Watchmen may be one of the most revered comics in history. Following the lives of six has-been superheros forced out of their vigilantism by law in an altered past where America won the war in Vietnam, Watchmen puts all of our presumptions on the traditional superhero story on trial.
Originally published as a comic book series in 1986-87, the graphic novel, a bound collection of all twelve issues, has seen a spike in popularity among cult fans, breaching the mainstream border with the highly advertised, yet poorly critiqued, film adaptation in 2009.
While it may be assumed that graphic novels are easier to convert to the silver screen than the traditional book, “Watchmen” is just too dense to fit into a 162-minute (215 if you opt for the “ultimate cut”) movie. Alan Moore, author of the tale, was once quoted as wanting to make “Watchmen” the “Moby-Dick of comic books.” He succeeded.
Read as a book, with each issue taking the place of a chapter, we can see the ways Moore took on the daunting task. While about half of the book details the main storyline, it is frequently interrupted by entire chapters of history detailing the heros. Additionally, supplemental text is provided at the end of each issue, diving even farther into the story.
As readers, we have the option to get into the story as much as we wish. Skim the lengthy text portions. Glance over the comic-within-a-comic side story, a small parallel tale with more than a few links to the plot. The amount of detail consumed is up to the reader.
Artist Dave Gibbons doesn’t just breeze through his portion of “Watchmen” either. The majority of the story is told through the classic 3 by 3 grid of early comic books, where each page features nine equally sized panels. The structure doesn’t give Gibbons a lot of room to work with in each square, but he packs the detail in. If you finish “Watchmen” in under five hours, you didn’t give the artwork the attention it deserves.
Pages do break the 3 by 3 format, but it’s used sparingly, and to good effect. Devastating disasters fill up entire pages, forcing readers into a desperate frenzy trying to sort through the mess all at once. In chapter five, a large panel is placed smack in the middle of two pages, which happens to be right in the middle of the issue. Astute observers find that the entire issue is symmetrical in layout, starting from that two page spread.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons set out to make a story so packed with information, fans of the story could come back to it repeatedly and still capture the excitement of finding newness inside. Great for a book – tough for a movie adaptation.
At times, the attention to detail can seem like excess to the point of annoyance, but not too often. Quotes used to open and conclude each chapter come across lazy, but some readers are quick to defend them. Too many breaks mid-story for a history lesson on one of the characters can leave some peeved, wanting to get back to the plot. Such hindrances hardly interfere with all the fun.
Curiously, “Watchmen” has seen only growth in its popularity since its release, somehow breaking the common mold of comics, which are more frequently treated like newsstand magazines than lasting literature. Interest in the series has grown so much that DC Comics has just launched six new series this summer they’ve titled “Before Watchmen,” each with separate writers and artists.
Not surprisingly, the move has caused considerable debate. Many argue that with such a large team spread over a number of separate series, the integrity of Watchmen and it’s creator’s vision is bound to erode. Others have never been more excited for a comic book release. Interestingly, the creators are just as split as the fans: Writer Alan Moore is against the project, and no longer works for DC. Artist Dave Gibbons has given the project his approval.
Regardless of how the series turns out, the original “Watchmen” is set to remain enamored in readers hearts for a while. After all, it made Time Magazine’s top 100 novels since 1923. Definitely check it out.
Dean Goranites publishes weekly video book reviews at unleashthis.tumblr.com, and can be reached through Twitter at unleash_this.