The Watchmen Thing

I am a comic book fan.

I’ve been reading since I was six. I still have that issue of Uncanny X-Men with Wolverine and Gambit on the cover that started this whole mess.

I have many, many, many opinions on the whole Watchmen debacle.

I don’t think they should do it.

All right, so maybe just the one opinion.

I’m going to attempt to elucidate this opinion for you here without swearing non-stop or turning into an entitled fan.

First off, Watchmen is arguably the best comic book ever created by virtue of the fact that it is the greatest comic book ever created.

There are stories I like better than Watchmen. There are creators I like more than Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. There are characters I like more than Silk Spectre, Nite-Owl, Dr. Manhattan, the Comedian, and Rorschach.

However, Watchmen is the greatest argument for comic books as a vibrant and unique art form because it is everything comics can do that every other medium can’t. You get the iconic images of movies, but the detailed thoughts and motivations, as well as the ability to smoothly and easily transition into a different character’s point of view like in a novel. No comic juggles different motivations and viewpoints like Watchmen.

Every character is fully realized. Every voice is unique. Every motivation feels organic and not made to fit the story. The advantage to comics being that they have space to breathe. Time is less of an issue in comic books than movies or television because there is no need to keep up momentum in the way films must.

Characters who are barely background, like the newspaper seller and the kid who hangs out by his stand have a beautiful, doomed moment as they embrace when Veidt’s plan begins. This embrace, the last human moment witnessed by “regular people,” is built up throughout the story by a series of still images. There’s no true dialogue to speak of, but because comics can A.) take their time and B.) are a series of static images what would be, at best, quick glances or, at worst, completely written out in a movie or television shows.

However, due to Watchmen being a comic book, the eye can linger over the image. We can see the annoyance the seller has at the child’s presence, and when it softens. We can see, forever, that we are all truly just fragile creatures and the sadness that it takes oblivion for that be truly understood, because the page is always there. That image and all images leading up to that will forever be there when browsing back through the book and not skipped over on a DVD menu to get to a fight scene.

Another advantage comics have over other mediums is the sheer amount of mediums and genres it can cover. Watchmen is packed with different styles of writing: Tales of the Black Freighter, Rorschach’s Journal, Mason’s autobiography Under the Hood, and Dr. Long’s psychiatric reports all jump around in terms of voice and style. More than that, they are important. They are not “just extras.” Applied to the human body, these pieces of story are not a nicer pair of pants or shirt; they are bone, muscle, and viscera.

These pieces  serve as a metaphor for those in the book who refuse to compromise, apply emotion and immediacy to the past of this universe, and force us to evaluate whether or not characters we’ve been following the entire book are reliable narrators or even truly sympathetic.

Hell, show me another medium of expression where one can anything remotely similar to issue five’s “Fearful Symmetry” where the first half and the second half of the issue reflect each other down to panel composition, inking, and coloring.

Get it?

It is truly the ultimate comic book. The standard for what is possible in the medium.

Which is why it makes me crazy when people tell me it’s the first comic book they’ve read or that they lent it to someone looking to maybe start reading comics.

Watchmen is advanced reading. It’s a great story, but it also subtly plays with and undermines certain tropes of the superhero genre. The driven, incorruptible vigilante is an irreparably scarred person with a child’s view on the nature of good, evil, and how the world works because that’s where his development stopped. The true superman would be, by definition, so far beyond us that there is almost no common ground for us to understand him and for him to understand us. The boy who grew up worshiping superheroes doesn’t become a more high-tech version of his idol, but a man who has put so much of himself into this other persona that his real self becomes vestigial to the point of impotency without his cowl and gadgets.

These are deeply nuanced characters made all the more tragic and true to the readers when they’ve read all the other stories that inspired them. Are they still great characters? Yes. However there are better places to start reading and developing an appreciation for a genre than with Alan Moore’s evisceration of superheroes before moving onto other projects.

Read what you want, and recommend to your friends as you will, but Watchmen makes me less fall in love with comics and more want to sprint away from humanity with all possible speed.

