A few weeks ago, while discussing Watchmen, Dr. Beaty commented that in a world where superheros are a well known part of everyday life, comics may be very different. If you are unfamiliar with Watchmen, there is a subplot involving a boy named Bernie who frequents a news stand to read the Tales of the Black Freighter story of a marooned Navy captain and his attempt to save his family from the accursed Black Freighter, a pirate shipped crewed by the souls of the damned. While writing Watchmen, both Gibbons and Moore agreed that in a world where superheros are an established part of the global community, people probably wouldn’t find them very interesting. The choice to have comics about pirates was suggested by Gibbons and Moore agreed because his interest in Bertolt Brecht and the Black Freighter alludes to the song “Seeräuberjenny” from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.
The Tales of the Black Freighter runs throughout the Watchmen and parallels the main events of the story such as Rorschach’s imprisonment, Dr. Manhattan’s exile on Mars and Ozymandias’ regrets over his actions. I think that it is interesting that Mooere and Gibbons both thought to change the popular topic of comic books, particularity because none of the Watchmen have actual super powers with the exception of Dr. Manhattan. Regardless of the pirate theme, the Tales of the Black Freighter storyline can be said to underscore the main themes of Watchmen. The weakness, fallibility and corruptibility of human beings and the nature of justice being pursued outside of society’s channels run parallel to the themes explored through the main plot of the story.
Another example of comic books withing a comic book universe is the D.C.’s the Flash. After the second Flash, Barry Allen, was involved in a chemical accident and gained his super speed, he named himself after the first Flash, Jay Garrick whom Allen had read about in comic books as a child. This is a different approach to the comic books within the universe of other comic books problem. Not only do super heroes exist in this universe but they also have comic books which inspire the identities of new super heroes.
It is peculiar that Watchmen avoids the use of super heroes in comic books but the character Adrian Veidt markets his own line of action figures and other related merchandize because his identity as Ozymandias is public knowledge. While Moore and Gibbons believed that people would not read comic books about super heroes existed, they apparently thought that there would be enough interest in super heroes for Veidt to market his own line of action figures and other memorabilia.
I am curious to see if anyone else has any good examples of comics being depicted in another comic book universe. Let me know what you think.