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Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic
narrator: Tom Stechschulte

directors: Jake Strider Hughes, Richard Zangrande Gaubert

300 minutes (tbc) 2008
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Warner DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
The first moments of experiencing the Watchmen comic in this motion format created feelings of queasiness; the act of looking at a panel with a narrator reading the captions, and the characters' dialogue from the word balloons, which are available for the viewer to read themselves, presented problems of co-ordination leading to a slightly nauseous lurch. Or perhaps it was just the reaction of your reviewer. Having seen the whole thing I can't now say whether I watched it as a visual experience and allowed the narrator to tell me the story or whether I read along with him; probably the latter. In any event, the sensation of disorientation only lasted for a few moments at the beginning. The narration is effective although the female characters inevitably sound a bit mannish.

Re-reading the book in this format after many years was a surprise. I had forgotten how bleak Alan Moore's world-view was at that time. I admired the book more but I liked it less. I know V For Vendetta was written when Moore was deeply pessimistic about the state of Britain under Thatcher (well she was still there in 1986), but I think Moore must have grown more concerned for the world at large. It is interesting that Moore, and Frank Miller, were dealing with similar themes in the two books that virtually created the notion of graphic novels, this one and Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Both deal with a world on the brink of nuclear war. Both imagine a world where costumed vigilantes have been outlawed except for those sanctioned by the government, Dr Manhattan and the Comedian in Watchmen, and Superman in The Dark Knight Returns. Both consider vigilantes who refuse to obey the proscription, Watchmen's Rorschach and the 'dark knight' himself Batman.

First up a confession, I'm not the greatest fan of Alan Moore. I think part of what he does is always brilliant. The idea of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen was just that, extraordinary. The opening of the first book with the fate of the Great Detective, and the opening of the second with Edgar Rice Burroughs segueing into H.G. Wells was superb. Similarly, much of the Watchmen book is a tremendous achievement. The creation of the Minutemen, part pastiche, part authentic recreation of the golden age of comics, with a gritty modern resonance is simply stunning. His re-imagining of superhero origin stories is pure genius. Yes, of course, once Superman appeared borderline sociopaths and publicity hungry extroverts everywhere would be pulling on cowls and customising capes to jump on the bandwagon.

Concurrent with Watchmen, Frank Miller was confronting the issue of ageing superheroes, in a world that doesn't want them, in The Dark Knight Returns, with his Sons of the Batman playing out the role of copy-cat vigilantes. Grant Morrison was later to imagine the origins of a golden age super-villain in his 1989 Animal Man story The Death Of The Red Mask. Moore's writing combines a love of the genre with the serious ability to deconstruct it. Like other great innovators his stories are almost too big for their context, they burst out of the genre with subtexts, references, and allusions, generating further levels of deconstruction for the fans and critics to consider. The story is layered overall and that layering is replicated at a fractal level. The single most impressive sequence in the book, in my opinion, is that of Dr Manhattan on Mars, in 'Watchmaker' the fourth chapter, which plays with time, and attempts to get into the mind of a character of indescribable power and infinite capacity.

It has been suggested that the adult themes, and indeed the violence, the graphic violence, of the book opened the way for writers and illustrators to embrace more realistic treatments of characters and events. It has also been suggested that while Moore was concerned with cause and effect and significance and consequences subsequent writers have not been so inclined. It is a fact that the motion comic format allows for a particularly explicit emphasis on the bloody results of violence, it is most certainly not stylised comic-book violence. I do not doubt Moore's moral rigour in confronting the issues he raises in his work it is just that sometimes I am disturbed at his technique.

In The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Mina Harker survives a rape attempt while recruiting Alan Quatermain. Hawley Griffin is captured by the League while using his invisibility to rape the students of Miss Rosa Coote's school. In the second volume Griffin savagely beats Mina and, given his proclivities, one would have expected him to complete her humiliation by raping her as well, but Moore relents. Griffin is raped to death by Mr Hyde. Mr Hyde, a monstrous serial killer of prostitutes, attains heroic status by engaging the Martians in single combat to gain time for the British forces to deploy the chemical warfare that will destroy them.

