The story I heard about the origins of Watchmen was that when Alan Moore came back with the plot outline for introducing the Charlton heroes into the DC universe the response was basically:

"Great story Alan, wonderful.
...
Only we were planning to use them again afterwards."

So he went off to create a separate set of characters that didn't need to be left intact at the end of the story.


Watchmen is basically the story of superheroes and what society might have been like if they had actually existed. Nuclear power is ubiquitous. Society is sick and nuclear annihilation is a distinct possiblity. Against this background someone is killing heroes starting with the Comedian, and the outlawed (and not completely sane) Rorschach tries to unravel the mystery.

A lot of work went into the art and design of the comic book. With lots of detail and in jokes.

  • The cover of each issue was the first panel.
  • The page layouts were on a strict 3 by 3 panel arrangement with large panels being these panels combined. This was broken just three times (all in the first two issues).
  • Each issue finished with a quotation from which the issue's title was taken or upon which it was based (including Bob Dylan, Einstein, and William Blake)
  • All but the last issue had a text item at the back which expanded upon or gave further insight into that issue's themes
  • One issue (#5) was symmetrical in both its panel arrangements and contents
  • A running visual theme of the comic was the smiley badge which was used as the symbol of the Comedian. This included a crater on Mars which looks like a smiley badge - and actually exists.
  • No-one is interested in superhero comics (as they can just watch the news) so pirate comics are the big thing.
  • They created lots of new brands such as Gunga Diner restaurants and Mmeltdown sweets.
  • Watergate never happened and Nixon is still president (two reporters were found dead in a Washington carpark).

Terry Gilliam claims that one of the reasons his film adaptation never happened is that the cost of reproducing the story faithfully on the big screen was put at roughly one million dollars per page. This would easily make it the most expensive movie ever made.

Watchmen fans such as myself, of course, would contend that the book is worthy of such extravagent treatment, but Hollywood types could perhaps be forgiven for not taking the chance. It is rumoured that a number of less faithful story treatments were commissioned, with one major Hollywood screenwriter of the time contributing a script which completely warped the plot so that the villain of the piece turned out to be none other than Doctor Manhattan, who is attempting to alter the course of history to prevent his own creation. Maybe an interesting concept for another movie, but not really on the same level as Alan Moore's original denouement, which must rank as one of the greatest endings in comics, not to say fiction in general.

Darren Aronofsky, director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream and the forthcoming Batman: Year One (which is presumably based on the Frank Miller comic of the same name) recently expressed his desire to one day bring this opus to the screen, but apparently was not even aware that Gilliam had previously attempted this superhuman feat.

All in all, much as fans would like to see this terrific story exposed to a mass audience via the medium of film, we should probably be grateful that Warner Brothers have yet to cash in with a cheap and nasty version which bears little or no resemblence to the original work.

Alan Moore's From Hell, however, is very definitely being made into a film, starring Johnny Depp and Ian Holm.


One other note on Watchmen is that it won the Hugo Award for "Other Forms" in 1988.

The Watchmen displays a very clever layered storywriting technique that keeps the reader on the edge of his seat until the very end. It is so full of details that it is possible to read it several times & discover new plot elements each time, even in small seemingly insignificant sentences.

I will not give away the plot, but here are some things to note:

Watchmen
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Dave Gibbons
Published by DC Comics, Copyright 1986

Warning: Spoilers appear in this writeup

History:

Watchmen started as an idea Alan Moore had while working for DC Comics in the early 80s. DC had just acquired the rights to the Charlton characters, and Alan had just reunited with David Gibbons, who was also working for DC. The basic idea was to take some old second- or third-string characters, sort of happy-go-lucky types, and "suddenly drop them into a realistic and credible world." However, DC didn't want Moore using the recently purchased Sentinels of Justice (Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Nightshade, Question, etc.), because of the changes the characters would go through in such a work. So, Moore and Gibbons had to come up with new characters. These characters became the Watchmen.

Innovations:

The comic broke ground on all fronts. Many of the design elements in the story had never been seen before, such as the comic-within-a-comic idea, or the written supplements at the end of every issue. Also, the symmetry of issue 5 was another idea that hadn't been previously seen. Many of the tricks that are used in Watchmen now seem old and tired, due to overuse, but when they first were used in Watchmen, they were incredible. The Black Freighter story, for example, plays such an important part in the narrative. It fits right into the action in which it is referenced, as well as parallelling other parts of the story. It's been suggested that the Black Freighter is an allegory for the story of Adrian Veidt, and that parts of it also resemble the story of Dr. Manhattan. Also, the author of the story plays a supporting role in the novel. The constant symbolism inherent in the novel is also remarkable. For example, the clock, drenched in blood, slowly counting down, can be thought of as the doomsday clock from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The symbolism of the Nostalgia perfume, especially with regards to Sally Jupiter, is constant. Also, Dr. Manhattan is obviously referenced as God or Jesus in many parts of the story. This novel has so many levels, each time it's read, new secrets can be discovered.

