Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Is There Anyone Out There Who ISN'T Re-reading The Watchmen?

Like the rest of the comics world, I just started re-reading The Watchmen in anticipation of the upcoming movie. This is the fourth time I've read it, but is actually the first in about a decade, so it's been interesting to come at it from a much more mature and critical eye than I did in my previous readings.

Over at Comic Book Resources, retailers Carr D'Angelo and Atom! Freeman are also Re-reading the Watchmen, but they're going issue by issue and doing a back and forth discussion column on it. I've cut and pasted some of the quotes I found most interesting below, but you definitely should read their full columns:

Issue #1
1) "The script for the 26-page first issue was 101 pages of single-spaced type."

Wow! I knew Alan Moore's reputation for lengthty scripts, but that is incredible! One wonders what details Gibbons was forced to eliminate simply for space purposes, and what other non-illustratable (pretty sure that's not a word) details are in there that might enhance the story.

2) "The storytelling is cinematic in that you really have to glean the necessary plot info from the pictures. Signs tell you that you're at Mason's Auto Repair. You have to figure out what Rorschach is measuring with that coat hanger because there's no thought balloon that reads, "Hurm, the closet is smaller on the inside than the outside. I wonder if there's some sort of secret--ah, there it is!"

This is, in my opinion, the key to Watchmen's success, not so much as a story, but as a comic book story. The fact that reading the artwork is so critical to the overall understanding of the story is what makes it stand apart from virtually all of its mainstream peers. Not that this is anything new and original. Harvey Kurtzman was doing this kind of storytelling back in the 50s in Two-Fisted Tales, and Los Bros Love & Rockets comes immediately to mind (no surprise!) in thinking of 80s contemporaries who were versed in the language of using the art as much as possible to tell the story.

However, Watchmen is unique in that it is one of the few writer/artist collaborations to do this successfully. More often than not, it is the vision of a single cartoonist which utilizes the art to such great effect. Also, Moore and Gibbons go to much greater lengths than the average creators with the sheer volume of story information that is crammed into each panel. Foreshadowing, symbology, political and social context - almost all of this rich subtext is conveyed in bits and pieces of visual background information.

3) "It was only at this past San Diego Comic-Con...that I realized "Under the Hood" had a double meaning since Mason is a masked hero and a mechanic."

Hmm. That actually never occurred to me either.

Issue #2
4) "For Moore, the costumes keep coming back to sexual perversion as motivation."

Well, certainly the scene where the Comedian tries to rape the Silk Spectre supports this, and it is undeniably a theme that runs underneath the greater story, but I don't know that this was Moore's essential point.

5) "...I think the cops went on strike to protest the vigilante movement and the Keene Act was passed to gets the cops back on the street. Moore is hypothesizing that in the real word, cops would not put up with masked vigilantes."

The scene they're referring to here is the flashback in which Nite Owl and the Comedian are trying to disperse an angry mob before the Comedian opens fire. I never registered the fact that the cops were on strike because they were protesting the masked vigilantes, but this makes perfect sense. What's more interesting is how the vigilantes fail in their attempt to take the cops place, and are totally unable to control the mob. Rather, they immediately place themselves above the law, and use lethal force against the innocent civilians, which only further alienates them.

6) "I remember someone saying that the reason the colors are changing every panel when the Comedian is in Moloch's apartment is because of the flashing neon sign outside. Unfortunately, it's one of the tricks that doesn't hold up. Neon flashes are rhythmic and brief, yet each one of these panels is filled with a big ol' word balloon; the timing doesn't match up. It was one of those "trying too hard" moments."

I don't agree. It's these kinds of subtle stylistic details that make this book such a joy to re-read. In fact, the alternating light and dark creates a wavering, disorienting mood which is well-suited to the scene, and fits perfectly with the Comedian's own rambling instability. It also controls the dramatic tempo of the scene, adding a rhythm, almost like a heartbeat, to the otherwise static point of view.

7) "Some of the dialogue here is amazing. Moloch's bit about cancer, that he's got the kind you don't get better from, is a great line."

I totally agree, and this particular line stood out for me as well. Moore has always had an excellent ear for spoken dialogue. I remember being particularly impressed by his phonetic use of a Scottish accent in V for Vendetta (though I can't remember the character's name).

8) "...when you know where the story is going, it's amazing to see how much foreshadowing Moore and Gibbons laid in."

