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  • Watchmen Meets The Aristocrats
  • Stuart Moulthrop (bio)

This essay reveals key plot details of the graphic novel Watchmen and the film based upon it.

On March 6, 2009, Warner Brothers released a motion picture based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's graphic novel, Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder and written for the screen by David Hayter and Alex Tse. The history of this project is long and contentious. Moore has insisted the work can never be filmed successfully. According to legend, when the director Terry Gilliam planned an earlier attempt, Moore offered one word of advice: don't.1 Several months before the release of the Snyder version, Moore declared, "I am spitting venom all over it," and added a "magical curse" against the enterprise (Boucher).

Perhaps Moore's curse lacked sufficient throw-weight to reach California; or it could be that even the cleverest wizard cannot thwart the Sauronic power of Warner Brothers, at least not without a posse. The film at this writing seems on track for profitability, primarily through strong response from the comic's dedicated fan community (Thrill). So another effects-heavy, green-screened, $200 million epic goes into the ledgers, vindicating (or flouting) bullish (or bearish) views about the box office in hard times. Why should we care, old fan-boys who have always been watching the Watchmen?

On first inspection, Snyder's film seems mainly a technical achievement, remarkable for its frame-to-panel fidelity, but perhaps not deeply engaged with the best virtues of the original, such as its notoriously non-linear narrative and its relentless interrogation of all media, including its own. Is the Watchmen movie just another Inevitable Comics Conversion, part of a cinematic tulip craze that must inevitably bring us Superbaby, or Submariner vs. Pirates of the Caribbean? On the other hand, could there be something more substantial at stake in what is, after all, a careful attempt to translate a notably difficult work into a powerful, rapidly evolving medium?

In fact, Snyder's film does not belong among the hothouse flowers, and ought to be considered as much for its significant departures from Moore and Gibbons as for its uncanny ability to translate their conception to the IMAX Experience. We should take the film seriously, if only because, in the mortal words of the Comedian, "It's all a joke." In fact, a particular joke comes to mind.

(1) Check out this act!

The joke to which the Comedian refers (though not yet the one of which I speak) is the central crime in Moore and Gibbons' graphic novel: a massively destructive prank involving teleportation, a giant artificial organism, and psychic fallout designed to induce post-traumatic nightmares. (As will be apparent, the jokes under discussion here are not strictly speaking funny.) This horrible trick provides a gravitational center for the constellation of doublings, pratfalls, taunts, and twisted recognitions that illuminate the panels of Watchmen. In most if not all these instances, the operative trope is savage irony, as in the bloodstained smiley button with which the comic opens, resonating against the psychotic anti-hero Rorschach's claim to know the "true face" of the city. Echoes and variations ripple through succeeding pages in passing references to faces, smiles, and bloodstains. At its most ambitious, this trope gives us the memorable moment in the Martian crater Galle, where the disintegration of Dr. Manhattan's clockwork flying machine produces a planet-scale model of the stained icon, laid out as the point-of-view zooms steadily up from the planet, though unperceived by the figures who occupy the scene (Moore and Gibbons, chapter IX, pages 26-28).2

These juxtapositions and cross-cuttings, and the deep logic of double meaning to which they answer, evolve naturally from Moore's basic approach to comics art, which he has described as a particular design idiom, or "under-language":

What it comes down to in comics is that you have complete control of both the verbal track and the image track, which you don't have in any other medium, including film. So a lot of effects are possible which simply cannot be achieved anywhere else. You control the words and the...

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