March 4, 2009

The film: A ramble, a rant, a hope.

So I’ve seen the film already — a little more than two weeks ago, actually, in a screening room in an office building in downtown Chicago (relatively small by cinema standards, and not lot unlike a home theater). The occasion was made to feel very exclusive and hush-hush and top secret, as if all 9 or 10 of us had just been approved for clearance to work in the Obama White House. Because I was admitted into the screening as a professional journalist, I figured I should honor the Warner Bros request not to leak a review. But now that all the pros’ opinions are hitting the ’net — and, from high praise to total pan, those reviews are as varied as the constantly shifting designs on Rorschach’s mask — I’m (finally) weighing in too.

Keep in mind, I wasn’t sitting there with a critic’s hat on, so I wasn’t taking copious notes. I’d been assigned by the Chicago Tribune to write a preview, not a review. (Although the end result isn’t quite what I’d been aiming for, my editor and I managed to get about 1,000 words into the paper — that’s a ton by today’s standards, especially at the ever-shrinking Trib — and hopefully, by citing professional astronomers and poetry professors, we presented a pretty unique angle among all the mainstream press.)

Anyway, it shouldn't surprise anyone to know that it's not as good as the book. I say that without any scorn. I’m not a purist; I fully realize that any adaptation requires change. I’m also not a fan of Zack Snyder's earlier film, “300” (although that’s because I’m not a Frank Miller fan), yet I’d spent months feeling cautiously optimistic about this movie. And were my hopes fulfilled? No. Or I should say: Not yet. Parts of it are truly transcendent ... but a couple things really blow chunks.

Remember how you saw “The Fellowship of the Ring,” and it was pretty good? And then, months later, you saw the director’s cut on DVD, and it was so much better? Instead of leaping from action sequence to action sequence, it had room for characterization, for true immersion into the land of Middle Earth, for moments that made you care all the more about the threat posed by The One Ring? Well, “Watchmen” is a lot like that.

Like Tolkien, Moore & Gibbons have created a very dense, multi-layered work filled with intricate back stories and its own particular history. Like “The Lord the of the Rings,” “Watchmen” has been profoundly influential in its genre. And both works have inspired infinite hours of study over the years (the chapter-by-chapter readings in this blog being only the latest iteration in a long line of such analyses).

While it’s clear to me that both artistic teams have great love and respect for their source material, Peter Jackson & Company had a huge advantage that Zack Snyder & Company don’t: the luxury of time. Jackson got 10-plus hours to tell his story in the cinema; Snyder gets less than three. (I’m not arguing that “Watchmen” should’ve been two or three films, just making a point.) Snyder told me that he submitted a longer cut to Warner Bros execs, who overruled him — what you’re going to see lasts for 160 minutes. (The irony is, some people will think that’s too long. Me, I’m a fan of immersive art, so I’m completely disregarding the ADD-tailored attention span of today’s pop culture.)

It’s hard to offer an honest critical analysis of an adaptation (or a theatrical revival or a cover song) when you’ve got strong preconceived notions about the original work of art. And, believe it or not, I wouldn’t say that I’ve got a deep emotional attachment to “Watchmen” — it’s not, for me, “The Wizard of Oz” or “Sweeney Todd” — but I do have a deep respect, admiration and enthusiasm for the comic book. Snyder himself realizes this is what he’s up against when the legions of fanboys (and a few fangirls) hit cinemas this weekend. As he said during our interview, “I mean, look — people who’ve read the graphic novel, they’re kind of watching it and ticking boxes as they watch it, as opposed to totally letting it go.”

So, yes, I sat there and ticked off those boxes. And if you’re still reading by now, I’m guessing you wanna know which ones got ticked and which ones didn’t. (This is your “duh! spoilers ahead!” warning. If you don’t want to know any details, stop reading now — but do come back later, after you’ve seen the film for yourself, and chime in with your thoughts.)

Aaaand here’s a quick list of what I saw ...

Rorschach’s pretty butterfly? Check.
Doctor Manhattan’s glowing blue cock? Check.
Cosplay copulation inside a hovering Owlship? Check.
Stunning visits to Mars and Antarctica? Check.
The moral conundrum of the conclusion? Check.

On the other hand:
The two Bernies and the entire newsstand scene? Nope.
The subplot/character arc of Hollis Mason? Nope.
Rorschach’s impact on his psychiatrist? Nope.
The inner workings of the New Frontiersmen office? Nope.
The giant death squid? Nope.

