Back Issue Bin #1: On the Prospect of Watching Watchmen
by Jack Baur
(With this column, I would like to announce the launch of a semi-regular column called Back Issue Bin. This column will be a place for me, and anyone else, to discuss and review comic books. Is this column little more than a pathetic attempt for me to justify my own insatiable penchant for reading comics, particularly when I should be doing homework, by making it seem vaguely school-related? Yes. Yes it is. I hope it will also be moderately interesting, and introduce some of you non-fangirls and fanboys out there to this utterly unique corner of the literary world.)
A few weeks ago, when I should have been doing homework, I found myself on the fanpage for the upcoming film adaptation of Alan Moore’s 1986 comic book masterpiece, Watchmen. For those of you who haven’t read or, *gasp*, even heard about this remarkable work, that last link will take you straight to Amazon.com. Go buy it, I’ll wait.
Now, as a comics fan, I am a sucker comic book-based movies and am constantly (and perhaps fatally) optimistic about them. When they are good, they are so good, and the recent comics-inspired movie boom of the last 5 years or so has produced some whoppers. Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, Batman Begins, Sin City, V for Vendetta: these are tremendously, shamelessly fun movies that are not afraid to be true to their sources, and are backed by great talent. They work wonders because of it. Superhero comics are inherently, intentionally larger-than-life, brimming with equal shares action and melodrama, and when the movies are done right, you get the feeling that the people making them are having the times of their lives. When filmmakers are having fun, audiences will follow.
Still, I felt a truckload of trepidation as I was eye-balling the website for the Watchmen movie that day. But why? Part of the joy of having all of these big-budget movies come out is the knowing that millions of people are going to be exposed to these stories that I love so much! Shouldn’t I be glad at the idea of all those people who probably never would have otherwise been exposed to milestone in comics history having a chance to enjoy it?
The answer to that question should be “Yes, of course!” but it’s complicated by the fact that Watchmen is not just a comic. It happens to be The Greatest Thing Ever Written.
Let me repeat: Watchmen is The Greatest Thing Ever Written.
Watchmen is part of an almost legendary trinity of comics that, in 1986, began to redefine people’s conceptions of the medium. In that year, Frank Miller’s unsparingly dark Batman: The Dark Night Returns told the story of an aging Batman coming out of retirement to reclaim a relentlessly brutal Gotham City. Meanwhile, Art Spiegelman’s concentration camp tale Maus (which had been serially published since 1977) began to gain recognition when it was nominated for the National Book Award (it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1992). Along with Watchmen, these revolutionary works are widely credited for raising the profile of comics while expanding people’s notions of what mainstream comics could do, and should be expected to do. They ushered in an era of darker and more daring fare and created shockwaves that are still being felt today.
The plot of Watchmen is terribly complex, so I’m going to try to summarize it simply: In an alternate version of 1986, Richard Nixon is still the president after the government-controlled superhero Dr. Manhattan single-handedly won the Vietnam War in the Sixties. The result of a nuclear accident, the god-like Dr. Manhattan has dramatically advanced US technology, and his presence secures the US’ advantage in the ongoing Cold War. Most other superheroes have been declared illegal by Congress after a police strike and violent, fearful riots in the Seventies. A few, such as Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian, continue to serve as government agents; others, like the dark vigilante Rorschach, have remained active in defiance of the law; the rest have retired. Everything changes when The Comedian is murdered, and Rorschach, suspecting a “mask-killer,” works to convince his ex-comrades to come out of hiding and unravel the conspiracy which, of course, is far more complicated and sinister than anyone could have possibly expected…
That’s the best I can do, really. To say more would be telling, and this is a book that you want to figure out, that demands figuring out. Legendary writer Alan Moore says that Watchmen was just supposed to be a game, a What if… Superheroes Were Real?! He wanted to show superheroes as people who dressed up in tights to beat people probably would be: fascistic, utopian, demented, and more than a little perverted. He wanted to seriously look not only at the concept of the superhero, but also the political imagination of people (us) who look at superheroes as a cultural ideal. His story maps social psychology, history, and political ideology onto its characters, building an entire living world with a real past and an uncertain future.