Give them All Star Superman, the New Frontier, or Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s first two volumes of Fantastic Four instead.

All Star Superman rocks.

 Okay, so there it is, my arguments for Watchmen being one of, if not the greatest comic book, ever. However, that’s not why I don’t think they should do any prequels.

Alan Moore doesn’t want them to do the prequels. It’s difficult to blame him. At the end of the day he’s a storyteller whose name has become more important than the stories he wants to tell. He had to stop doing Miracleman because there was the potential for so much money to be made off the property that legal battles halted the story for decades.

He told his story the way he wanted it told, and in the medium he wanted it told in Watchmen and wanted nothing to do with the movie, because he assumed, correctly, that they would fuck it up.

The Watchmen movie is a great looking film. It’s obvious that Zack Snyder and his entire production team have a deep and abiding love for the comic book. The costumes and the sets are spectacular and are probably the purest transition from page to screen in any comic book, ever. Great care was taken to make sure certain shots looked like the still images from the page.

They still fucked it up.

Let’s start with the violence. In terms of fight scenes Watchmen is a very slow comic. It its first, and foremost, a mystery. Who killed the Comedian and why?

Seems like a solid dude.

The added fight scenes aren’t so bad, but a lot of the added gore is. Why would Dr. Manhattan care about making a mess to show off his awesome power? He’s not even sure there is anything he can teach humanity, least of all not to screw with something clearly their better. What does the fight at the prison prove? Isn’t the whole point of it in the book to show that Rorschach would make true on his threat of them being locked in there with him and didn’t really need Nite Owl and Silk Spectre except for a ride out? There were brief scenes of violence and gore in the comic because it really is a mundane world compared to how the settings of super-powered beings and grinning vigilantes are normally portrayed, but also so that when there are scenes of violence that actually mean something.


The case that snaps Rorschach has the spurt of violence (literally) when he kills the dog. The inhumanity Osterman witnesses from the Comedian to a Vietnamese woman is where he stops being Osterman and becomes whatever he’ll be. Nite Owl and Sally Jupiter’s fight with the Top Knots in the alley is a juxtaposition to these people finally finding their passion again.

Most importantly the gore and devastation with the psychic squid is entirely absent.

By keeping the blood and gore to a minimum throughout the book the opening pages of issue twelve are a gut punch. In the movie it’s reversed. There is ample violence and blood throughout the first two acts and then nothing during the actual disaster. Without the open eyes and pulped bodies the atrocity becomes academic. Those people are gone, but not with any immediacy. Intellectually we can be told that 10 million people were just wiped out but we process that information differently.

Second, the whole point of Veidt’s plan was to make an external enemy that would unite the world to combat. If the menace was Dr. Manhattan then it’s still America’s fault. Even if sites in America were attacked, then it’s still America’s fault with a healthy dollop of karma. It doesn’t have to be a space squid. It could be a crashing flying saucer. It could be a new international terrorist organization. The squid is not the point. What it represents is: the other. The only way for humanity to unite, according to Veidt, is by being shown something worse than us. While Dr. Manhattan works in that sense, it doesn’t leave America blameless and foils Veidt’s plan.

That fundamental misunderstanding is the foundation on which many well-meaning, but misguided mistakes were built on. The tragedy of Rorschach dying alone because he can’t compromise and the closest thing he had to a friend was busy trying to prove himself a man to his new girlfriend is undercut by a screaming Nite Owl in the snow. Silk Spectre getting the “nothing ever ends, Adrian” line is ridiculous. Why would Veidt care what Laurie Jupiter thinks? The only person who could deliver that line with any resonance to Ozymandias is Dr. Manhattan because Manhattan is the only person even remotely to his equal, not to mention the fact that Manhattan exists at every moment in time. Veidt would get the one thing that his hero, Alexander the Great, never got: the knowledge that he would be remembered, that he won. Then Manhattan lets him know “that nothing ever ends.” Ozymandias, the man who puts himself so far above humanity that only he can save it is told that in the end, it won’t matter.