Actually, I can live without some of that stuff. Yeah, the squid’s gone, but that’s practically a mere Macguffin in Veidt’s plot, the substance of which remains the same. He’s still engineered a genocide, and he still did it 35 minutes ago. And (as you might’ve heard by now) the “Black Freighter” comic has been adapted into its own animated special, which will be out on DVD later in March — and, eventually, mixed back into the film in a special “ultimate cut.” (Believe me, Warner Bros is going to milk this baby with several different DVD iterations.)

But, while some of the rest of the details had to go, the story suffers for it. And — here comes my rant — they fucked up my favorite scene! And it’s the worst possible sin, really, because it’s not a substantive cut at all, just a trim of a few key seconds: the lopping off the ending of Dr. Manhattan’s epiphany on Mars. That, for me, is one of the book’s greatest moments, and certainly its most beautiful — an oasis of profound inspiration in a tale almost otherwise consumed by its bleak world view.

Here’s what happens in the movie: Laurie realizes who her father is, and the good Doc realizes that she is a miracle and thus he decides to return to Earth. But the screenplay never makes the key connection, when Laurie says, “But — if me, my birth, if that’s a thermodynamic miracle — I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!” And Jon replies, “Yes. Anybody in the world. But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles, that they become commonplace and we forget ... ”

Instead, Jon tells her that he realizes that she’s a miracle, and that’s it. Which, you know, sort of spoils the greater truth. (This scene also makes it abundantly clear that actress Malin Akerman was cast specifically because she looked damn hot in yellow-and-black spandex. Oh, and maybe because she could actually pull off those severe bangs. Those qualities are the sum total of her assets.)

To add insult to injury, there’s a worst-common-denominator moment in the screenplay during the Doc’s realization. As he builds to the miracle moment, he says to Laurie, “... until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate — Edward Blake, the Comedian — and ... ” Arrrgh! What. The. Fuck!? She knows who he’s talking about! Why would he say both names like that? It reeks of talking down to the audience. (As does the moment, somewhat earlier in the film, when Rorschach, recalling the case that turned him into a crazy vengeful psychopath, looks out the window at the two German Shepherds fighting over a large bone and slowly realizes where that bone came from. Except in the movie, they’re clearly fighting over a fleshy human leg, complete with foot still attached.)

Guess what, Snyder and Company: If somebody has been sitting through two-plus hours of your movie and can’t figure out, after all the flashbacks Laurie’s just had, that Eddie Blake = the Comedian = her father, well, I’m damn sure that they’re way too stupid or way too drunk to really enjoy it anyway. Either way, those four little explanatory words you added to Jon’s speech aren’t going to help them.

So there. That’s my rant. You might have your own, after you see it. We all have different moments that move us, and if they get tampered with in the wrong way, it leaves a really bad taste. Case in point: In “The Two Towers,” I hated it when Faramir decides to kidnap Frodo and march him to Osgiliath. Hated it. The whole sequence makes no sense ... but don’t get me started. Today, while I still grit my teeth a little during that sequence, overall I love “The Lord of the Rings.” So there’s hope for “Watchmen.”

In fact, I’m going back to see it with a group of friends Saturday, and I’m excited. We’re catching it at a sold-out screening at an Imax theater, which will be worlds away from how I saw it the first time. (I mean, those none of those other 9 or 10 people ever laughed. At all. And, come on, I know it’s grim and violent, but there are a few funny bits.)

I’m curious to find out what my reaction will be after this second viewing. Now that I already know what’s different, I can, paradoxically, approach it with a fresh palette — because I won’t be sitting there, checking off those boxes. With that mental game out of the way, I’ll be able to assess of the work before me, not the one in my head.

So I’m looking forward to seeing it huge, with a presumably enthusiastic crowd. But you know what I’m really looking forward to? The “Watchmen” movie of the future. By which I mean director’s cut which, Snyder told me, is a full half-hour longer (and might even get a theatrical release this summer). And, ultimately, the 220-minute cut, with the animated “Black Freighter” sequence is added in. At that point, I hope, it’ll be like finally watching “The Lord of the Rings” with all the extra footage added back in, when the movie finally had time to breathe.

At that point, we longtime fans of the comic book might just get the movie we hoped we’d see this weekend.

March 3, 2009

Chapter IV: “Watchmaker”

Ahhhh — one of my favorite issues. In fact, this entire second quarter of the book — chapters 4, 5 and 6 — are the best of the whole series. (Part of me winces when I type that; I realize it’s some sort of folly to isolate individual segments from the greater whole. On the other hand, Moore clearly adopts different storytelling approaches in different chapters, and some of the chapters contain enough of a story arc that they could stand alone. Therefore, singling out this or that chapter isn’t an entirely foolish enterprise.) Moore’s a highly flexible writer, able to adopt a variety of styles, such as the deliberately turgid prose found in the “Black Freighter” comic. But here, his prose flows smoothly, his rhythms well-measured, his insights poetic. Running through the entire chapter is the deft use of the watch metaphor, reflecting how everything in Jon’s life clicks perfectly into its place, one event setting up another with precision.