If that was all Watchmen did, it would be a feat, but more impressive than that even are the (dare I say it?) philosophical questions the book asks. No single action, from the heroic to the banal, exists in a vacuum; rather, the characters are made to answer for the ethical consequences of their actions, and by the end of the piece those consequences have become very grave indeed. Logic dictates that in any medium and perhaps particularly in the medium of comics this should come off as either heavy-handed or incredibly silly, but it is to the credit of Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons that everything here feels natural and very human. The world that Watchmen inhabits is so fully realized that the lives of all of the characters, from the god-like superhero to the guy who sells newspapers on the corner, have a weight and a value. The question then of what constitutes an acceptable sacrifice for the good of the world, even when it is being asked by “The Smartest Man in the World,” cannot be answered simply or lightly. Underlying all the fantasy, mystery, and action is a very real moral core.
As an example of the art of comics, Watchmen is also peerless. Its pacing is patient, letting things unravel slowly to build tension and immerse the reader, and every panel is significant, packed with information. The balance of the work, the way that events and characters interconnect, the ways in which the ramifications of events are revealed… I’m not an English major and I can’t identify all of the formal tricks that are employed as the story un-spools, but I can feel their accumulated impact, and they pack a wallop. I’ve read Watchmen 4 or 5 times now and it only gets better.
Which brings me back to the movie.
The Watchmen movie is currently being filmed just up the road in Vancouver, BC, under the direction of Zach Snyder, whose previous films are the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and last winter’s 300, also adapted from a comic. In these films, Snyder showed himself to be very adept at creating highly stylized worlds, which seems to lend itself very to movies based on comic books. Indeed, his 300 perfectly translated writer/artist Frank Miler’s visual sensibilities and over-the-top violence with fierce energy, technical flair, and undeniable panache.1
But that’s part of the problem: I don’t think Watchmen is a piece that should be stylized. It strives for a kind of realism (in its world, intellectually, emotionally) that many comics wouldn’t dream of, and that is a large part of its success. I worry that Snyder’s affinity for visual will turn the world of Watchmen into a Technicolor joke, ignoring its very real substance in trying to capture the style of a comic.
Another concern is pacing. Snyder makes films that are kinetic, constantly in motion, and very fast, and so that velocity has served the stuff that he’s made well. However, Watchmen calls for a steadiness, a thoughtfulness, and a patience that I am not convinced that Snyder has. I would trust Stanley Kubrick to deliver that kind of gradual unfurling, but Zach Snyder? Not so much.
Then there’s the density and the length of Watchmen. The twelve issues of the series add up to almost 400 pages and at least half a dozen storylines that build off of each other. Obviously translating that into even a long-ish movie would require some cutting, but of what? If they focus just on the antics of the costumed crusaders, the action and intrigue, they risk glossing over the emotional depth and political truth of the piece. If the movie was going to be 3 ½ hours long, there’s a chance they could capture it all, but Snyder has said he’s looking for a running time of a mere 2 ¼. That’s a pretty big trim…
My biggest worry over this movie though is this: if it introduces millions of people to Watchmen but ends up sucking, what then? Will this brave, revolutionary work end up associated with the rest of the garbage of the Hollywood? It’s a big concern for fanboys: Despite the rising profile of comics in the mainstream media recently, there is still a fight to be seen as equal (superior?) to other storytelling forms. If we can’t prove it with Watchmen, where can we turn?
Zach Snyder has repeatedly sworn allegiance to the original comic, promising that he will stay true to its spirit. Until this movie comes out in the summer of 2009, comics lovers will have to practice tempering their excitement with skepticism, just in case. In the meantime, I am going to see how many times I can manage to read Watchmen between now and then as a way of holding the original close, re-exploring its mysteries, and celebrating its success.
I strongly encourage you to do the same.
1Perhaps to a fault: seeing 300 as a film reminded me that the original comic never had much of a plot to begin offering little but cardboard characters, jingoism, and decapitations."