Friday, March 06, 2009

Camera Obscura: The Superhero Decadence of The Watchmen

It is most satisfying to see so many news and media outlets talking about writer Alan Moore's 1986 graphic novel "The Watchmen", which is arriving as a big-budget studio movie this weekend across the nation and the world. Moore - who no longer owns the rights to the story he created and won't see a penny from the movie or the merchandise - must still take some joy in the fact that his work is creating an even larger debate today than when it was first released.

I was among those who bought each issue of The Watchmen when it came out, one at a time, waiting each month for the next chapter, a process which took over a year to complete. The nerdy fanboy in me knew that Moore's creation was based on superhero characters from the old Charlton Comics company. And I had already become a fan of the very imaginative narrative experiments in comic book form Moore had created in his run on the odd tale of "Swamp Thing." He took a minor character and made a mythic, Lovecraftian phantasmagoria whose sum far exceeded its parts. Those familiar balloons inked with the dialog and thoughts of comic book characters were turned into prose, rupturing those balloons into a near-Joycean stream of consciousness.

He was the New Kid in Town and was beyond bold in his approach.

There were countless hours in 1986 and 1987 spent lounging about the boxes and stacks of plastic-wrapped comics and magazines in a variety of local comic shops where we would dissect and debate each issue of The Watchmen. The story of this limited series was a murder mystery, but it was also a dense and layered commentary on comic books, comic characters, heroics and myths, power and the abuse of power, satire, politics, science fiction, tragedy, and even on the very structure and form of comic books. (See here for more)

The cover illustration by Dave Gibbons on that first issue, shown above, was a sly pun in itself -- meant to indicate the "doomsday clock" closing in on midnight, it is also a spatter of blood on a smiley face button, a remnant of the murder of a brutal and hateful 'retired' superhero named The Comedian. And it rests in the gutter, in a pool of blood from the dead Comedian. It's also, like a movie, the first 'shot', and each image after on that first page is a 'dolly-out', as if the camera were pulling back further and further, which then places the button as a but a tiny speck seen from the window of the Comedian's apartment, now a murder scene.

There was nothing like it before. There were a few old school comic fans who did not like Moore's work one bit. In a way, Watchmen was too hip for the room, but sales of the issues and collected graphic novel were huge. DC Comics earned some credibility among us discerning readers - which they promptly trashed by invoking a clause in Moore's contract that allowed them to keep the rights to the tale simply by publishing reprints year after year. Moore lost control and eventually accepted his fate and demanded his name be removed from future printings.

For many years tales of movie adaptations rose and fell away. However, this weekend will see a 163-minute version of the story hit movie screens. Critics just do not know what to make of this movie -- will audiences get it even if they didn't read the books? Will they like it if they did read the books? Is it a good film, a great one, a mindless jabber of ideas? As cinematic as much of the design and imagery of the comic might be and adaptable to movies - it was a creation specifically for comic panels and colors and mythology.

I hope it sends even more new readers to the novel.

I hope audiences and fanboys and critics talk and debate the movie for some time.

There are ideas in the story which are meant to disturb and rattle the status quo. And I have always been a supporter for that. Someone asked me once, "Why do you like to rattle people's cages?" and I replied "Why are people living in cages?"


  1. The movie is brutal and beautiful. It is uncompromising and unrelenting. The sounds, colors and smells stay with you long after you leave the theater. Don't wait for the DVD. It must be seen on the large screen.

  2. brutal, beautiful, big screen -- all as it should be!!