Frontispiece. Here’s an interesting twist on an otherwise strict “Watchmen” pattern: The cover art is not repeated in the very first panel of page 1. Sure, our favorite naked blue demigod is holding that aged, tattered picture of Janey and his human self in his hand, but Gibbons doesn’t show it lying the Martian sand, as on the cover, until the second panel. Considering that little (if anything) in this meticulously planned comic is left to chance, the difference struck me when I (finally) noticed it. And then it hit me: While the entire book plays with chronology, this chapter concerns itself, far more than any other, with the mercurial nature of time. We humans see it only in linear fashion, but (riffing on Einstein’s theories about the relativity of time) Dr. Manhattan sees it all at once. Accordingly, as they introduce us to Jon’s backstory, M&G give us a visual glimpse of his future-past-present sense of the world by mixing up the standard visual order of the chapter’s beginning.

Page 1. “All we see of stars is their old photographs.” I love this line.

Pages 4. Wally Weaver and Professor Milton Glass — minor but significant recurring characters. Weaver, as we learned last issue, is the first of Dr. Manhattan’s associates to contract cancer. Glass breaks the bad news to Jon after he’s locked in the intrinsic-field machine; he’s also the author of the appendix to this chapter.

Page 5. “At play amidst the strangeness and charm”: I didn’t have any idea what this signified, though I love the turn of phrase. Let us now give thanks, once again, to the magic of the internet — apparently “strangeness” and “charm” are adjectives used by physicists to describe the qualities of quarks. The full saying, it seems, is a scientist’s way to describe death — a beautiful brainiac euphemism, melding science with spirituality. It makes further sense when you consider Jon’s response, in Chapter 1 (page 23), to news of the Comedian’s death: “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference.”

Anyway, this bulletin board is clearly how Gila Flats employees pay tribute to those who’ve died. Soon, Janey will put the picture of her and Jon on the board, thinking that he, too, is at play amidst the strangeness and charm.

Further down the page, during the couple’s first meeting, he tells her, “Other people seem to make all my moves for me.” A prophetic statement, given how detached he becomes from the rest of humanity — and how little he does to affect any outcome in the entire story.

Page 6. We get the only “real time” glimpse of this moment preserved by the camera — and, as colored here by John Higgins, the silhouetted shapes of the ferris wheel and the escaped balloon in the background remind me of a watch’s various cogs and wheels. We see those, of course, tumbling repeatedly, also in striking silhouette, throughout the chapter.

Page 7. Jon’s “accident” happens in August 1959. It’s worth noting that the world’s most notable experience with atomic power — the bombing of Hiroshima (and, two days later, Nagasaki), the event that launched Jon onto this path, thanks to his father’s proclamation on page 3 — also happened in August, 14 years earlier.

Page 8. Stunning illustration here by Gibbons. And of course, another striking use of an extra-large panel, which lends the moment greater storytelling impact.

Page 12. A little inside joke, I think, from M&G about costume logos. DC’s “mighty mite,” the Atom, can shrink to microscopic levels; his Golden Age predecessor with the same code name was merely a short scrapper; both of them sport the very same logo that Dr. Manhattan rejects.

Pages 14. Among other costumed heroes, only Ozymandias “seems interesting” to Jon — another suggestion that Veidt, the smartest man in the world, is the closest thing to a peer that Jon has. Also, look — poor Mothman’s drinking. I’d turn to liquor too if my costume were that dorky. (In a completely gratiutous tangent, I’ll note with surprise that the “Watchmen” costume designer and actor manage to make Mothman look both cool and studly!)

Page 15. Jon completely ruins Hollis’s retirement party and doesn’t even realize it. Poor Hollis.

Page 17. Laurie’s now wearing the earrings that Jon initially gave Janey.

Page 21. A great snapshot into the relationship, such as it is, between Jon and Adrian. Very interesting exchange about scientific imagination and conscience, too.

Page 22. We’ve seen Jon kill before, deliberately, whether in Moloch’s vice den or in the jungles of Vietnam. Now, however inadvertently, he causes the death of two citizens who were just out protesting — and he feels no compunction.

Page 24. An intriguing description of Jon’s view of the world: “Things have their shape in time, not space alone. Some marble blocks have statues in them, embedded in their future.” These words also connect, thematically, to the famous Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet “Ozymandias,” which Moore explicitly cites later in the book.

Pages 26-28. A stunning conclusion to this beautiful chapter. The Einstein quote is the perfect tag.

