I don’t read comics, but I try not to discount the form. I read Watchmen around 5 years ago at the behest of a friend, an avid comic book and graphic novel reader. I’ve not decided if I’ll see Watchmen, the movie: When I first saw a teaser for it, I felt disinterest, with a touch of disgust. But in thinking more about the film the other night, I remember reading the novel-bound edition of the comic over an evening with no breaks. It was the first time I truly appreciated the graphic novel form. I was also just emotionally involved in the story.
The series creator, Alan Moore , it is argued– and I just accept this valuation– its a master of the comic form. A craft that often remains just this, but with a touch like Moore’s becomes art. Of course, much can be said about the denigration of comics as an art form, just an one can point to the many great science fiction, mystery, and espionage writers that have been pigeonholed as genre fiction writers. Denigration of this other beast, the adaptation of comics to blockbuster films, however, may be too little.
I recently read a exposition on the act of adaptation by Salmun Rushdie, which lead me to think about Watchmen and comic-to-film adaptations in the first place. Of course, comic books are often adaptations of adaptations. This is sometimes the commercial reuse of intellectual property in the form of characters and stories; but there is also an mythological element in the reworking of superheroes and villains to square with contemporary issues. In the case of Moore’s watchmen, DC Comics made an acquisition from Charlatan Comics, a cast of characters. Moore was then hired to adapt these character’s for a DC series. He choose to take a group of status-quo super heroes and make them dysfunctional anti-heroes. As Grady Hendrix writes of the comic:
Watchmen made the point that superheroes, realistic or otherwise, were beside the point. Its costumed do-gooders are retired, impotent, or insane, and they generally do more harm than good […] This [is a] surprising development, the comic reframed itself: Watchmen isn’t about crimefighters coming out of retirement and taking up their rightful mantles, but about how they never should have existed in the first place. The nuclear war they’re trying to prevent is almost entirely their fault in the first place, and the arms race that preceded it was accelerated by their mere existence.
Last summer’s comic blockbuster, The Dark Knight, also considered whether a non-super hero should retire. The comic book release of The Dark Knight was released at the same time as Watchmen, and the two works are interesting companions. They shared critical acclaim in the mid-Eighties– both perceived as revolutionary in artistic process and narrative. Also, they both take place– one figuratively– in New York city. The Gotham milieu says many more things about our current condition, about American fear and politics in an age of terrorism. And whereas the effete watchmen either become the literal tools of Richard Nixon or hang up their capes, its natural to feel, as many critics have argued, that Batman’s heroism against terrorism is apologetic for the policy’s of Dick Cheney and the Bush Department of Justice.*
The Dark Knight is an exception to movies derived from comics though– they generally stink. They stink for many reasons, but in part they stink because the format doesn’t allow for hero’s to be deconstructed, as is done in The Watchmen series and, too a smaller extent, in The Dark Knight. I expect the movie retelling of the story will try to, despite its grit and frame-by-frame loyalty to the original, recast the Watchmen as heroes (not that their story ends heroically). In the case of Watchmen, its doesn’t really seem to matter that the original work is masterpiece. As Dana Steven’s sumarizes, “the book’s spirit—its paranoia, its dark humor, and above all its bleak anti-triumphalism—has been squelched in the transition to a big-budget action epic.”
* I felt that this question in Christopher Nolan’s Batman was more provocative than allegorical. Thinking of its portrayal of torture and also a scene where the police, to their demise, neglect a suffering man because of his association with the Joker. (The Joker has given the man an implant of explosives.)
Some related readings: