Friday, March 06, 2009
Word Balloon: Watchmen
Okay, this month there is really only one option for the Word Balloon. A book I contemplated detailing shortly after starting this column, but felt would be better served by waiting until the film adaptation was released. Of course I mean DC Comics Watchmen, by creators Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgens. First published as a monthly maxi-series in 1986, the 12 issue story has gone on to become one of the most celebrated books of all time, even making Time Magazines list of the 100 greatest English books of the modern era in 2005.
1986 was a pivotal year in terms of comic creation. Frank Miller's iconic take on Batman dropped with The Dark Knight Returns and Art Speigelman's Pulitzer Prize winning Maus also launched. It was Watchmen though that changed the way comics were both looked at and made. Writer Alan Moore had been achieving critical acclaim on his run of Swamp Thing, as well as short stints on Superman and Green Lantern. DC was eager to get him working on more things and Moore was eager to re-team with artist Gibbons, whom he had worked with on the British anthology series 2000AD. DC had recently acquired the former comic publishers Charlton Comics cast of characters. This included characters like the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, The Question, and Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt. DC editor Dick Giordano had other plans for the characters though and convinced Moore to create his own universe from the ground up.
The characters Moore goes onto create, while becoming their own fully realized characters with flaws and their own traits can still trace their roots back to those original Charlton characters. Watchmen has six main heroes, Rorschach, an homage to The Question; a character with a strangely blank face that sees the world in blacks and whites. The Comdeian, a dark take on The Peacemaker, a patriotic hero who epitomized his country. The Comedian does the same, but the things he has done for his country have turned him. Dr. Manhattan, based on Captain Atom, a nuclear powered hero, though our version is losing his humanity. Nite-Owl, referencing the Blue Beetle. A hero who has taken the mantle from another to fight crime ala a Batman. This Nite-Owl though has a hard time finding his self worth in a world without the costume. Ozymandias is very similar to Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, Charlton's answer to Nick Fury. Super smart and athletic, he has now retired to make a fortune off his super hero image. The last character, Silk Spectre, isn't based on a Charlton comic, but instead is a mash up to the superheroines of the 1940's and 50's, specifically characters like the Silhouette and The Black Canary. Tough female fighters who fought crime has part of the family trade. Both Silk Spectre and Nite-Owl are legacy heroes, heroes who have taken up the mantle of a previous hero by that name. The Comedian bridges the gap of the formation of the original heroes in the 40's, to the incarnation seen in the book.
Watchmen is set in 1985 America. With the creation of the super-powered Dr. Manhattan, The US won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon is still president. Tensions between the US and Russia have escalated towards the verge of a nuclear war and "masks" (costumed heroes) have been banned since 1977. Only Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian are still active under government sanction. The nation seems on the verge of a collapse. The heroes of the 40's have long since retired, and their replacements have given up the cowl. All but Rorschach, operating as a lone vigilante wanted by the police.
The book begins with Rorschach investigating the murder of a man who turns out to be The Comedian. Believing this to the work of a costume killer, Rorschach begins an investigation that people don''t want him poking into, by reconnecting with his former compatriots. Dr. Manhattan is in the employ of the US government has turned to science and exploring the mysteries of teh universe that his vast power has unlocked. He lives with the Silk Spectre, his girlfriend. A woman who feels lonely and neglected by Manhattan's increasing solitude and separation from humanity. Nite-Owl has retired, but has lost his sense of self-worth and confidence without the cowl. Ozymandias has turned into a public figure, using his looks and intellect to build a vast fortune, with little care or worry about his former comrades. The deeper Rorschach dives into his investigation, the closer the clocks ticks towards a final doomsday.
At the funeral for the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan is accused of causing cancer to his friends and family and exiles himself on Mars. Laurie (the Silk Spectre) reunited with Nite-Owl and pick up the cowl. As Ozymandias narrowly escapes an attempt on his life, Rorschach is framed for murder and sent to jail. Nite-Owl, growing to believe Rorschach's conspiracy theories, teams with the Silk Spectre to free Rorschach from prison. All the while the Earth is plunged closer to war as Russia invades other countries with America's weakening with the departure of Dr. Manhattan.
Dr. Manhattan meanwhile has analyzed his past and brings Laurie to Mars and allows her to choose his role in the fate of humanity and in doing so, she comes to terms with her own dark past with adventuring and her hatred of The Comedian. All the while, Nite-Owl and Rorschach come closer to finding the true culprit behind the murder, and who is responsible for the impending Doomsday.