February 28, 2009

Appendix: “Under the Hood”

Back in the day, prior to the rise of the internet, comics used to print a letters page (or two) in every issue. Naturally, until letters trickled in on a new title, the first two or three issues had space to fill in the back, which is why Moore suggested doing three “excerpts” of Hollis Mason’s autobiography. By the time the fourth issue was going to press, everyone at DC Comics realized what a unique beast they had on their hands, and the execs had wisely decided to let M&G continue to play with those back pages, rather than devote them to readers’ letters. (I can’t complain about that decision — but still, wouldn’t you love to have some regular readers’ initial reactions documented in that way?)

The various text pages inserted between chapters have slowed down, even frustrated, more than a few “Watchmen” readers over the years. But here’s their genius: You don’t have to read them to get the main story. They’re purely supplemental material, designed to even more fully flesh out this crazy world M&G have created (and therefore enhance the engaged reader’s enjoyment) without being essential to the plot. That said, the three “Under the Hood” sections have always been my favorites, not only because I like Hollis as a character (he is, arguably, the only completely likable guy in the entire book) but because his backstory, including the history of the Minutemen, feels most germane to the comic.

Writing as Hollis, Moore adopts a very accessible voice and, initially, casts a warm light on the early days of costumed heroism. There’s a deliberate nostalgic parallel between the Minutemen and our world’s highly popular first super-team, the Justice Society of America, whose simplistic comic was a hit during World War II. (The main difference, of course, is that many JSA heroes — like the Golden Age versions of Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern — had super-powers; in the more realistic realm that M&G are creating, the Minutemen are mere mortals in masks.)

Speaking of famous superheroes, it’s amusing that, in the Watchmenverse, Superman debuts in Action Comics (as he did in our world) — but instead of kick-starting an entire capes-and-tights genre which still influences pop culture decades later, the Superman in Hollis’s world merely ignites a fad. “All these old characters are gone and forgotten now,” he writes. Comics are still popular enough to be available at newsstands, but it’s not superheroes that sell, it’s pirate tales.

Nevertheless, comic-book heroes inspire the creation of the Nite Owl alter ego. Significantly, good ol’ Hollis dresses up in a funny outfit and fights crime due to a drive to make the world a better place. He’s one of the few driven so selflessly: It becomes increasingly apparent throughout the book that most of the other “masks” don’t have such altruistic motives.

Moore’s deconstruction of superheroes and all their standard conventions even extends to the costumes. Adding to Laurie’s amusing lines about costumes elsewhere in the book (she mocks her own outfit in Chapter I, inspiring an funny response by Dan), here we get Hollis’ assessment of the dangers of bad design. By the way, writer/director/animator extraordinaire Brad Bird (“The Incredibles”), who’s clearly a big fan of superhero comics, has surely read “Watchmen.” Recall Edna’s cardinal rule about designing for heroes? "No capes!" A good funny bit in “The Incredibles” — perhaps inspired by Moore’s tragic tale of poor Dollar Bill, the Minuteman who dies young. His cape trips him up while he’s trying to stop a bank robbery, and the crooks murder him. “If he’d designed [his costume] himself,” Hollis writes, “he might have left out that damned stupid cloak and still be alive today.”

Throughout “Watchmen,” M&G love to play self-reflexive games with the reader. So when Hollis complains about how life changed after the Minutemen era had waned (“The new breed of villains ... weren’t as much fun to fight,” and the cases were “sordid and depressing and quite often blood-chillingly horrible”), that’s also a commentary about how the superhero comics had themselves changed. Starting in the ’70s, they slowly become invested in tackling social issues like racism and drug abuse. Those ills can’t be solved by a quick left hook from any hero, no matter how super; to this day, some fans contend that complex issues have no place in superhero comics, because they sap all the fun out of the adventures. Moore’s even issuing an ironic prophecy here, because the success of “Watchmen,” with its bleak but (arguably) realistic world view, bred an entire generation of comics that have become increasingly more violent and, to some perspectives, depressing.

Hollis’s pessimistic thoughts also offer meta commentary about the very book we’re reading. Moore-as-Hollis writes: “Real life is messy, inconsistent, and it’s seldom when anything ever really gets resolved.” That sums up “Watchmen” almost perfectly. (Except for the inconsistent part — this book is meticulously planned.) The book poses a number of complex, potentially messy questions that don’t have pat answers: Who’s a hero? Who’s a villain? In a world that can’t be boiled down to simple right and wrong, who makes the wisest choices? Even after all these years and several readings, I’m still not sure I know.

February 25, 2009

Chapter III: “The Judge of All the Earth”

Frontispiece. A close-up of the “fallout shelter” sign, with the smoke partly obscuring certain letters. What we’re left with looks a lot like “all hell.”