Moore implicates his readership with the crimes of his maladjusted cast of players. We take grim satisfaction in Griffin receiving his just dessert, perhaps a more honest reaction would be that of Nemo who attempts to despatch Hyde. Mr Hyde swaggering to his death sings George Grossmith's See Me Dance The Polka, a monster, certainly, but our monster. Similarly, in Watchmen, Moore blurs the boundaries of morality. The horrific kidnapping and murder that turns Walter Kovacs into Rorschach invites us to approve the justice that he dispenses to the perpetrators. Sally Jupiter forgets the fact that Eddie Blake brutally beat her as a prelude to attempted rape because when he visits her she believes he has genuinely changed. She taunts her husband with Blake's 'gentleness' and the fact that he can't comprehend what it must have taken for a man like the Comedian to betray a gentler side. Cynically, the reader assumes that Blake realised it would be a sure-fire means to obtain sex. Moore's rehabilitation of Blake is the most depressing thing in the book. He is a rapist and murderer and yet both Sally Jupiter and her daughter see some seeds of redemption in him because of an afternoon of sentiment and attentiveness. Perhaps this is supposed to suggest hope does exist for even the blackest soul but for this reader it just doesn't ring true. Similarly, while the Comedian is presented, like Rorschach, as someone who has looked into the blackest regions of the human soul, and the loneliness at the heart of the universe, and used that knowledge to licence their amorality, or hyper-morality in Rorschach's case, Blake's horror and subsequent breakdown on discovering Veidt's monstrous plan to 'save the world' seems totally at odds with what we know of his character.

Of course the supreme irony of Watchmen is that the two amoral characters are the ones most affected by the ethical wrongness of Veidt's plan. Out of character or not, Blake cannot conceive of the means, mass murder, justifying the end, world peace. Rorschach of course sees it simply in terms of a crime, albeit a staggeringly enormous one. Veidt, for all his agonising, uses his intellect to steal the plot of the old Outer Limits episode Architects Of Fear and visits wholesale slaughter on the people of New York City to save the world, the classic goal of the superhero. Dr Manhattan of course is so divorced from human affairs or perhaps just tuned into another inevitability that he goes along with Veidt's plan vaporising Rorschach in the process. The two lovers Dan and Laurie are too bound up in themselves, and while the enormity of what has been done is not lost on them, their wishy-washy liberal desire for peace and harmony wins out.

The ending is stunning if you can accept, among other things, Blake's sudden acceptance of humanity. His rehabilitation and Sally Jupiter's tears for her rapist are a little hard to stomach however. On another note if Adrian Veidt is the smartest man alive how come it took him until 1985 to discover dub? The shock ending is of course the imminent discovery of Rorschach's journal, which we are invited to imagine will blow Veidt's elaborate plan to pieces and ultimately one assumes bring about the very World War he has desperately sought to prevent. The removal of Dr Manhattan, essential to the convoluted plan, makes war more likely; the plot of The Black Freighter, the comic-book within the book, where a man draws destruction on the community he hopes to save mirrors this exactly. But as Rorschach's journal has come into the hands of an obscure right-wing publication, 'The New Frontiersman', is any of this really likely, compared to the compelling evidence of alien invasion provided by a huge extra-dimensional squid and thousands dead due to psychic shock?

The film is out now and has garnered mixed reviews. The status of the book has apparently led to an over serious approach to the film which has ultimately compromised the material. As someone who has mixed feelings about the book I can't comment on the success of the film version until I see it. The Independent's Anthony Quinn was scathing but then The Independent didn't like The Dark Knight, and found it "too noisy." Quinn found Watchmen too violent but neglected to make his terms of reference clear. Too violent in the way that say Casino is too violent or too violent for a comic? Quinn seemed aware of Watchmen's status as a ground-breaking graphic novel but unfamiliar with the source material. He invalidated his criticism by opening his review with some facile observations that superhero teams were about establishing a hierarchy of powers, quite what this had to do with Watchmen was not apparent.

This motion comic is quite effective and at least has the good grace in the credits to urge the viewer to experience the work in its original format. Some elements making up the panels move, and the camera can rove around or delve into the panels. In a sense I suppose it attempts to recreate how the eye scans the panels of a comic, taking in the action and then seeking the confirmation provided by the captions and the word balloons. In places the primitiveness of the artwork is emphasised but without a copy of the original in front of me I can't compare the two. Also in the early chapters scenes of violence are preceded by a blackout panel, I can't remember if this was a feature of the original or an attempt here to emulate William Castle's foghorn of horror. As far as I'm aware Moore himself hasn't involved himself with this adaptation although Dave Gibbons was heavily involved.

Moore's reluctance to countenance translation of his work into other media militates against adaptations like this, and arguably since much of the periphery is abandoned, like The Black Freighter, memoirs, journals, etc. Moore can safely argue that the work is being presented in an abridged form. No one surely would miss Moore's long prose, which he has foisted on Watchmen in the form of The Black Freighter, and on The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the shape of 'Allan And The Sundered Veil'. But of course that is just my opinion. Lennie Moore's soundtrack for this motion comic matches the brooding material. I have read some other reviews of this version of Watchmen and many of them are antagonistic. The work has a massive following and transcends adaptation which is a thankless task but in this case I feel a valid one.

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