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  • World-Building in Watchmen
  • Mark J. P. Wolf (bio)

The graphic novel Watchmen (twelve issues, 1986–1987), by writer Alan Moore, illustrator Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins, demonstrates the possibilities that comics offer for world-building while at the same time making full use of the peculiarities of the medium. While the film adaptation of Watchmen required changes to the original, including some losses, the further adaptation of the film to home-video formats was able to restore some of those losses, because of the ways in which home video is better able to emulate the original comics.

Watchmen features a world that is an alternate version of the United States in 1985 and that departs from the Primary World (the real world) when superheroes appear in 1938 and a superhero group, the Minutemen, forms in 1939. Superheroes help the United States win the Vietnam War in 1971, release the hostages from Iran in 1980, [End Page 119] and jump ahead of the Soviets in technology thanks to the superhero Dr. Manhattan, whose control of matter on the molecular level gives the United States a great advantage in the Cold War. By 1985, airships are common, as well as electric cars, with spark hydrants for recharging them found along the streets, and Richard Nixon is reelected for a fifth term as president. Although the degree of invention and number of world defaults that are changed is not as great as that of many science fiction and fantasy worlds, there are many subtle changes and details throughout Watchmen’s world that give it its own flavor. Illustrator Dave Gibbons even described how it was the world itself that inspired the way he drew it:

I suddenly realized one day, this isn’t a superhero story, this is actually a science fiction story. . . . Once I thought about it like that, I didn’t draw it as if it were a superhero story, I didn’t want to draw it that way, I wanted to draw it as if it was an alternative history, in which case all of the background things, all the buildings, the forms of transport, the fashions, the fads, immediately become what the story’s about.1

So while the initial story inspired the world, world-building began to influence the story at a very early stage, resulting in Watchmen having much more background detail than most comic books.

The commercial and critical success of the graphic novel made a movie adaptation inevitable. The attempt to adapt Watchmen has a long history, including Terry Gilliam’s turning down the project twice.2 Part of the reason for that history is that Watchmen was designed to make use of the peculiarities of comics that make it a medium distinct from all others. According to Alan Moore:

The relationship between films and comics has been overemphasized to a degree. If you understand cinematic techniques then you’ll be able to write better, more gripping comics than someone who doesn’t, but if cinematic technique is seen as the be all and end all of what comics can aspire to, then at the very best comics are always going to be a poor relation to the cinema. What I’d like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating. Like in Watchmen, all that subliminal [stuff] we were getting into the backgrounds. You are trapped in the running time of a film—you go in, you sit down, they’ve got two hours and you’re dragged through at their pace. With a comic you can stare at the page for as long as you want and check back to see if this line of dialogue really does echo something four pages earlier, whether this picture is really the same as that one, and wonder if there is some connection there. [End Page 120]

Watchmen was designed to be read four or five times; there’s stuff in there Dave had put in that even I only noticed on the sixth or seventh read. And there are things that turned up in there by accident . . . the little plugs on the spark hydrants...


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pp. 119-125
Launched on MUSE
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