Page 1. The front page of the New Frontiersmen* proclaims: “Missing writer.” I don’t know that anyone reading this for the first time could really put all the clues together and figure out where this grand scheme is heading, but nevertheless, M&G strew plenty of clues about.

* Incidentally, this right-wing newspaper provides the domain name for a nifty viral site for the film, containing lots of Watchmenverse background. Worth noodling around if you’ve got some spare time.

Pages 1-3. One of the most admirable things about “Watchmen” is its attention to detail — and that includes a completely perfect imagining of this intersection in Manhattan. On one corner stands this little news shanty, in front of the Institute for Extraspatial Studies. We’ll see this corner time and time again, from multiple perspectives, throughout the story. Gibbons always illustrates it accurately, no matter what “camera angle” he’s drawing from.

And still there’s more: The comic-within-a-comic, that pirate tale from the pages of “Tales of the Black Freighter,” begins here. Moore uses the dark and overblown first-person prose of his hapless sailor protagonist tale to echo the events and themes unfurling in the main story. Admittedly, this doesn’t make “Watchmen” easy to consume: All these narrative layers and odd juxtapositions are enough to deter any less-committed readers. (I personally know of several who never finished reading “Watchmen.”)

Pages 4-5. One of my all-time favorite bits in the entire book: “Jon, be one person again!” (Btw, I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks Laurie’s a little nuts for not enjoying herself. You can sign me up to have sex with multiple Dr. Manhattans anytime!) Of course, her reaction points to her larger dissatisfaction with their relationship, only further exacerbated by the hilarious discovery (well, hilarious to us) that he’s also been busy with research the whole time.

Page 8. A worker from the Gordian Knot Lock Company fixes Dan’s door, which Rorschach broke in issue 1. The name provides another of the seemingly endless examples of coincidence that come to the fore later on.

Page 10. One of the many visual tropes in this book involves the repetition of the image of the smiley-face with the splotched right eye. You could argue that we’re seeing an echo of that pattern here, in the image of Laurie’s eyes reflected in her cup of coffee. Reflections in general are also common in “Watchmen,” as is Gibbons’ penchant for drawing a panel from a particular character’s point of view, which includes their hands in front of them.

Pages 11-16. I doubt anyone’s ever alleged that “Watchmen” is a subtle work, but in this sequence, I believe we see a prime example of Moore overdoing it. He just can’t resist connecting the words of one sequence to the images of another, and it becomes a bit too obvious here, meshing Doctor Manhattan’s ambush by the overzealous journalist with Laurie and Dan’s near-mugging by the knot-tops.

Pages 26-28. The sequences on Mars (specifically in the very next chapter and again in chapter 9) are among my favorite in the entire book. But the nascent astronomy geek in me must note that, despite our celestial next-door neighbor’s popular nickname, “the Red Planet” isn’t really red — nor pink, as colored here. If Mars is “red” at all, it’s the same sort of red we think of when we talk about redheads — in other words, more orange- or rust-colored. To be fair, it seems that even NASA scientists can’t really agree upon exactly how to describe Mars' ruddy color. For my part, I distinctly recall looking at Mars through several different telescopes several summers ago, when the two planets’ orbits brought us as close together as we’ll experience in our lifetime. (Remember that? He was just beaming in the night sky all summer long, back in 2003 or ’04.) Mars looked distinctly amber, really. I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, as the chapter concludes, that “all hell” wording from the cover page makes more sense. As in: “All Hell breaks loose.” Given the events that just occurred — Doctor Manhattan’s self-imposed exile to Mars, leading to the Soviets’ quick invasion of Afghanistan — that cliché sounds about right. The minute hand on the Doomsday Clock just ticked that much closer to midnight.

February 24, 2009

Chapter II: “Absent Friends”

Before typing up my thoughts this morning about Chapter 2, I think it’s worth noting the news reports now zipping around the internet about last night’s world premiere of “Watchmen.” Sure, it doesn’t open wide until March 6, but it bowed Monday in one of those fancy Hollywood events. Except, as with everything in the Watchmenverse, it was all a bit different: This didn’t happen in L.A. or New York but in London (entirely appropriate, given that the comic’s creators are all British); instead of dozens of movie stars, some of the celebrities who walked the red carpet were comics pros (including, naturally, Dave Gibbons but not, of course, Alan Moore, who’s famously sour on film adaptations); and the red carpet wasn’t red at all, but yellow. That last bit is precisely the sort of flourish that makes me smile. If this movie’s a hit, it’s going to be because of its astonishing attention to detail combined with a slightly askew sense of humor.

Now, on to Chapter 2 ...

Frontispiece. This was, of course, the cover of the original issue when it hit the stands in 1986. (I should dig those out of the boxes in the attic! It would be a hoot to page through them and see what kind of ads appeared 23 years ago.) This one is my favorite. It’s not only a beautifully drawn and colored illustration but an incredibly evocative one. The covers, of course, are all just tight close-ups of an image from the very first panel of page one (with one exception). Chapters 5 and 11 are the two others I like best, but like most of the covers, those are almost abstract images; this one conveys emotion.

Pages 1-3. M&G quickly pick up with a storytelling style that becomes de rigeur in this book —two intercut scenes that flip back and forth with each panel. Again, the colors allow us to instantly distinguish the two settings. It might seem like a simple-enough storytelling technique today, but back then it really was a breath of fresh air. (There’s a reason people call “Watchmen” the “Citizen Kane” of comic books — both works of art contributed fresh, innovative techniques to their medium.)

One side note about Sally Jupiter: What the hell is up with her kooky hair? I don’t have many criticisms of the comic, but here’s one of them (however minor): This character (whom I like, overall) is clearly vain about her appearance — so there’s no way she’d be sporting the exact same hairstyle four decades apart.

Page 4. This “Tijuana Bible”? They’re hilarious and, yes, for real. And Moore clearly has a fascination with them — and with sex scenes and porn in general — because it pops up in his other work. There will be sex scenes in later chapters of this book, of course, and also in his absolutely stunning “Promethea” (the one other Moore work I unabashedly and enthusiastically recommend, due in no small part to the out-of-this-world artwork by J.H.Williams III), and again in “The Black Dossier” (his nigh-impenetrable third volume of the otherwise excellent “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” series, which includes an entire Tijuana Bible sequence). And then there’s the really out-there “Lost Girls,” in which he and his wife/partner Melinda Gebbie attempt to elevate porn to art. Except they do it with childhood heroines like Alice and Dorothy. I think Moore’s a genius, but, as with many geniuses, the man’s not entirely right in the head.

Pages 5-7. The infamous rape scene. Nobody had ever seen anything like this in superhero comics. (I imagine the shock of it compares to the one moviegoers experienced in 1960 when they encountered Hitchcock’s boundary-bursting shower scene in “Psycho.”) This sequence sets up a visual theme in Eddie Blake’s life: The actions that reveal his soul to be increasingly ugly are reflected in his increasingly ugly visage: Sally scratches him trying to defend herself — and then Hooded Justice breaks his nose, permanently disfiguring him. (Although that’s nothing compared to what awaits him on page 14, exemplifying his brutality in Vietnam.) That shot of Blake on page 7, panel 6, directly foreshadows his final fate in the hands of his killer (seen in chapter 1, page 3, panel 3) — right down to the dripping blood splotch.

Page 8. “It rains on the just an’ the unjust alike, except in California.” And except at Blake’s funeral, where, among the notable mourners, precisely two of them aren’t getting rained on: Adrian Veidt (who’s got an attendant to hold his umbrella) and Dr. Manhattan (casting a waterproof aura around himself). Are these characters neither just nor unjust? Certainly they both see themselves as above the rest of humanity.

Pages 9-11. This ill-fated meeting of “The Crimebusters” (a.k.a. the Watchmen) is the only time we’ll see all six of our major characters together in one room: The Comedian, Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl and Rorschach. For the most part, these aren’t personality types that play well together; throughout the rest of the story, they almost always appear either solo or in duos. Also, note Rorschach’s dialogue: He’s speaking in full sentences, and the word balloon itself is even drawn differently. At this point, he hasn’t experienced his nihilistic epiphany — he’s not truly Rorschach yet.

Page 20. Another great example of the visual power Gibbons achieves by very selectively breaking out of the nine-panel grid. Also, this bottom panel is a perfect example of another way that “Watchmen” differs from so many superhero comics: It eschews the onomatopoeia — those often-silly sound effects which the old “Batman” TV show played up to hilarious effect.

Pages 22-23. The striking back-and-forth color scheme on this spread, as we’ll learn in Chapter 5, is the result of a flashing neon sign outside of Moloch’s apartment. The lighting amps up the drama of Blake’s confessional — the only time we see him behaving like anything but a villain.

Though it might not have been clear in Chapter 1, by the end of this chapter we know that M&G are most definitely not trafficking in a standard superhero story: These so-called heroes range from ineffective to aloof to brutal to downright evil.

February 22, 2009

Chapter I: “At Midnight, All the Agents ...”

... aaand, away we go! Hopefully, you’ve gotten started (re-)reading. At this point, the film opens in 11 days*, and of course there are 12 chapters. I can’t promise I’ll make a post per day, but who knows? Some days I might double-post. We’ll be in flow — like that frothy mix of blood and water on page one, trickling down the gutter (before the drains finally scab over and drown all the vermin).

So, without further ado:
Page 1. Best. First. Page. Ever.

What else is there to say, really? The text from Rorschach’s journal sets an extreme tone that perfectly suits this grim tale, yet it wouldn’t work as an intro without the genius visual, progressively pulling away from the close-cropped smiley image, up and up, all the way to the top of a very tall building. “That’s quite a drop,” says the cop. No kidding! And just like that, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons rope us in immediately.

Although you don’t notice it upon your first reading, Moore and Gibbons (hereafter referred to simply as “M&G”) don’t waste any time packing each panel with incredible detail. Some of it’s germane to the plot, though we won’t find out precisely how until later; some of it is just part of the background minutiae. There from the start, for example, is the “End is Nigh” freak, working the sidewalk; also there on page one is a truck with a pyramid logo, changing lanes in the street.

(Side note: I’m not going to write much about the film until after it opens on March 6 — you should all get the chance to form your own impressions — but I will offer this head’s-up: As counterintuitive as it might seem at first blush this incredibly effective, highly cinematic pan shot not how the movie begins. (And I’m OK with that.) Meanwhile, if you wanna enjoy Page One as a movie (of sorts), then check out the “motion comic” (available from iTunes — I downloaded the first chapter when it was free a few months back). It animates Gibbons’ artwork and turns “Watchmen” into a freaky cartoon/audiobook hybrid. It’s a bizarre thing, weird and cheesey and awesome all at once, but no matter what you end up thinking of it overall, the first minute is really delightful. Take a peek of it in action here: Some crazy YouTuber has found audio of Alan Moore reading Rorschach's lines. The British accent is all wrong, of course, but damn, it's still creepy.)

Pages 2-4. M & G quickly establish one of the series’ hallmarks: the chronological intercutting. It could’ve been tricky to follow, considering how they leapfrog back and forth with every panel, but colorist John Higgins comes to rescue with his clever color scheme, casting the Comedian’s death sequence entirely in red hues (except, of course, for the yellow smiley-face badge).

Despite Eddie Blake’s darkly ironic code name, “Watchmen” isn’t anyone’s idea of a comedy, yet the story does contain a few laugh lines. (At least upon later readings, if not initially.) At the bottom of page 3, we get our first grim joke: “Ground floor, comin’ up.”

And on page 4, M&G establish a few more background details: There’s a kid reading a “Tales of the Black Freighter” comic (can you imagine your 9-year-old reading that shit?!); there’s the Gunga Diner; and there’s that placard-parading nutcase again. Shiver. And what time is it? Eleven o’clock. That’s a.m., of course, not p.m., but still: Eleven o’clock is just one hour till midnight ...

Pages 5-8. Our first extended silent sequence. (There are precious few of these in the whole book; Moore usually has text juxtaposed with Gibbons’ art. I’ll keep an eye out for this as we go along, but off the top of my head, I’d say that the only other time we get this much purely visual storytelling is during one other sequence in Chapter 6, when we’re following who else but the taciturn Rorschach.) Anyway, I like how M&G encourage the reader to exert a little mental effort here, piecing together Rorschach’s thought process by following his actions (and his body language).

Two other random thoughts: One, we get our first glimpse of the Minutemen — which provides a great transition into the next sequence, introducing both Nite Owls. Two: How badass is Rorschach?! Him and that freakin’ grappling gun! Blake lived in a penthouse way at the top of that skyscraper. “Quite a drop,” nothing — that’s quite a motherfucking climb!

Page 9. I love Hollis. Also: More incredible detail, filling in background elements — a framed newspaper about Hollis retiring; a statuette of his costumed alter ego, awarded “in gratitude”; two copies of his autobiography, “Under the Hood”; his auto-repair business sign out front, ironically noting that he specializes in “obsolete models.” And — ah! — the first instance, I think, of some key graffiti: “Who watches the watchmen?”

Page 11. “Human bean juice”: Rorschach cracks a funny.

Pages 14-16. “I believe I shall take my exercise” — is this him cracking yet another joke? Hard to say. But his imminent exercise involves torturing innocent people who just happen to be hanging out in dive bars like Happy Harry’s. It says a lot of Rorschach’s badass factor that nobody dares challenge him while he breaks this poor guy’s fingers.

We’re also getting one of our first glimpses into the little ways that this world differs from ours: People tend to smoke out of those bizarre devices that look like a long cigarette holder, but instead of sticking a cigarette in the end, you apparently put the tabacco (or whatever?) into that little globe. Happy Harry notwithstanding, there are four different denizens of this underworld smoking from such a device.

