For a certain segment of the population, this weekend is all about one thing - WATCHMEN. It's the movie we all thought would never happen, the movie that director after director has tried but failed to make. It's a story that was deemed unadaptable, a story that holds a scared place in the comic book cannon. Ask most fanboys what they consider the greatest comic book story ever told, and 9 times out of 10, you'll get a singular, definitive answer: Watchmen.
That's why it's so strange and almost surreal to see WATCHMEN become the next big thing in pop culture. Only a year or so ago, it was still kind of under the mainstream radar - in certain circles, Watchmen was akin to the holy grail, but to your average Joe, it was not something that registered. Sure, the legend of the reclusive Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen, has penetrated the mainstream in recent years, in the wake of film adaptations of his work like V for Vendetta, From Hell, Constantine, and (shudder) League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It's been well-documented that Moore shuns the filmed versions of his works and prefers to simply write his stories and leave well enough alone. I'm sure there is some pent-up bitterness over how poorly-adapted some of these movies have been, but still, fans are always left to wonder aloud what, exactly, Moore thinks of all of these movies. In the case of Watchmen, director Zack Snyder has repeatedly said that he practically used the graphic novel as a bible while crafting his adaptation. And yet, Moore, as is his custom, will probably never watch the movie nor give it any sort of seal of approval.
And that's why it's so, well, weird, to walk into a Barnes and Noble and see Watchmen merchandise everywhere. Watchmen was always that sacred cow that stood completely alone. There was no Watchmen merchandise, no T-shirts, no videogames, no posters. It would have been like trying to turn "Hamlet" into a pop-culture phenomenon, and it's been that way since 1985. Now, all of the above suddenly exist. There's a Watchmen soundtrack that's alreadya best-seller on iTunes. A Watchmen videogame that hits consoles this week. Tie-in DVD's that include a motion-comic and an animated adaptation of the comic book's Black Freighter backup stories that tie-in thematically to the main action. There are T-shirts at Hot Topic, books about the making-of-the-movie, viral marketing (and really well-done viral marketing at that) up the wazoo, and more trailers, TV ads, and more online ad-buys than you can shake a stick at.
How did this happen?
Well, it really did seem that all the stars alligned. Zack Snyder is probably the only director who could have done this, as he was coming off the success of 300, an R-rated comic book adaptation that performed pretty spectacularly at the box-office, even without any huge starpower or preexisting brand recognition. So now we do have what appears to be a pretty faithful, definitely R-rated Watchmen movie. Holy crap. I really did not think I'd ever see this happen.
But let me talk for a minute about WATCHMEN, the "graphic novel", or the comic book, if you will (Like many, I get kind of annoyed that "graphic novel" is now used as a more pretentious way of saying comic book - in actuality it refers to a work that was conceived and printed as a singular volume. Since Watchmen was published as 12 standalone issues in 1985, and only later repackaged as a single volume, it isn't really a graphic novel ...).
Forgetting about the movie for a second, I've long considered Watchmen to be the single greatest work of fiction I've ever read. And I say that as an English student who has read everything from Stephen King to Shakespeare. Sure, there are other works that are more difficult to wade through, more "literary" in a traditional sense, but no other work I've ever read has blown me away in the manner that Watchmen did when I read it for the first time as a preteen.
I think for many kids, Watchmen was our first real gateway into "adult" fiction. The first thing we read that took all of the concepts of heroes and villains that we grew up with and completely subverted and deconstructed these ideas down to their very core. To see heroes that were less than heroic, morally ambiguous, and at times downright villainous was, to say the least, game-changing. The characters were memorable and haunting, the level of depth and subtext was unprecedented and warranted multiple readings, and it all culminated in a classic ending that, without giving anything away, took every comic book cliche and completely turned them on their heads.