The Characters:

Where the novel really breaks ground, however, is Moore's take on the “masks”, as the costumed heroes are known. These aren’t your typical superhero types that are common in previous comics. No, these guys are real, and have real problems. Each and every mask in the story faces deep-seated emotional problems. It isn’t anything as simple as Batman losing his parents, or Peter Parker watching as his uncle dies, either.

Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, can best be described as a Nietzschean Superman. Veidt’s megalomania is on par with that of most super villains, but the scary thing is his scope of planning. For example, long before he ever even dreamed of planting a monster in the middle of Times Square, he gives close associates of Dr. Manhattan cancer. To carry out his plan, he simultaneously invents genetic engineering, teleportation, cloning, and furthers the development of psychic powers, all in secret.

Rorschach is completely insane. He is violent, paranoid, psychotic, and anonymous. He doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of another identity behind the mask. He’s so twisted, when escaping from prison; he kills a man in the bathroom, yet his reaction is so slight, his companions are completely unaware of what just occurred. He exists in a state of pure good and pure evil. He is not cognizant of the difference between speeding and a serial killer. It's all bad, and it all must be punished. He lives in a world with no gray at all. Many consider Rorschach to be the main character, but Moore states that this is not so.

Dr. Manhattan’s transformation is so complete; he’s no longer human in any way but form. His estrangement from any sort of emotion is incredible. He doesn't feel any emotion, and had "a kind of quantum view of the world." He no longer empathizes with the very desire to live. It’s only at the end that he actually cares, forced by Laurie Juspeczyk to reconsider his desire to leave humanity to its fate.

The Comedian is also a twisted character. His nihilist, violent, aggressive persona makes him the least likely “good guy” of all. He is dead almost before the story starts, but through other’s perceptions and memories, we are painted a picture of a bloodthirsty killer who takes what he wants and damn the consequences. He’s also, at least to me, the most interesting character in the novel, maybe because of his mystery. We never actually see the story from his perspective, and the only thing we know about his character are from others perceptions and memories of him. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan both speak of him as one who “got it”, one who saw the great joke of life and chose to laugh.

Sally Jupiter is also a conflicted character. She was most definitely hurt by the Comedian, but she still loves him, as evidenced in more than one occasion, even enough to bear his child. She’s also stuck in the past, remembering her glory days through her daughter and the Tijuana bibles given to her.

Laurie Juspeczyk and Dan Dreiberg are by far, the most normal of the superheroes we encounter, except for maybe Hollis Mason. All three of them seem well-rounded, normal people, who just chose to dress up in a costume and fight crime. An overbearing mother pushed Laurie into crime fighting, and she seems to accept her fate now. Hollis and Dan are actually the kind of superhero we expect. They both have very noble notions, with lots of cool toys, and are very committed to making the world a better place. They don’t have any overreaching plans of world domination, or any deep-seated emotional problems, and they don’t glow blue, either. The only weird thing about them is that they actually were costumed heroes.

The costumed hereoes also painted a darker, more realistic picture of humanity than we are used to. Most of them grew up without a real father figure. Rorschach never knew his father and lived with an abusive whore of a mother. Veidt's parents were both killed while he was very young and he lived a life of freedom to do whatever he wanted. Laurie was never told who her real father was, and if she had been, she would have found out he was a killer and a rapist. Dr. Manhattan's father trashed his dream of becoming a watchmaker and became estranged from his son, so much so that Jon never bothered to correct the government's mistake in telling his father he was dead. Really, the only character who mentions a normal father figure is Hollis Mason, who talks about his family in the supplements at the end of the early issues. Dreiberg never mentions his family, but he has deep seated issues as well, such as being sexually impotent without his costume. These are not your everyday superheroes.

Conclusion:

Watchmen broke new ground for comics and paved the way for modern writers such as Garth Ennis and Neil Gaiman. It also gave birth to many of the dark superhero comics present today. It is by far the most influential comic of the last 20 years and one of the most influential ever. Its legacy will live on for years to come.

References:

Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons
All quotes from the interview in "The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore" by George Khoury
http://www.internationalhero.co.uk/c/capatom2.htm
http://www.thebulletin.org/doomsday_clock/timeline.htm

Node your homework

'Shredders' Journal. March 7, 2009.