This, to me, is also one of the most satisfying parts of re-reading this story so many times. For example, in the second chapter you already see a poster for a missing writer in the background of a random panel. There's no other mention or reference to its significance at this point in the story, so upon a first reading, most people would probably gloss right over this detail, or forget it. This is why re-reading Watchmen is so critical to understanding and appreciating the work. It's the complexity of the plot and the immense amount of planning and foreshadowing that went into every panel which can only be appreciated upon a second or third reading.

9) "I was obsessed with finding meaning in all the names. Edward Blake obviously suggests famed comedy director Blake Edwards ("The Pink Panther"). But other names refer to comedy. Walter Kovacs recalls TV great Ernie Kovacs. Veidt could refer to Conrad Veidt, the actor who played the grinning freak in "The Man Who Laughs," the movie that was a visual inspiration for the Joker."

Interesting background info I didn't know, though I'm not surprised that Moore's character names have deeper meanings and influences.

Issue #3
10) "I kind of remember this chapter as the one where I started to "get it." The devices and motifs start coming together. The close-up of the Fallout Shelter sign that sends a different message: "All Out Helter." This is when it starts to hit the fan. And when you really start poring over the art looking for clues."

You know, even trying to do a close reading, I missed this. Carr is referring to the cover image above with the first letters of the "Fallout Shelter" sign truncated. It's an interesting observation, and although I wonder if this was an intentional device, or merely a coincidence, knowing how much scrupulous attention to detail went into this story, it wouldn't surprise me if this is in Moore's script.

11) "Actually, the pirate story is a distraction to keep you from noticing all the "Easter eggs" in the newsstand scene: there's a guy with a truck full of "Fallout Shelter" signs. A poster for a missing writer, which connects to the Comedian's rant to Moloch last issue. The recharging station for electric vehicles that the kid is leaning on has The Flash's emblem, a "Top Ten" sort of touch. An ad for the "Veidt Method" on the back of the comic, making Ozymandias this world's answer to Charles Atlas, or maybe Flex Mentallo."

While I wouldn't use the word "distraction," I do agree that this is one of the great scenes in this issue. The details Carr cites are all conveyed visually, and there's others. The Nova Express headlines referring to Nixon's third heart operation, for example, tips off the reader that this is a slightly altered version of our world where Nixon never left office.

12) "I don’t know much about who’s cast in the movie, but how great would it be if Janey Slater was played by Margot Kidder?"

This would be awesome, actually. I've always believed that Kidder's version of Lois Lane was the definitive version of the character, and actually, was the single best female lead role in any superhero movie. Now that she's older, I could see her pulling off the bitter ex-girlfriend role beautifully.

13) "When I was reading “Watchmen” for the first time, cancer and nuclear war were extremely scary to me, so the tension was really building this issue. When I look back at it though, does the conspiracy against Dr. Manhattan hold water?"

I personally don't have a problem with this. The intent of the story is to show the real world's reaction to the emergence of an actual superhero, and I think paranoia is a very realistic portrayal. And, of course, the fact that the media would latch onto the cancer stories and spin it into a front-page controversy is dead-on accurate, as is the sleazy Nova Express tabloid-style interview with Janey Slater to sell papers.

14) "I've had customers ask if they had to read the text pages and this is the chapter that demonstrates why you have to. It's not just Moore adding atmosphere, there is actually story content in these pages. After issue #2, Hooded Justice seemed like the most likely suspect for the Comedian's murder. But when you read "Under the Hood," you realize the Comedian probably got to Hooded Justice first."

First of all, skipping the text pieces is a terribe idea. But the notion that it was the Comedian who actually killed Hooded Justice is interesting. I don't think Mason ever comes out and makes that accusation, so maybe it's referred to again down the line? Makes perfect sense, though. I mean, the Comedian was obviously angry over the fight after the Christmas party when he tried to rape the Silk Specter, and is definitely the type of vengeful bastard who would do that.

15) "I love the constant commentary on the history of American comics through the lens of actual superheroes in this world....There's also a Golden Age/Silver Age parallel: superheroes would have died out as a fad if not for 1960s sensation Dr. Manhattan. Is Doc a metaphor for Marvel Comics?"

This is actually one of the most interesting ideas in the column: the parallels between the evolution of the comic book industry and how it matured as its readers did. There are many specifics which I won't get into yet, but the passages in "Under the Hood" stand out as great examples of an older "golden age" hero reflecting back on the innocence and fun of the early days before things became more serious and dark. It's a keen observation, and the irony is that, once Moore laid bare these themes, his story accelerated the infusion of this realism and seriousness in mainstream superhero comics to such an extreme, that still today, 20+ years later, the influence of Watchmen resonates through the industry.

**Issues #4-6 coming as soon as I read them.

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