comic can also be seen to relate "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."