Friday, March 06, 2009

The Watchmen Dialogues Redux

This discussion was once-upon-a-time published at, but since that site is still inactive, and a movie by the name of "Watchmen" debuted today, Chad Nevett and I thought it would be cool to post this for everyone who missed it.

So here's Chad and I talking with a former student of mine, web-designer Justin Dickinson, right after he read "Watchmen" for the very first time in the fall of 2008:

Tim Callahan: I know Justin just read the series for the first time over the past week--presumably in trade paperback form, and in sequence. Chad, how did you read it? You mentioned being aware of it as a youngster, but when you did finally read it, did you read it all straight through? Because I had a different experience. I actually jumped on when issue #4 was released, but the shop had issue #2 sitting on the shelf too (I must have been about 15), and so I bought #2 and #4 and read those two first, then continued the rest of the series straight through. I didn't read #1 or #3 until around the time the series ended. But I kind of think that it still works that way. The story takes on a serialized feel about halfway through, but each of the first handful of issues feels compartmentalized. Yeah, there's the through-line of Rorschach's detective mission, but #2 and #4 work kind of on their own, and like much of the series, each small part reflects the larger whole almost completely. I don't really know where I'm going with this except to say that while Watchmen gets--deservedly so--a lot of credit for its intricate structure, it's a structure that somehow still works when it's rearranged a bit. I probably wouldn't have noticed it except I read it out of order, and it still astonished me--and I didn't feel at all confused by the story. Of course, now it's impossible to go back and read any of the individual chapters out of sequence without being aware of the context--since we've read the whole thing, but for me, it started with Sally Jupiter in the nursing home and the funeral for the Comedian. That was how Watchmen began, as far as I was concerned.

Chad Nevett:
I did read it all through, but, even then, I had an awareness of the story beyond its linear narrative. I knew of images and words from future issues. I even knew the big spoiler regarding Ozymandis thanks to Wizard and its "Most shocking moments" article whose only point seemed to spoil major plot points for those of us who hadn't had a chance to read certain stories because we weren't quite old enough to give them a shot yet. The same thing happened with The Dark Knight Returns, which I'd flipped through since I was a small child, but didn't read until I was older. I kind of wish I'd read Watchmen completely fresh beginning to end, because I don't really know what that's like. However, my first time reading it from beginning to end, I skipped a lot of the extra back matter material, so my second read-through included that, as well, which made it special, too.

I savored the back matter with each issue. And because I wasn't really buying that many comics as a teenager--maybe five or six a week at most--and Watchmen was so clearly a cut above anything else--I really poured over every page and every text supplement. I'm still not convinced that the "Tales of the Black Freighter" sequences add all that much to the narrative--I get the thematic connection, but still. I do like the idea of a raft made up of corpses and the carcass of a shark, though. That's a great image above and beyond its metaphorical resonance. Although I would like to point out that the Hollis Mason memoir must have been the shortest book in history. It seems that the whole thing is excerpted in Watchmen, doesn't it? What was the total--like 15 pages?

Justin Dickinson
: I read it straight through. The chapter with Jon on Mars telling his origin was what really hooked me. I stopped the first reading session right when Rorschach was captured. The second bit of reading took longer as I didn't like those chapters as much. As I said before, seeing Rorschach in jail didn't sit right with me. I really didn't get all the way back into it until Dan and Laurie hooked up and brought out Archie for some good old adventurin'. I read from when Veidt was in Antartica straight through to the end after that, couldn't put it down. I feel like the chapters do have some independence and the jumping around in time means reading out of order doesn't ruin the experience—kind of like watching Pulp Fiction on shuffle.

I'm curious to talk about the "Tales of the Black Freighter" sequences (which, I've just read, aren't featured in the movie but will be on the DVD, narrated by Gerald Butler.) How much of that is actually mirroring any actual comic trends or periods? Was the duotone/dot matrix style of those panels supposed to be a comment on Warhol/Lichtenstein pop culture art? Or is that reading WAY into it? Also, I've seen some mention in the production material (on Zack Snyder's blog, which is kind of like DVD extras before the movie) of how the color palate used in the book was very avant garde for the time period due to its use of colors that weren't red/blue/yellow primaries. Was that a big deal? What else did this comic do that we hadn't seen before?