Returned from watching the Watchmen. Brilliant adaptation. Several serious missteps. Alan Moore has complained of disturbed fans met at conventions. Person with bad hygiene, admires Rorschach. Claims to be like Rorschach. Moore says he wants to back away from that person, demanding they never approach him ever again.

That person sat behind us in theater. Most distracting. Wanted to hit him with metal lunch tray.

Also bloated middle-class couple, young children in tow. Young children should not see this film and its accumulation of blood and filth. On to review. Expect spoilers.


Film takes place in an alternate 1980s. Superheroes have existed since late 30s. The United States of America won the War in Vietnam, and Nixon remains president. While threat of nuclear annihilation looms and the world cries out for help, someone begins killing masked vigilantes.

Film has opening to make jaws drop, nerds and film fans drool. Faithful adaptation of Comedian's death. Next sequence sweeps through history of costumed heroes and the changing times, true in spirit to Hugo-winning graphic novel but a piece of its own, true also to medium of cinema. Awe-inspiring. Wish film could have maintained this approach. Bulk of film tries to be too faithful to original, but cannot possibly capture same depth. Medium often but not always served by slavish recreation. Much story to tell in three hours. Characters lack room to breathe.

The movie at times does deliver us these characters. Jackie Earle Haley stunning as Rorschach. Character sociopathic but compelling. We understand his appeal while shocked by him. Haley gives perfect delivery. Even looks like Gibbons drawing. Has come a long way since Kelly Leak.

Other performances vary. Generally good. Dr. Manhattan's origins enacted to good affect. Not a typo. Pay attention. Jeffrey Dean Morgan gets into Comedian's skin. Matthew Goode miscast as Ozymandias. Don't know what happened there. Just an observation. Performance mailed in from mainstream superhero movie.

Many historical figures appear. Robert Widen's Nixon make-up looks phony and overdone, so that he resembles a cartoon character. In reality, Nixon did resemble a cartoon character, but here it looks too obvious. Better to just have actor who vaguely resembles Nixon. Imitates style, like Frank Langella. Frank Novak as Kissinger more convincing. Kissinger also resembled a cartoon character.

I miss the days when politicians resembled cartoon characters instead of aged underwear models.

Observe everything. Even small points carry meaning. Film had to eliminate much of what gives the novel depth, deep as the pools of the blood shed in this film accumulated in one place. Director tips hat in several ways. Design elements recall Gibbons' art, and since room does not exist for the news vendor and the kid reading Tales of the Black Freighter, we at least pass both in the streets.

Great attention to detail throughout. Production extraordinary. Settings from the dirty streets of alternate New York City to the plains of Mars recreated in detail for big screen. Also, fascinating soundtrack.

When music works, it works well. Dylan used effectively. When it does not, it is a disaster. Overdone, overplayed clichés detract from scene, too over the top. Cannot be certain what director intended as parody. Funeral scene good example, well-filmed moments overwhelmed by Simon and Garfunkel. Also, sex scene on board Archimedes, Nite-Owl's ship, to strains of Leonard Cohen.

Sex scene on Archimedes. With so much to cut, why does this remain? Excessive, overdone, and off-tone. Not offended by nudity and sexual content elsewhere in film. Aware same scene happens in graphic novel, presented in a manner more suited to the story. Are we such whores that we must have this, even if another kind of scene might have better served the story and its characters? One that might have given the characters more room to breathe and develop? Hollywood is an extended gutter through which visceral thrills must flow.

At end of faithful but abridged story, changes occur. Nerds mourn absence of squids. In fact, ending fine this way for motion picture. What does not work is the execution of changed ending, the parry and riposte in Antarctica. Style and tone of dialogue reflects Hollywood superhero movies. Clash with original Moore tone and dialogue obvious.

Overall I enjoyed the film. Reminded of how groundbreaking original was. Characters remain strong and issues stay relevant. Twenty years of comics and adaptations made of superheroes by whoring corporations owe debt to Alan Moore. The film lacks the full complexity of the graphic novel, but fans and those who already like this kind of thing will like it.

But they may not love it.


Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: Alan Moore, David Hayter, Alex Tse, David Gibbons.

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach
Malin Ackerman as Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II
Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman
Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II
Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian/Edward Blake
Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre
Robert Widen as Richard Nixon
Matt Frewer as Edgar Jacobi/Moloch
Stephen McHattie as Hollis Mason/Nite Owl
Laura Mennell as Janey Slater
Frank Novak as Henry Kissinger
Clint Carlton as young Hollis Mason
A Cast of Thousands as extras, 80s celebrities, and cannon fodder.