What makes the book special is the inventive format. Originally DC had difficulty selling all the advertising space in the book as well as trying to figure out what to do with the space a letter column would normally take up. Since the book was a limited series they had 3 to 4 extra pages per book and a letter page would make no sense until the series was nearly over. Instead Moore created subsequent "filler" material to flesh out the world of Watchmen. He created excerpts from the original 1040's Nite-Owl autobiography Under The Hood, as well as another piece detailing a pirate story, Tales of the Black Freighter. The Black Freighter story was actually a comic within a comic. Moore, figuring that a real world with superheroes wouldn't have comics about masks, instead would have comics about adventure strips. The Black Freighter actually helps top flesh out the world of Watchmen as a secondary plot, about a young boy reading this tale that ultimately has an effect on the final conflict, a story that parallels the tale of one of the Watchmen.
Gibbons art style was also very visionary. The cover to each individual issue serves as the first panel of each comic, its the first story element even before you have opened the book. He also used a nine panel grid, which allowed Moore the opportunity to flex his story-telling and exposition skills. It was the first real world comic book, with an incredibly intricate plot featuring multiple characters with detailed and flawed backgrounds. Hell Moore's scripts for each issue were mammoth, the first issue being almost 100 pages for only 26 pages of art. Filled with detail and background information, Gibbons would have to highlight structural elements to narrow the scope into a workable format. Then take the details provided to fill in the dense imagery.
Watchmen was the first book to deconstruct the super hero genre. To place masks in the real world and analyze what kind of affect the would have on the world at large. It asks the questions that other comics never got around to. Yes, with great power comes great responsibility. The better question is when you have great power, who watches over you. Who watches the Watchmen? The book deals with moral grays in the world, tough issues like are your actions moral when sanctioned by the government? things like rape and is murder justified if it can save lives?
These are tough questions with clear answers. Its this morally dense, intricate story that many have called un-filmable. Elements like the Black Freighter and Under the Hood excerpts by many can be seen as superfluous, but they add such a deeper understanding of the material that cutting them detracts from the story. Rich detailed characters in such a contextually long formula (12 issues) can be tough to film. Picking up this trade is a way to enjoy the story as it was meant to be told. DC has over 1 million copies in print and it is one of the few titles to be kept in continuous publication as a graphic novel since it caused the inception of the medium in 1987.
Unfortunately, this is also the book that burned the bridges between Moore and DC Comics. Watchmen, along for his book V for Vendetta, were supposed to revert to Moore and the artists 1 year after the completion of the series to retain copyright. In Moore's contract though that would not happen as long as DC kept the book in continual print, which it has. Despite having almost free editorial control on his books, Moore walked away from DC, only returning to the fold a decade later when his own comics imprint ABC Comics, was purchased as a wholesale element from his publisher. Moore agreed to stay on as long as he was left alone, which he did. Additionally, poor theatrical adaptations of his work by DC Comics parent company Warner Brothers further drove the wedge in place. Adaptions of his books From Hell, Constantine (a character he created on his Swamp Thing run) and the dreadfully awful League of Extraordinary Gentleman drove Moore to have his name taken off any Hollywood adaption of his work. (He would donate all of his profits to the artists and collaborators on his titles.) The final straw was when producer Joel Silver said that Moore had liked and approved of Warner's V for Vendetta adaption, which he refuted and sued over. He several all ties with DC, with no mention of his name to appear on any future materials (except the comics he wrote of course).
Its hard for a comic book fan to explain why Watchmen is so important. It changed the way the industry (and the world) looked at the funny book medium. You could tell a very adult tale and not talk down to the audience. For the next decade after Watchmen, books were all about the grim and gritty. Finding the darkness of the anti-hero and generally trying to do what this book did so well. I can't honestly say that Watchmen is my favorite comic of all time, or even my favorite Alan Moore comic. It is a book that changed how I read comics, that showed me that sometimes one or two or twenty read throughs isn't enough to unearth everything a book has to offer. Its a book that each time I read it, a find some nuance or element that I didn't see before. Its a comic book in name only, its truly one of the best pieces of prose you can read. it is widely considered the gold standard of comic books, the pinnacle of graphic achievement. Please read DC Comics The Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
I'll tune in this weekend with my take on the theatrical version. Also listed above are the various covers for the Watchmen trade. The group shot is detailed on the hardbound volume, while the smiley face badge depicts the recent soft cover version, the one iconically associated with Watchmen. The version with the broken window is the original cover from the initial trade collection.
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