That's one of the things that is so remarkable about Watchmen - it is so incredibly rich and dense, that you can read it hundreds of times, study it even, and always find something new. A lot of this can be credited to the amazing art of Dave Gibbons, who produced unbelievably clean and crisp art that breaks the complex story into a remarkably patterned tapestry of interconnected images. The level at which images and themes repeat themselves and parallel each other is fascinating and certainly without peer in graphic storytelling. You can actually study the panel-structure of Watchmen and see how the beginning and ending of the tale are matching bookends to a story that flows via an uncanny structural and thematic pattern. And then there's all of the supplemental material - the news articles, the interviews, the prose pieces that serve to add even more color and richness to the world of Watchmen. Finally, there is the Black Freighter storyline, meant to pay homage to the pulpy EC Comics of the 1950's, that is interspersed throughout the comic. In and of itself, it's a remarkable piece of work, and it's so compelling in its own right that it gave me and probably a lot of other readers our first real taste of EC-style pulp storytelling and made us lifelong fans of the genre.
You can see why Watchmen has long been deemed unfilmable. Its format, its story, its artwork, and its characters are so rooted in the history and lore of the comic book medium that it almost doesn't make sense to translate it into a new one. The characters themselves are slightly-altered versions of the old Charlton comics characters that DC acquired the rights to in the early '80's (Night Owl = Blue Beetle, Rorshach = The Question, etc.). The entire story is in many ways a deconstruction, critique, and celebration of the history of comic books. I guess in that respect, now is finally the time when the movie-going public is familiar enough with the tropes and cliches of the superhero genre to understand a deconstruction of the those conventions. But at the same time, people are still being trained that comic books, excuse me, "graphic novels", can be serious business. Still, I think Watchmen could only have been released post-Dark Knight. Without that intermediary film, I think people would have approached this movie with a lot more inherent confusion, and likely taken it a lot less seriously, both as a story and as a potential blockbuster. It's only fitting though, because Watchmen was released concurrently with Frank Miller's Batman work, which was of course the jolt of lightning-in-a-bottle that brought in a new age of grim n' gritty comics and turned Batman from Caped Crusader into Dark Knight.
As far as comparable comics go, Watchmen instantly made me a giant fan of Alan Moore and I quickly rushed to read his other major works. I snatched up his more mainstream superhero stuff - Batman: The Killing Joke (one of the main inspirations for The Dark Knight), and Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? I read every volume of his acclaimed run on Swamp Thing, which remains one of my all-time favorite stories - a mind-bending, thought-provoking look at the magical and mystical corners of the world. I read League of Extraordinary Gentleman (an amazing work - MUCH better than the movie), V For Vendetta, and more. In general, Watchmen got me hooked on more "adult" comics, many of which will soon be hot properties, I'm sure, in the wake of Watchmen. For those seeking that next big epic to check out after reading Alan Moore's masterwork, try some of the following series, available in graphic novel format:
- The Walking Dead
- Camelot 3000
- Y: The Last Man
- Swamp Thing
- 100 Bullets
- The Sandman
- League of Extraordinary Gentleman
- Animal Man
- The Golden Age
- Ex Machina
- Kingdom Come
- In any case, I am excited to see WATCHMEN this weekend. It's pretty cool that this cult-favorite work that I and many others have long held up as a masterpiece of fiction is now going to be enjoyed by millions more people. It's cool that this movie is going to let the mainstream in on fandom's little secret (even if it was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century ...). But no matter how badass the movie is, no matter how faithful an adaptation, I know that it will never match the feeling of awe I had as a kid, huddled up in my bedroom eagerly turning page after page as I sat down to read this story that I knew was a sort of rite of passage for any budding young fanboy. As I read Rorshach's brutal origin, read the nonlinear chapter told from Dr. Manhattan's omnipotent perspective, studied the mysterious history of Hooded Justice, and as my jaw dropped upon discovering the truth behind Adrian Veidt's shocking plans, as I read all that ... I knew that this was it. That WATCHMEN had raised the bar for me, that it would be tough for anything else to ever top it.
So I am going into Watchmen this weekend hoping to be blown away ... but really, I think the movie will just reaffirm how damn good the comic was and still is. Regardless ... I am still just kind of in disbelief that there's a Watchmen movie and that Watchmen is now this mainstream, blockbuster franchise. Who woulda' thunk it?