The "joke" of the "Black Freighter" sequence is that pirate comics have become the dominant genre because superheroes are real, so people in that world don't want to read comics about them. The back matter credits real-life artist Joe Orlando with the "Black Freighter" work, which is an inside joke because Orlando was a DC executive--and editor who had risen through the ranks, but was also a fantastic artist who had worked on the classic EC comics, and the Warren magazines like Creepy and Eerie before joining DC editorial. So even though Gibbons actually drew those sequences, the shout-out to Orlando does have a relevance and connects the sequence to the famous horror comics of the 50s and 60s. The benday dots were used to make the comic seem older, and I don't think it relates to pop art at all--it was just a way to visually distinguish the "comic book" world from the "real" world. It's a technique that's been widely used ever since Watchmen, and maybe it was used before that, but I can't think of any prior examples (Chad, can you?). I don't know what version of Watchmen you read, but it has been recolored since the original release. The color palate hasn't changed much--it's just been toned down a bit and some stuff has been cleared up.

Basically, the technology has improved dramatically and I'm sure the original coloring was a bit muddier than planned. But the palate was quite different from other comics of the time. A lot of browns and purples, while most other superhero comics were bright primary colors. Was it a big deal? I don't know. It certainly marked it as a different comic, visually.

also drew attention to techniques that it didn't necessarily pioneer, but once it came out to such acclaim, others copied. Like the lack of thought balloons. Thought balloons are pretty much extinct now, and that's largely because of Watchmen. The use of Rorschach's journal--with the different font and everything--as the narration; that was copied by plenty of comics too. The inclusion of the back matter was certainly influential--with plenty of comics adding "journal excerpts" or fake letters in the back, none with as much quality as the stuff we find in Watchmen. Also, just the lack of action. That was pretty revolutionary. Look at how few action sequences there are in the twelve issues. It was published at a time in comic book history when every comic climaxed in a fight scene, and Watchmen totally avoids that kind of artificially-imposed structure. What am I forgetting, Chad?

CN: Like you said, I can think of plenty of examples of books that used these ideas--like how Westerns are the dominant genre for comics in Automatic Kafka. If I recall correctly (and I could be wrong since I haven't read it), but the lack of thought balloons may have come from The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, which Bryan Talbot started before Watchmen, took a hiatus and then completed after Watchmen. I've heard it described as highly influential in its experimentation and, for some reason, think I read that it didn't use thought balloons either. Of course, I could be wrong.

(Oh, and now that it's mentioned, I skipped over the pirate narrative the first time I read Watchmen, too. Another little surprise/addition for my second reading.)

And not only does Watchmen have little action, the action is does have is swift and brutal, done in a more realistic fashion than most superhero comics. Look at how quickly Veidt takes out his "assassin" or Rorschach and Nite-Owl... they're not typical action sequences in any way. Moore and Gibbons try to portray those sequences as realistic as possible, which is quite different from what was going on at the time.

That raises the idea of realism in the book. How realistic do you guys find it?

JD: I just read a really great article In Defense of Superhero comics which talked about Romanticism vs. Realism in a way that was really clear and understandable—made me feel like I was in English class in 11th grade again. Referencing that, I find Watchmen to be a realistic portrayal of a romantically imagined alternate world. It obviously still has elements of romanticism—there are certain leaps of faith you just have to go with and not get bogged down in whether or not it's real—but if you can accept the world Watchmen has built, then the characters all act realistically within it. There are some ideas that are obviously impossible, like Jon, but there are others that make sense (I'm thinking of Veidt's flood of information as a tool to predict the future.) In fact, that last bit brings up something I noticed about the book that I'm sure has been covered already: it's affect and resonance now vs. when it was written. Even now, any major disaster in NYC echoes of 9/11 which really just means that when this was written, that sequence was probably less imaginable than it is today. Also, the book was pre-Internet but much of Veidt's approach to technology and culture had a kind of clairvoyance to the flood of information each of us experience today.

