Who’s Watching Watchmen?

Apologies for the title. While I haven’t done any actual checking, I’m guessing there are a bunch of other articles out there on the web whose authors thought it would be a cute title for their Watchmen piece. What can I say? It was low-hanging fruit.

For anyone out there unaware, writer/producer Damon Lindelof has created a new TV series for HBO set in the world of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, picking up the action thirty-four years after the original comic ended. I’ve been watching and it’s certainly been intriguing so far. It’s also been very well reviewed, with one particularly insightful piece from Slate laying out how the approach taken by the TV show is what we need to change the stale formula that most superhero films and television have fallen into—a sentiment with which I certainly agree.

Before getting into the show, let’s take a look back at how we all got here. I won’t be too spoilery, in part to avoid spoilers, but also because I think the vast majority of us know the original story quite well at this point and don’t require much in the way of recapping.

The Comic

The original premise of the Watchmen comic was what the world would be like if superheroes/costumed vigilantes really existed. It was supposed to feel more real, but ultimately Watchmen was not remotely realistic. The simple truth is that the premise is untenable because superheroes simply CANNOT exist in the real world. In reality there are no superhumans. In reality even the strongest, most athletic, most brilliant person could not do the things that superheroes do in comics. If they even dared try they’d get themselves killed almost immediately.

So it was still ultimately a superhero story. A somewhat-more-adult-themed (and certainly much darker) one than the standard of the day, and certainly more literary, but a superhero story nonetheless. If a reader had no prior exposure to superhero comics, Watchmen would likely feel like nonsense to them.

Still, many of their efforts to incorporate more realism resonated. One of the things Moore and Gibbons tried to make more real was the violence. For example, in a 1986 interview Moore described the scene in the first issue where Rorschach breaks a guy’s fingers thusly: “It’s one of the less violent fight scenes you’ll see in a comic, but it’s more sickeningly violent because it can be seen as real, it looks frightening.” Gibbons added that, “it couldn’t be done without the whole tone of the strip. In a comic with people smashing each other through walls it would be meaningless, but because we hope that this will be taken as more realistic; you’ll sense it as being a very upsetting thing.”

Moore went on to say that, “We’ve thought about the ways that these people fight. The Silk Spectre and Nite Owl are out of costume in one sequence where they’re fighting, and it wouldn’t be ‘BAM, Sock’ to the chin. The Silk Spectre just grabs somebody’s testicles and squeezes them really hard and Nite-Owl sticks his fingers up someone’s nostrils. It’s real dirty fighting.” (Frank Plowright, “Watching the Watchmen,” Amazing Heroes #97, June 15, 1986, p. 52.)

Here are a few panels from the sequence Moore is talking about, from the third issue (Nov. 1986) of the original comic:

It’s clear what Moore and Gibbons were going for here. Real violence is not the beautiful ballet we usually see in typical superhero tales, where fists and feet meet chins with perfect accuracy. It’s ugly. It’s genital-gripping, nostril-ripping, and most unpleasant.

The comic also tried to be more realistic in the simple minutiae of everyday life it portrayed. As Moore put it: “The reality in The Watchmen is portrayed right up close to the tiny details. Rorschach and the sugar cubes is a good example of that. In the first issue you see Rorschach go into Dreiberg’s house, unscrew the sugar tin, empty the cubes in his pocket. A few scenes later he’s with Dr. Manhattan and he puts a cube of sugar into his mouth and drops the wrapper onto the floor. A few panels after that the Silk Spectre notices the wrapper on the floor, picks it up and drops it in the bin. In the next issue someone turns up at Dreiberg’s and wants a cup of coffee with two sugars, but there’s just one lump left in the tin, and Dreiberg has to apologize, saying that he thought he had more sugar than that.”

More succinctly, Gibbons added: “You can say about The Watchmen that nothing is done at whim. Everything means something, although not everything means very much.” (Frank Plowright, “Watching the Watchmen,” Amazing Heroes #97, June 15, 1986, pp. 51–52.)

The comic was also far deeper, more artistic, and more literary than nearly any other comic that had come before it. (And probably more than any comic that has come since.) One could almost drown in it all, from the abstract covers, to the symbolism of Rorschach’s many mask-blot patterns, to the comic-within-a-comic parallels of Tales of the Black Freighter. But can you guess what my own personal favorite is?

It’s issue #5 (Jan. 1987), “Fearful Symmetry.” As the title tells us, symmetry is the theme here, but some of the more casual readers may not even realize how far they carry this theme, visually. Go to the center spread, pages 14 and 15, and you’ll see that the panel sizes and arrangement mirror each other—they’re perfect reflections of one another. Now compare the preceding and succeeding pages (13 and 16) and you’ll find they mirror each other as well.

Keep going.

Pages 12 and 17, 11 and 18, 10 and 19, 9 and 20… all the way to the very first and last pages of the story, 1 and 28. They all mirror each other. The entire story, at least in visual terms, is perfectly symmetrical.

And THEN… then Moore and Gibbons give us an Easter egg inside of an Easter egg. Page 7, sixth panel, hanging on the wall in the background is a poster featuring the cover art of the Grateful Dead album Aoxomoxoa. The art (by Rick Griffin) is symmetrical, as is the album title itself (or, in other words, it’s a palindrome).

Amazing. I think any newcomers out there learning about this for the first time can see how Watchmen came to be so highly regarded.

It’s Complicated

Obviously I love the original Watchmen comic (as any reader with taste would), but I’ve gotten queasy at the thought of every project that’s been done with the property since it was first published (which includes one Zack Snyder movie and a couple of comic revivals prior to this HBO series), and my main reason for this has little to do with the quality of said projects.

It’s been well documented elsewhere, but these are the basics: Answering a question during a panel discussion at the San Diego Comicon in 1985, Moore said, “We [he and artist Dave Gibbons] got the contract [for Watchmen] and it was work for hire. We said we’d rather not work for hire. They said, ‘Sure.’ The way it works, if I understand it, is that DC owns it for the time they’re publishing it, and then it reverts to Dave and me, so we can make all the money on the Slurpee cups.” (“Alan Moore On (Just About) Everything,” The Comics Journal #106, March 1986, p. 38.)

They didn’t agree to work for hire and the contract they signed (both Moore and Gibbons) was not a work-for-hire deal, but guess what? It became a de facto work-for-hire project anyway. How could this have happened, you ask?

Well, as Moore said, “DC owns it for the time they’re publishing it.” So all DC had to do was keep the project in print in perpetuity and they would literally own it forever. At the time of the comic’s conception, the possibility that DC would or could do this was inconceivable. Trade paperback reprints had been done before, but they would naturally go out of print at some point. The idea that a comic TPB could remain in print forever was a ridiculous notion.

Then Watchmen came along. And the reprint trades have continued to be published ever since. The book has not, and will not ever, go out of print. Thus DC continues to own it. While what DC is doing may be perfectly legal, it is not (at least in my own utterly worthless opinion) remotely moral.

Regardless of whether you like or dislike Moore, regardless of whether or not you think he’s a kook, Watchmen was his idea, he wrote it, and it is his rightful property along with Dave Gibbons. He should have complete control over the property (again, along with Gibbons) as per the spirit of the original agreement with DC.

On the other hand, we know, in practical terms, that DC has this legal loophole that will allow them to use the property in any way they please for as long as they want and they will likely milk it for all eternity.

I could ignore the new TV series out of solidarity with Moore, but the TV series would still exist. And it seems to have some interesting ideas worthy of discussion. But in my heart of hearts, I still don’t think anyone else should be doing anything with this property without Moore’s consent. It’s a fairly useless protest but I feel it needed to be said all the same.

The Movie

In order to better understand what this new television series is getting right, it might be fruitful to understand just how much Zack Snyder got wrong with his ill-fated film adaptation in 2009.

Firstly, the Snyder film is almost too devoted to the original story, to the point where it’s a near-slavish adaptation of the source material. Yet somehow, incredibly, it seems to miss the point of much of said source material. For starters, the original comic was meant to evoke more of reality than your standard superhero fare, but the film does not follow suit. In fact it feels a lot like the aforementioned standard superhero fare. Let’s start with the violence.

The very first scene of the film depicts the murder of the Comedian, complete with the perfectly placed blows that make it feel like a twisted ballet. In other words, your typical superhero fight scene, which was precisely what Moore and Gibbons tried to eschew in the comic. This happens again later when Snyder re-creates the alley fight with Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. Now scroll back up and refresh your memory with those comic panels, then come back here and take a look at what Snyder gave us:

In all fairness to Snyder, Moore and Gibbons weren’t always consistent with their portrayals of realistic combat. Rorschach casually breaks a guy’s fingers in the first issue and the guy just lets him, with no attempt to defend himself in the least. (This becomes even more unrealistic in hindsight when it’s revealed that Rorschach is just a runt in elevator shoes, only 5’ 6” and 140 lbs. The guy getting his fingers broken could have probably picked him up and thrown him through a window if he wanted to.) Same thing when Silk Spectre grabs the guy’s balls in issue #5—why is he just standing there letting her do that to him? Why is he making no effort to stop her?

And then there’s Veidt’s ability to catch a bullet in his hand, which ‘nuff said.

Still, when watching the film, I can’t escape the feeling that the deeper, more literary aspects of Watchmen seem to have been lost on Snyder. Going by what we saw on the screen, I’d be willing to bet Snyder based his adaptation entirely on his own reading of the comics, without ever looking up any of the many interviews Moore and Gibbons gave at the time the series was published. Snyder could read the story, know the story, but I don’t believe that he ever really got the story.

Here’s another subtlety Snyder appears to have missed: Does the movie offer any hint that Walter Kovacs (Rorschach) is in love with Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl)? Because the comic certainly does (though granted, a large number of fans I’ve spoken to appear to have missed this as well).

Obviously, the original comic was a masterpiece of the form, with much of what made it great very particular to the medium. The symmetry theme of the fifth issue, for example, was strictly a comic-book conceit and not really adaptable to film. But at the same time, did Snyder add any fresh concept of any kind, perhaps an idea equally particular to the film medium, to make up for this?

The one big change Snyder made was he got rid of the squid. A lot of people liked this, but I was not one of them. The ridiculously fantastic nature of the squid was part of its charm, at least for me, and swapping it out for Dr. Manhattan does create problems. The squid was (supposedly) this alien creature from another dimension, an outsider to the entire world, so it makes sense that its appearance could bring the world together. Dr. Manhattan, on the other hand, was an American agent for decades prior, so would the U.S.S.R. really have come to the side of the U.S. after he appeared to turn on them? Or would this have just further emboldened the Soviets and increased global tensions?

The latter path feels more likely to me.

The Television Series

Which is why the TV series felt so promising, at least at the start. Lindelof seemed to be going the opposite route from Snyder, charting his own course entirely and merely using the comics as a jumping-off point. While the original Watchmen comic was chiefly concerned with the prospect (or the inevitability, really) of nuclear war, the TV series appeared to be tackling racism and the rise of right-wing extremism. It was a fresh and intriguing direction.

But even from the very beginning, there were too many callbacks and Easter eggs that felt too cute by half. Firstly, the story really kicks off with a murder mystery at the end of the very first episode, much like the original comic kicked off with the murder mystery of the Comedian. Then we get the reveal of a secret closet in the murder victim’s home containing a costume, echoing Rorschach’s discovery of the Comedian’s superhero duds in his secret closet. In episode three there’s a funeral, much like the second issue of the comic, where we have the funeral of the Comedian.

Then some of the callbacks become really overt, if not painfully obvious. The eggs forming a smiley face. Sister Night using night-vision goggles like Nite Owl’s. Looking Glass rolling up his faceless mask to reveal his mouth, evoking Rorschach rolling up his faceless mask in order to eat a can of beans at Dreiberg’s house in Watchmen # 1 (Sept. 1986). The appearance of the newsstand. Veidt repeating his old, comic-book line about being a “Republic serial villain” verbatim. Then Silk Spectre/Laurie telling a joke just as Rorschach did in the second issue, with yet again lines like “good joke” and “roll on snare drum” repeated verbatim.

Now this past Sunday’s episode (that would be the fourth) gave us the return of the vivarium, the invocation of thermodynamic miracles, and Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill.” It makes me start to wonder just how much real creative life Lindelof and this series have in them. The repetition of all these scenes and dialogue is unnatural, utterly contrived, and takes me out of the show’s reality. It just keeps reminding me that this it’s all born out of that comic book I read thirty-three years ago. It’s also taking time away from the new stuff, which most agree is the best part of the series.

Then there’s the issue of whether or not Lindelof has a real plan for an actual story here at all, or if his sole concern is the atmosphere he’s able to create, a la a J. J. Abrams-type mystery box. In the premiere episode of the official Watchmen Podcast, Lindelof said he had a plan and knows where it’s all going, but his reputation might suggest otherwise. He started out with some excellent ideas, but we’ll have to wait and see if any of them pan out.

I’ll continue watching through the remainder of this first season at least; longer if Lindelof gives us a story I can actually sink my teeth into.

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