Thursday, March 5, 2009

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

No matter what else I say about "Watchmen" I wanted to make sure this got out there right away: the movie will never live up to the graphic novel. Sometimes the standard is set too high. Unless Zack Snyder unleashes something to blow "The Dark Knight" out of the water - unless something on par with the true greats of literature and cinema debuts this Friday - unless my wildest dreams are surpassed, we'll hopefully get one of the better comic book-based films, but it'll still be second best. The original story remains the best and no film or guide book or motion comic on DVD will top it. It's just as good as every raving fan has claimed. The 12-issue series by seminal writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins is the greatest series ever created in its medium.

And that's why there's such a big deal being made here at That's A Wrap! this week. Something this important for comic geeks doesn't come around all that often and after the successful releases of "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight," there's a sense that perhaps we're ready to tackle this book. But it isn't exactly comforting to see the book that is an exceptional example of both the artwork and storytelling working individually and in conjunction being transformed to a film by the man who's last film ("300") was heavy on the style and light on the substance.

But let's focus on the comic and leave the film for Billy's review and the podcast.

Normally I'd spoil the heck out of this story, but given the fact that I'd rather jab myself in the eye with a dinner fork than ruin it for anybody (and it would take up four or five full length posts at least), I'll try to summarize it as succinctly as possible. The story is set in an alternate version of 1985 where masked vigilantes appeared starting in the late 1930s. The most substantive hero came about in the 1960s and was the only character with any actual super-human power. Doctor Manhattan (who before a radioactive accident was Jonathan Osterman, the son of a watchmaker) now possesses near-omnipotent power over matter at the cost of part of his connection with humanity.

The presence of Manhattan changed the course of the world, allowing America to win the Vietnam War and led to a world where Richard Nixon remains the president in a world still embroiled in the darkest days of the Cold War. Most of the heroes are retired after their profession was outlawed in 1977, though Manhattan and the Comedian are both government agents.

The titular Watchmen were never an actual team, but instead refer to people that once considered joining a group known as the Crimebusters. The group includes Dr. Manhattan, his frustrated and disconnected girlfriend Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II), the impotent and depressed Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl), billionaire industrialist Adrian Veidt (Ozymadias), the violent and still active Rorschach, and sociopathic government agent Edward Blake (The Comedian) who's death is the inciting incident of issue #1. The investigation of Blake's death by Rorschach begins unwinding the thread of a massive conspiracy; the conclusion of which changes the world forever.

There is perhaps no better writer in comics history than Alan Moore. To list his major works are to list some of the most well regarded comics ever (From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V For Vendetta, The Killing Joke and many more). The level of sophistication and maturity on this title makes it all the more thrilling and engaging for adult audiences. So much of the praise of Watchmen revolves around its deconstruction of many standards associated with comics. And while the characters rarely have a highly positive world view and seem to be set in a gritty and radical interpretation of the genre, that's actually just the window dressing. The real maturity and sign of skill is the alteration of the structure of the comic and a firm assault on the premise of placing sales, profits and crossover concerns above freedom for the stories to be told in new and inventive ways. For instance, the idea a 12 issue series with no clearly defined villain, no quick banding together of the heroes, no major set-piece battles, only sporadic physical interactions of any kind, and intermixing near silent pages where the reader must see the story as opposed to dialogue or thought bubbles explaining them and yet other pages loaded with dense exposition and dialogue... it's unfathomable. Or at least it usually is.

While there are no shortage of enjoyable elements to the story, one of the most frequently mentioned is the usage of inter-cutting the art and narration of a pirate story ("Tales of the Black Freighter") that one of the supporting characters is reading to parallel the themes and emotions of characters in the main piece. One of my favorite devices is this character and the others that pass by Bernard's newspaper stand acting as the voice of the chorus as it were. They provide more detailed reactions to events seen elsewhere as well as advancing the view of this reality as a diverse and fully developed setting.

It is here and in a million other items like quotes from songs and poems that build the foundation of the world, not the actions of the heroes. The strongest emotional reaction to the story isn't to the struggles of the super-men, but the resolution for these characters and their lives. The depth of the world is further explored in the literary pieces at the end of each issue (excluding the finale) that might be chapters from an older vigilante's memoirs, a letter, magazine articles and various reports that further support the foundation.

While I could ramble on about each main and supporting character indefinitely (no really, I could... check out how much I did for Final Crisis), I'll only mention the most interestingly written issue in my opinion. That is Chapter IV, "Watchmaker," where through a rather fluid approach to the passage of time, Doctor Manhattan recounts his own life. As effectively a quantum being, Manhattan never experiences time like the rest of humanity. He recognizes different time periods, but his past, present and future all blend together into an utterly fatalistic approach to reality. To that effect, the moment in August 7, 1945 when his father threw the individual pieces of a watch out the window is no different then him dropping a photograph on the surface of Mars in 1985. What was and will be always has been and always will be. Time is imputable and it just frustrates everyone when he tells them how they will be reacting to things in the immediate future... but they do it anyway. And in Manhattan's opinion because they always were going to and nothing changes.

While some might refer to the artwork as simplistic or dated, its anything but. Gibbons worked off a simple nine-panel grid layout for the most part and must constantly battle against ennui. When he substantively violates the nine-panel style, it always highlights a significant visual item. But with a single worthy exception over the course of the series, it never devolves into the more trendy and marketable "Splash page" ideology that is omnipresent in most mainstream and even independently published comics. It's safe to say that the book simply doesn't look like most others in part thanks to a far greater standard of detail. It's said the first script was delivered to Gibbons with over 100-single spaced pages without any breaks.

Higgins' coloring work is a powerful force to establish the mood and and setting. It's something that becomes even more involving upon subsequent readings and he is refraining oftentimes from more primary bright colors and tones expected in comics.

Without a doubt the visual highlight of the series is Chapter V, "Fearful Symmetry." The entire issue is inundated with the use of repetition and reflection almost without pause. Every page involves some visual trick. Even a simple conversation in a diner is twisted by viewing the characters through a mirror. Even without any glass or watery reflection seen on some pages, on others its simply mirror images repeated in single panels, on a dinner menu or the blots of Rorschach's mask. Mirror or similarly laid out panels sometimes start and end the same page. In one case the use of three consecutive panels with only the slightest change in character position effectively rolls the same picture across the center of a page. The issue visually culminates in the middle with three side panels on either end of a single images acting as reflections of the opposite side as an attempt is made on Veidt's life. The issue even begins and ends on three similar panels. The first and last panel is of the RR (the first letter is reversed) of a neon sign reflected in a puddle. Next to each is a foot being dragged through the puddle in a softer blue shadow. And a violent red-tinted image is on the opposite side in each circumstance. Never has a visual technique led me to reread the same issue multiple times, often ignoring the dialogue entirely just to try and catch every trick.

And there is the main point about this book. It's more important from a reader's perspective than all the praise from sources like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and everyone else. Here is a work so interesting and deeply developed that not only is your attention held, but no sooner can you complete the story and put it down, then the idea of picking it back up starts to gnaw at the back of your mind. You don't get tired of watching "The Godfather." You've never listened to the Rolling Stones for the last time. You don't give away your DVDs of "The Simpsons." And it's the same way with "Watchmen." The first time you read it is only the beginning.

Final score: A+

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