Furthermore the casting of Ozymandias is way off. I covered this in another blog, but Veidt is clearly the bad guy. In the comic he’s basically Captain America’s “trust me” wholesomeness with Iron Man’s genius and fortune multiplied by Batman’s indomitable will and unrelenting drive.

"Who is this Cadillac of men?"

In the movie he’s the scrawny kid that got picked on at school and grew up to be rich and powerful instead of Peter Parker. Even the way he’s lit in scenes and on the posters it’s all dark and in shadows. That’s not really a twist, that’s telegraphing to your audience in a movie based on one of the smartest comics ever produced.

Weiner kid.

So you would understand Mr. Moore if he were somewhat reticent to sign off on other people telling more tales based off of his completed story.

“But Matt,” you scream at your computer during lunch or smart phone while on the toilet, “this is how comics work! They don’t stop writing Batman, or Wolverine, or Superman, or Spider-Man stories just because the original creators left/died/became light.”

You’re right. You’re absolutely right.

Except for a few extenuating circumstances.

First, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons were told that after a year of being out of print, the rights would revert back to them. Watchmen has never been out of print. This wasn’t a writer or artist creating a new member of the X-Men or Legion of Superheroes. It’s not a new villain for Green Lantern or the Hulk to fight. It would be silly to expect to create a character that you drop into an established universe with an enduring and unified continuity to revert back to you so only you could use it.

"Oh, you know, I'm just chilling out, being an unbelievably influential artist."

But a closed universe with a story that has a beginning, middle, and end? Yes, they were based off the Charlton characters but that was basically an outline for the different archetypes Moore and Gibbons would subvert.

This is a crazy person.

 Second, just because this the way comics has always worked doesn’t mean it’s right. DC and Bob Kane screwed Bill Finger, the man recognized by most as the guy who developed every aspect of Batman except for the name. He gets no byline, received no official credit, and his story still serves as a warning to young upcoming creators to be very careful around the big companies. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the men who created Superman, and inarguably the superhero genre itself both spent much of their lives nearly destitute because of contracts and “it’s just business.” Superman has made DC and Warner Bros. over a billion dollars worldwide and those two entities spent most of Siegel’s and Shuster’s lives screwing them out of money and credit. Shuster went blind towards the end of his life.

An artist went blind due to health complications that he couldn’t afford to treat or even see a doctor for.

This could have been the chance to start doing things the right way. For the industry to say, “we’ve learned from the past and our mistakes and we’re going to unite with the creators and form a united front to survive the 21st century and stop cannibalizing each other. “

This is of course ridiculous and comics will continue to stubbornly butt-fuck themselves into a daisy chain of oblivion.

The worst part is the creators drafted for this know what they’re doing isn’t completely blameless because of how defensive they are.

[What’s key is] “that we all get in there and we tell the best possible stories we can and we reconnect these characters. It’s 25 years later. Let’s make them vital again.” – Brian Azzarello

The characters are already vital, Azzarello. That’s why the books have never been out of print and got a big-budget Hollywood movie.

Okay, I'll say this: that cover is awesome.


Posted on February 14, 2012, in Comics, History Lessons, Matt Loman, Movies, Pop Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. An argument I like for more of the Watchmen:

    While Watchmen is the pinnacle of comics as a form in a single instance, in general one of the great joys of comics is that they are made for multiple perspectives.

    Like jazz, comics are one of America’s great creations* – and they function in very similar ways.

    Not only do they create lasting characters that resonate throughout generations (which all media can), but they allow for riffs on those characters without creating the kind of audience dissonance you would get if you tried “remaking” characters from other mediums.

    We don’t mind 12 versions of My Funny Valentine, but try to remake Stairway and you’re crucified.

    In the same way, comics allows for the coexistence of Brave and the Bold, Year One, DKR and New Frontier. You can’t get away with doing that to Dirty Harry or Huck Finn (unless, of course, you do it in a comic book).**

    It feels odd to see other “takes” on Watchmen only because it has been singular for so long. This project is the necessary step to let Watchmen move into where it deserves to be – a part of the comics tapestry of myths, not a single panel.

