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By Brad Cook | April 1, 2009

The material on this DVD could easily wind up on the home video release of “Watchmen” when it arrives later this year. But if you’re really into the movie and can’t wait that long, “Tales of the Black Freighter/Under the Hood” is a nice stop-gap.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the number of people who have seen “Watchmen” but haven’t read the comic (indeed, Warner Bros. was betting on plenty of interest from the non-comic book crowd, which has, sadly, not panned out), but for the uninitiated: “Tales of the Black Freighter” is a comic book within the “Watchmen” comic book. Its story is stitched throughout the main tale, where it serves to act like a Greek chorus commenting on the action. The parallels are further highlighted in this animated version, where the sea captain’s sail has a Rorschach blot on it, unlike in the comic.

“Black Freighter” (26 minutes) is the “Watchmen” equivalent of the EC horror comics of the 1950s. This particular story concerns a ship captain who is the sole survivor of an attack on his vessel by the feared Black Freighter. He heads home, where he knows the ship is headed, to warn the people there. By the time he arrives, though, he assumes that he is too late and the freighter has already attacked, turning the townspeople into members of an undead army that must be defeated. His tunnel vision, however, has tragic consequences, not unlike the tunnel vision displayed by certain characters in “Watchmen.”

“Under the Hood” (38 minutes) is the autobiography of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl. In the comic book, Hollis’ story is mentioned, and the back of one of the issues reproduces a few pages from the first chapter. To convey the same information on this disc, a fake 80s-era interview show was created, so the host could interview Mason and talk about the history of superheroes in the “Watchmen” world. It’s well done overall, although the black-and-white stuff needed to have another filter or two applied to it so it could achieve the right look and feel – it’s obviously contemporary footage. The 70s and 80s footage looks authentic, however.

Neither “Black Freighter” nor “Under the Hood” is essential to understanding the 150-minute “Watchmen” movie, but the latter fills in gaps in the back story. Also included is the 25-minute featurette “Story Within a Story: The Books of ‘Watchmen,'” which fills in even more blanks. The behind-the-scenes footage shows a boy reading “Black Freighter” at a newsstand, as in the comic book, so perhaps that story-within-a-story will be incorporated in the director’s cut that director Zack Snyder is preparing, according to recent interviews. It will be interesting to see if it works as well in the movie as it did in print.

This disc is rounded out by chapter one of the “Watchmen” motion comic and a 10-minute sneak peek at an upcoming “Green Lantern” animated series. I thought the motion comic was silly – I’d rather spend that 25 minutes reading the print version. If this is the future of comic books, I’ll pass. If you’re not familiar with the concept, the motion comic partially animates the original comic book panels (using Adobe Flash, I imagine) and has one person read the narration captions and speech bubbles. As a result, it occupies this weird “neither this nor that” world in which it doesn’t fulfill the function of printed comics nor animation. Pick one or the other and execute it well, folks.

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