Pages 17-18. Quick intro for Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias. More props to colorist Higgins: Veidt’s office, like his clothes and his costume, is awash in violet tones — purple long being a color associated with kings.

Higgins does great work throughout this book, often making counterintuitive choices. There’s a lot of great insight from Gibbons and Higgins about the color scheme in “Watching the Watchmen,” which just came out last autumn. There's plenty to say just about the coloring, but for now, I’ll simply note that superhero comics tend to traffic in full-spectrum color, with plenty of primary blasts of red and blue and yellow. (Even superhero costumes are full of primary colors, the notable exception being, for obvious reasons, Green Lantern.) Yet in “Watchmen,” Higgins sticks to secondary colors and earth tones whenever possible — the major exceptions being the yellow smiley face, Silk Spectre’s yellow costume, and blue Dr. Manhattan.

Anyway, after a tense exchange, there goes our favorite badass rightwing nutjob antihero, grappling down the side of the building. (Surely Adrian would’ve let him use the elevator, but clearly Rorschach prefers to do everything on his own.) And the New York Gazette headline notes: “Nuclear Doomsday Clock Stands at Five to Twelve.”

Page 19. Rorschach’s best line yet (though you don’t get the humor until reading the comic for at least the second time): “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?” Also: In that first panel, setting the scene at the Rockefeller Military Research Center, Gibbons has slyly placed the iconic Superman “S” inside that badge on the sign — oh-so-appropriate, given that Dr. Manhattan lives here and he’s the only true superman of the entire costumed bunch.

Page 20. Dr. Manhattan knows how to make an entrance. (And M&G know precisely when to deviate from their standard nine-panel grid for maximum storytelling impact.)

Page 24. Here’s a poster for the Pale Horse concert coming up at Madison Square Garden — on the surface, it’s the name of a band, but of course it’s also a reference to the end times from the biblical book of the Revelation ("And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."). In other words, more doomsday mood-setting. And the “Four More Years” poster lets us know who’s still in office.

Page 26. I don’t remember finding this particularly funny the first couple times I read it, but this time around, I laughed out loud at the idea of Rorschach dropping the masochistic Captain Carnage down an elevator shaft. Not incidentally, this anecdote explicitly introduces Moore’s ongoing suggestion that the “masks” (as Rorschach calls them) have some sort of sexual peccadillo, fetish or dysfunction.

Addendum pages. I’m saving my thoughts about Hollis Mason’s “Under the Hood” until Chapter 3, which gives us our third and final such excerpt.

* ummm, 11 days, 12 hours, 29 minutes and 56 seconds ... 55 ... 54 ... according to my handy little “Watchmen” app. Head’s up, those of you with an iPhone (or an iPod Touch)! It’s free, too, and naturally jam-packed with stuff. Some of the videos are slightly spoilerific, though, so you might wanna wait to watch those.

February 16, 2009

Who Watches the Watchblog?

Welcome to this modest little discussion group dedicated to "Watchmen"!  I won't claim that I'll be offering any observations that haven't already been made about this seminal work of art, but I'm wading into the critical waters anyway. I do know more than a few smart and clever folks, some of whom have already expressed enthusiasm about participating here, so I believe our communal effort will evolve into an insightful and entertaining discussion, even if unoriginal.

Of course, I'm making a presumption — setting a prerequisite, if you will — that you're currently reading the comic, or have read it in the not-too-distant past. Also, I advise that you have your copy of the book handy as you read these posts. (I'm going to cite page numbers and panels far more than I'll be scanning and posting artwork.) While spoiler warnings naturally apply, I'm going to endeavor to approach my chapter comments as if I'm chatting entirely with "Watchmen" virgins, so as not to ruin revelations that don't occur until later. (Those of us in the know can comment on any given chapter's chapter's foreshadowing further on, as the story's various fragments begin to connect with increasing potency.) I ask that everyone here observe the same guidelines by writing spoiler-free comments. After all, the uninitiated should be able to discover on their own how the Comedian never got over the loss of his childhood sleigh.

I'd love to leap right into Chapter I now, but as it happens, it's already mid-afternoon on this sunny Presidents' Day Monday — and I've got to be downtown by 6 pm to watch ... well, you can guess what I'm watching. Yes, it's an early press screening. I'm sure I'll be sworn to secrecy, but I will post my general impressions here, later this week (after I file my article with my editor). Will my cautious optimism be rewarded? Are the various people tangentially affiliated with the film (Dave Gibbons included) being sincere in their recent praise and admiration of Zack Snyder's artistry, or are they blowing buzz-creating smoke? We'll know soon enough.