    In fact, I posit that if you make a comic, you implicitly sign off to the fact that creators who come after you will attempt to give their own spin on your characters. Christ, Moore did the same thing with Miracle Man and Superman. Taking that nugget further, I would argue you not only implicitly agree to this, but if that’s not your goal, write a fraking novel!

    That is all.

    jay p

    *I can’t prove that, but it sounded fair enough for now.
    ** I’m ignoring anyone who tries to bring up Wicked. Riffs on antagonists or “what if’s” excluded. My argument is about the aggregate, not the margins.

    • And I meant to lead with this – was that I mean this as a counter to your counter of “this is how comics works.” I think it’s more nuanced than just “more stories.” I view it as a social contract between creators and the industry in general. The arguments for the Superman creators and Moore/Gibbon’s own publishing deal are commercial. Mine are moral.

      • I think my point still stands: just because this is the way it is, doesn’t mean it’s right.

        The whole idea of a social contract between creators and the industry is built on a foundation of screwing over writers and artist.

        Now with studios like Dark Horse, Image, Red 5, Top Cow, etc offering other avenues to create and the rise of day and date digital, is probably the only reason DC would even think about wanting to include/be in the good graces of Moore and Gibbons because they’re names and they want to look like good guys.


  2. It’s like I’m at work… (and I am – don’t tell…)

    Your use of “right” refers to the impact of not getting credit or control and how that impacts someone’s bank account. I am saying that there is a “right” that trumps the your inequities.

    What I want you to tackle is whether or not you believe there is a societal “good” in the proliferation of “variations on the theme” by multiple artists which begin with well realized characters in a comic medium. Tell me that it’s bad to begin the process by which 30 years from now, The Comedian can exist to tell stories and impart values to audiences ranging from children to whatever will pass then as hipsters to the elderly looking for nostalgic yarns.

    I want Watchmen on Ice, damnit. Alan Moore’s going to be grumpy and crazy no matter what happens.

    jay p

    • My usage of right is absolutely about morality, monetary compensation is merely a physical, visceral example of doing what’s “right.”

      In this case doing the right thing is profit sharing on properties that make a company billions and giving the creators credit like what has not happened with Bill Finger and only happened with Siegel and Shuster after public opinion turned against Warner Bros.

      Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were screwed by a company that knew better/what they were doing and took advantage of that. They’ve offered Moore money and credit (eventually) which if he took would be the end of it, but he refused because he wanted his ideas left alone.

      After Game of Thrones ends, I have the write to make new books based on those characters? What about Lord of the Rings? Can I release music as the White Stripes since no one’s using that name? Or is it just comics?

  3. Actually, yes. Yes you do… maybe not the music thing, but then again Axl reformed Guns’N’Roses without anyone else, which I think comes close enough to doing that, but I would point to Star Wars’ expanded universe, or any of the later Dune novels; it happens pretty frequently in books, actually, and maybe that is slightly different than what you’re getting at but yes, there is precedence.

    The legality of it, well, that’s really not the issue here, it seems, which is good, because I don’t know enough about it nor do I care. When you create a universe/character/continuity it does belong to you and that’s fairly immutable. However, when you share it with the world it belongs to us, too, if only because we read it; it’s a part of the great ether of popular culture, which I believe can and should be used to create whatever we wish and share with the world.

    I will agree with you that profiting off of someone else’s creation is questionable, and I have my own thoughts on that to be certain, but in absence of those trickier issues if I were to write a story detailing Rorschach’s adventures in hell beating the ever-living shit out of Nazi war criminals for all eternity, and Alan Moore told me that he didn’t want his character used that way, legal ramifications aside I would thank him for his work and inspiration and then kindly tell him to go fuck himself. After all, I’m not sure how kindly Stephenson would have taken his use of Jekyll/Hyde in some of his work.


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