In terms of character motivation, I think the book really excels in realism. I found all of the characters very well thought out and believable. They all acted with believable motive and rarely, if ever, did I feel a character's actions were merely to enhance the plot. I appreciated this as I feel that extra time was taken to ensure this realism and characterization (I'm thinking right now about the chapter regarding owls and Dan's essay on them. I've never found owls so cool as when he was expressing his love for them. It really made his alter-ego more authentic and understandable and less goofy.)

TC: Watchmen is certainly high Romanticism in content, but Justin's right--the style tends to portray that romantically imagined world in a more realistic way. It's still not Realism, in the literary sense, but while the conventions of the superhero narrative rely on simplistic morality, Watchmen allows for shading. (Although each character in the book still has a relatively simplistic moral sense, if you get right down to it--but the cumulative effect is one that doesn't offer simple moral solutions.) Watchmen also lingers on the humanity of the characters instead of their outward exploits, which is a trait of Realism, even if the trappings and cues are still taken from fantasy. If Romanticism and Realism is a spectrum, then Watchmen is still on the Romantic side, but leaning closer to Realism than every other superhero comic of its era--it's certainly farther toward Realism--at least in style and emphasis--than Dark Knight Returns, which is about as Romantic as you can get.

Pretty much. It certainly is a Romance since its genre is inherently Romantic. Well, and the super-powered guy who can teleport people to Mars and alter the molecular structure of matter... that's a pretty big tip-off. Also, the lack of any clear comedic and tragic trajectory in the overall narrative. But, on a character-by-character level, you can probably make the argument that the story is filled with comedies and tragedies. Rorschach is a tragic figure, brought down by his own rigid morality, while Dan and Laurie are more comedic, finding some happiness in the end with each other. But what of Adrian and Jon?

TC: Ozymandias is an inherently tragic figure, isn't he? His downfall is implicit in the conclusion even though he achieved his goals, right? Maybe not. Maybe he's beyond tragedy because he's just the villain. He's Iago at the end of Othello, victorious but at what cost? And Dr. Manhattan is above tragedy or comedy. It's like asking if a mountain is tragic or comic.

Wait... I thought Adrian was the hero... He did save the world, albeit through some very "supervillainy" tactics. I'd agree that he's a tragic character, because he'll never be sure if the ends really do justify the means.

As for Jon... is he really above tragedy or comedy? As Dr. Manhattan he is, but what if you take his whole life into account, including before his accident when he was human? How he turns out at the end, so cold and detached, willing to completely write off Earth... what does that say about his life and character?

He might be a tragic figure if the emphasis was on his pre-atomic life. But we spend more time with him while he's Dr. Manhattan, when he seems beyond human judgments. But, then again, he lives in all times simultaneously, so he is constantly in a state of tragedy, isn't he? I'd buy that. In a recent interview Zack Snyder said he refused to change the ending of the movie--refused to turn it into a "Hollywood ending"--because he wanted to spark these kinds of debates about morality and tragedy. I'm glad to hear that, because even though I expect the film to be something quite different than the graphic novel, I think some of the key questions and themes can carry over, along with the visuals.

1 comment:

Ben Villarreal said...

I first read Watchmen in a Graphic Novel course at the University of Memphis. I was an English major, needed an elective, and thought it would be more fun than Shakespeare's Tragedies or some other repetitive class. Incidentally, that class is what got me into comics. But I really felt like I "didn't get it" the first time read it; I understood everything, and liked it, but knew I was missing something. And I figured, this was a sophomore level class taught by the chair of the department, so I better read it again before the class final exam. I've since read it more times than can keep track of but each time I discover something new! It's brilliant that way :-)

It's interesting that your conversation brings up Ozymandias' "tragic hero" status (which I've always attributed him) and Snyder's remarks about not changing the ending. Without spoiling too much, he does indeed change it, and I was upset to see that Ozymandias does not come off as tragic. If anything, he's more villainous :-(

If anyone's interested, I reviewed the film at my blog trying to keep my fanboy sensibilities at bay. I think I did an okay job: