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Entry updated 25 February 2020. Tagged: Comics, Film, Publication.

1. Perhaps the most famous of all Graphic Novels, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Watchmen appeared initially as a twelve-part Comic (September 1986-October 1987 Watchmen), each part corresponding to a chapter of the full novel, which was published as Watchmen (graph 1987; with additional material 1988). The initial premise is ingenious: given a late-1930s America where costumed Golden Age Superheroes exist, maintaining law and order on a vigilante basis, what sort of Alternate History might develop by the mid-1980s? The changes suggested are subtle: a modest increase in the rate of scientific development; a Western dominance of the political scene; and an initial acceptance of the superhero coterie, followed by a period of repression. The story takes place in 1985, mostly in New York, as Silver Age members of the second generation of superheroes attempt to trace the person who by various ploys including murder is taking them out of action, one by one. At the same time, a number of signs are pointing towards an imminent nuclear World War Three (and towards a secret plot to frighten the world out of nuclear madness), which some of the protagonists sense coming but which none of them know how to confront. An actual Holocaust does take place, proving terminal for two million New Yorkers; but its effects prove ambiguously positive.

Watchmen offers a Satirical analysis of the human cost of being (or needing) a superhero, and a portrait of the kind of world in which one might exist. It also provides, en passant, an extremely sharp analysis of the psychological makeup (and needs) of those who read superhero comics. Moreover, the densely packed narrative is perfectly conveyed through word and image – Moore was at the height of his powers as an innovative figure in commercial US comics publishing, and Gibbons was equally primed to generate a sophisticated visual language, through which subtexts and subplots might interweave with (as rereading makes evident) the utmost clarity. By subjecting the fantasy worlds inhabited by comic-strip superheroes to the estrangements of adult-sf scrutiny, Watchmen worked as a threnody for some of the more childish visions of omnipotence which had crippled the genre; and by rendering visible some sf conventions, it turned the tables, to a degree, on the scrutinizing medium. Watchmen is one of the central sf novels of the 1980s. It won a 1988 Hugo in the experimental category Best Other Forms.

The film adaptation Watchmen (2009) – generally loyal to the original though with some significant differences – is discussed under 2 below; the Television series Watchmen (2019) is sufficiently distant to receive a separate entry. [JC]

2. Film (2009). Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures in association with Legendary Pictures present a Lawrence Gordon/Lloyd Levin production. Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the Moore/Gibbons comic [see 1 above]. Cast includes Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Patrick Wilson. Theatrical version 162 minutes; Director's Cut 186 minutes; Ultimate Cut 215 minutes. Colour.

This respectful, if at times tin-eared, adaptation had a long and painful genesis, beginning in 1986 with a snappy, irreverent screenplay for Fox by Batman Films writer Sam Hamm which exploited the freshness and creative plasticity of the story in its original moment of impact; Gary Goldman, who would go on to work on several adaptations of works by Philip K Dick, did further work on Hamm's script before the project subsided into turnaround. For several years in the early 1990s Terry Gilliam was attached to direct his own adaptation for Warners, but producer Joel Silver was unable to raise the budget. In 2001 Hayter (see X-Men [2000] in X-Men Films) wrote a new version from Moore's original dialogue, which went through a series of studios (Universal, Revolution, Paramount) and directors (Hayter himself, Paul Greengrass) before being picked up by Warners, whose writer Tse followed Hayter's adaptation closely, though it was only when the leverage-heavy Snyder became attached as director that key elements, such as the 1985 setting and some of the strongest original dialogue, were restored. The ending changed repeatedly, even under Snyder (who wrote an uncredited draft) – only Goldman had kept the fake space squid from the source – but the version eventually adopted, which was provided by Darren Aronofsky, at least restores the essential moral armature of the original, after some much cruder finishes in penultimate versions. Budgetary compromises and challenges of running time nevertheless forced some elements out, notably in the Antarctic climax. As with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta, Moore signed over his share of the film rights to his artist and refused a creator credit or profit cut, though he did advise Hayter informally.

Snyder's version earnestly respects the comic's apotheosis, over the film's decades in development hell, from radical boat-rocker to revered and long-shadowing classic. His distinctive integration of dynamic greenscreened live action into a digital visual universe was earlier showcased in his earlier comics adaptation 300 (2006), and as on that film the source panels are often closely reproduced. Though a diluted work, the film refutes quite effectively the often-expressed view of Moore and Gilliam that the comic depends not incidentally but essentially on the formal poetics of its originating medium; Moore's very strong narrative is preserved mostly intact, though with a few elements relegated to deleted scenes (restored in the Director's Cut) and supporting featurettes (notably the Tales of the Black Freighter animation, first released as a DVD tie-in to the theatrical release, but integrated into the "Ultimate Cut" DVD version). More of a challenge was the creation and destruction of an entire decades-long Superhero universe in a single film, and indeed persuading general audiences to care about the history of such universes – particularly the relationship between golden- and silver-age continuities, which superhero cinema had hitherto avoided (see Captain America: The First Avenger), but which constituted the vital genre armature for Moore's densely imagined Alternate History. Snyder's major contribution here is a daring credits sequence montaging the forty-year backstory, to which the rest of the film struggles to live up; departures from Moore's dialogue are generally infelicitous and the fight scenes ludicrously overblown. In a solidly substellar cast Wilson and Morgan (as Nite Owl and the Comedian) stand out; the rest disappoint in varying degree. [NL]

see also: Time Out of Sequence.


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