Film: Watchmen
Year: 2009
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Stylised and glossy, a faithful adaptation, but incoherent.

Watchmen is a comic book written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons in the eighties. Twenty years later, it was finally adapted into a movie. I'll try to briefly summarise whether you'll like the film or not based on whether you've read the book or not.

If you've read the comic book, then the film adaptation of Watchmen is slightly less camp and slightly more violent. Very little was made up for the film, making it quite a faithful adaptation, but some parts were told out of order, and a lot - mostly character development and the unease of the people - was missed out from the theatrical cut. Hopefully the full version, to be released on video, rectifies most of the omissions. The only thing you really need to know about the adaptation is this: if you liked the book, you will probably like the film. If not, then not.

If you haven't read the book, then you're probably going to be confused for most of the movie. A lot of things are shown that don't make sense without knowledge of their context or backstory. For a very minor example, there was an advert for Millennium near the end of the film, which is pointless without reading the internal office memo about the product, showing what its marketing says about the mindset of the people and of one of the main characters. There are many more prominent examples of things that make sense in the original comic but don't in the film.

As the book was split up into twelve different chapters, each one with its distinct tone and sometimes even its own narrator, it seems curious that the film's director didn't keep the order of events intact or make the chapter breaks more obvious. Simply fading to black at the appropriate points would probably have gone a long way to helping the film look like several coherent stories instead of one big incoherent mess.

If you've read the comic, and you think it would be neat to see it come to life, then you'll probably like this film. If you haven't read the comic, it'll probably look like an incoherent mess, but a fun incoherent mess nevertheless.

Several people have since told me that this film isn't incoherent. I've managed to get my non-Watchmen-reading partner to elaborate a bit: the filmmakers tried to condense twelve solid issues of plot and character development into a single film, and the result is the equivalent of skim reading the whole thing. It's so fast paced, it's too hard to identify with any of the characters because as soon as you start warming to them, you're whisked away to another story.

So. Watchmen.

I must resort to metaphor.

Imagine a wonderful and complex painting, the size of a wall.

Painted on the wall, actually.

That is Watchmen, the 'graphic novel' cough comic book. Every bit relevant to every other bit, fractal trompe l'oeil hologram glorying in two dimensions. Scaling new heights of Flatland complexity.

Now imagine a bas-relief. The bas relief covers the painting, and is *exactly* the same scenes, rendered into 3D. With loving, fetishistic care.

Now imagine that only perhaps 2/3 of the painting is covered with this bas-relief. The rest is still flat.

Now remove the painting.

That is Watchmen the movie.

If you know the painting, it's a remarkable work of art, and even the decisions on what pieces *aren't* there, you can see, were made with art in mind and perhaps even pull it off. But in your head, it forever floats above the ghost of the whole. If you never saw the painting, you might still recognize that this is a work of art. It might still move you. You might even gain much of the original 'feel' of the painting. But all you'll know is that there are these inexplicable bits missing.

Others have ably reviewed the book as a book, and the movie as a movie. I'll leave that to them. I just wanted to offer my interpretation of the book-as-a-movie, and to note a completely non-sequitur observation no-one has mentioned yet. I really enjoyed the fact that the actors, and their characters, were all explicitly made up and acted as if they were being played by popular 1980s actors. Dan Dreiberg is Chevy Chase in the Fletch years, both visually (down to the glasses and the chin dimple) and behaviorally (simpering smiles). Wally Weaver is Woody Allen, including accent, voice tones, glasses, hair, stature, schnozz. And Walter Kovacs - Rorschach without his face - is Clint Eastwood of the Dirty Harry years, down to the square angular features and the trademark snarl, to say nothing of playing the violent stranger at the fringes. The comparisons of Adrian Veidt to Steve Jobs have been well-hashed over elsewhere.

Sally Jupiter looked a bit like a Susan Sarandon or a Holly Hunter. Not sure which. But that's as far as I go.

As I am a fan (in all the senses of the word) of the comic, I really enjoyed the film - not so much as a 'good movie' but because it was a herculean piece of fan service. I could feel Zach Snyder swearing to himself that no matter what the box office take ended up being, he was damn well going to film a three-dimensional version of the graphic novel because it (as a thing) deserved no less.

I liked it.

One question I do have, however, is this. Given that the schlong Dr. Manhattan has hangin' out the entire comic book is quite modestly sized, why did they feel the need to CGI Billy Crudup's junk to Boogie Nights proportions?

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