Comic Fodder

One of the Comics Crew Watches Watchmen

Preamble

In high school, as my extra-curricular activity, I partook in drama. This meant attending and reading a pretty good number of plays, including work by ol' Bill Shakespeare. Like anyone who has read and seen Shakespeare performed, I quickly noted that not all performances I attended of the exact same material were equal. The translation from the page doesn't always go according to plan, even when the material is exceedingly familiar. I've seen both hilariously bad Romeo & Juliets, and I've seen performances where Lady Capulet was utterly heartbreaking in her calls for revenge. But either way, its Shakespeare, and so you wind up invested in the play, even if its as you tick off the bad acting and directorial decisions you observe throughout the performance. Or you wind up so engrossed in the performance that you forget this is the fourth time you've seen it and that you've read it twice.

Adaptation

There's a notion that I've seen repeatedly rehearsed, including from Patton Oswalt on his MySpace page, that comic fans dissatisfied with the adaptation should buck up. They've still got their precious comic book, and it still exists outside the movie, etc...

Upon reflection, I say: horse hockey.

It's no surprise or secret that the vast, vast portion of the population will much sooner sit through a three hour movie than pick up and read a 12-issue comic. As far as "mass-media" goes, comics are a tiny subset, whose audience numbers in the 10's of 1000's, not the millions who will eventually see the movie in the theater, on home video, etc... Even as Watchmen races to outpace all other comic sales (and is hitting #1 rankings at Amazon again), its still a tiny fraction of even the least successful of studio films. For that difference in audience between those who saw the movie but did not read the book, "Watchmen" will always be the movie. And those folks will most likely will never give the comic a chance.

For those who've seen both, you can't unsee the movie. And short of some head injury, its unlikely you'll ever be able to read the book again without the movie bouncing around in your brain in a parallel "compare and contrast" cycle. I don't turn off comparisons, and I highly suspect most people don't either. So I'm not really sure where that comes from. You can only be glad you read or saw one before the other.

Not too long ago, Time Magazine published a list of greatest novels since 1923, and among these novels they included "Watchmen". As the movie is increasingly poorly received, how is it not likely that Watchmen the Comic will not be taken down with Watchmen the Movie, for at least a generation? Simple guilt by association.

And here our troubles began

Anyhow, yes. I saw the movie. And my wife, being wiser than I, when we walked out and I was still sorting through the thing said it right:

It's not that bad. But then again, they stuck to the story, and the story is very good, so it was kind of hard to screw it up completely.

Much has been made of the fidelity the movie showed the comic, pulling exact frames from the comic for the movie. But one of the earliest scenes is telling of how director Zack Snyder was almost unable to help himself. At the beginning of the movie, masked vigilante Rorschach investigates a murder of a person thrown from a high rise window. To reach the window, Rorschach fires his grappling gun and follows the zip line up to the window.

The movie follows the sequence, with Rorschach performing the action of the comic, frame-by-frame, popping out the grappling gun and alighting on the window sill like a bird of prey before leaping to the floor like a Chinese acrobat. And it all looks pretty "awesome".

In the comic, Rorschach is pulled up, but he does not land like a bird of prey. Instead, he slides through the window frame as a man would. Any person. There's heft and effort. Despite his gadget and mask, Rorschach is not Spider-Man, he may be many things, but he's not superhuman.

And that's where Snyder's reading of the comic and my reading diverge. And why I never thought a general audience would be particularly into the subject matter.

Two Roads

I won't belabor what is a lengthy post here with a plot synopsis, but in re-reading Watchmen and seeing the movie, its fascinating to note that we should be starting our second generation at this point who has no concept of the Cold War as a fact of life, and how and why it influenced so much of culture. I, for one, fully believed I would be nuked at some point in my life, probably before I was old enough to drink. The very specific fear of a terrorist driving a plane into my office building seemed rather small in comparison. I do not know if the Cold War means anything to those in their twenties or younger.

It should be noted that a lot of my divergence came from the tone Snyder took versus how I'd long read the novel. And I am willing to accept that my reading, which has been largely unfiltered by any interaction except between myself and the printed page, may not be what Moore or Gibbons had in mind. But I always read Watchmen as a much more quiet book than what Snyder put on the screen. Despite the context of a world on the brink, I'd always read it as silent as if the world of Watchmen were holding its breath, listening for the ticking of the clock. Snyder's world is... not that one.

Snyder's characters are superhumans rather than humans. His fights are superhuman fights in which the characters feel amazing afterward, not the mix of sick and still full of adrenaline that Moore and Gibbons had suggested. His Drieberg isn't out of shape and messy, he's still toned and looks good in the owl suit. His characters are simply not the very human people behind the mask I came to know circa 1992, and every time they appeared in a costume, I was reminded of that fact.

Some other movie will determine whether or not Zack Snyder is a good director rather than a great plagiarist/ mimic. I've seen his by-the-numbers remake of a zombie movie. I saw him translate Frank Miller's "300" to the big screen (and was disappointed) even as the movie lovingly recreated Miller's artwork, speeches and characters. His reverence for the material is never a question, but whether or not he actually understands the nuance of what he's directing is another question.

For as many moments as Snyder recreates from the comic that works, every decision he was forced to make himself seems... off. Where Moore has made a career out of implicit story after the ellipsis, Snyder is intent on explicit insistence that the viewer not miss a beat, like your weird Uncle Harold who has to repeat the punchline to the joke you just told, or feeling the need to follow up with an explanation of the punchline. It's not enough that we get what's a brilliant summary of the history of the world our characters inhabit, but he's got to drive it home with "Times, They Are a Changing"? We can't just see that Dr. Manhattan was using lethal means to stop underworld characters, we've got to see their guts splayed from the ceiling? And, yeah, I got that they were going to have sex, thanks... Welcome to the world of inappropriate laughter at the movie theater.

And even scenes like the first time Rorschach and Drieberg meet again in Drieberg's house, that's lifted exactly from the comic page, seem curiously misread, with none of the cold stillness that Moore and Gibbons originally injected in the work. Where Drieberg's slump into the chair in the comic makes complete sense after the transaction, it feels like just a bit of blocking in the film.

Perfunctory movie review stuff

This viewer was mostly not impressed with the performances, but isn't sure that a lot of it didn't have to do with either Snyder's direction or lack thereof. I don't think anyone will argue that Snyder has a Lucas-esque attention to detail in his movie fascimile, or that he can't direct a fight sequence (of which he added at least two sequences which weren't in the book). But in many of the standard, face-to-face, we-have-to-talk-about-this discussions, it just didn't click. Particularly in scenes with cookie-cutter Hollywood starlet Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter (note that Snyder also excised the Jupiter/ Juspeczyk character point), Akerman seemed to prove herself ready for Smallville or a stint on One Tree Hill, but I'm not sure she was exactly big-screen ready.

And there are character moments that were changed that let me know that perhaps Snyder wasn't quite there. For example (spoiler, I guess): When Rorschach describes the case where he felt Walter Kovacs died and Rorschach began, the ending of the story is changed. He does not split the murderer's head in two. In the book, Rorschach leaves the murderer chained to the oven with a saw, giving him a chance to escape the house which he's set on fire. It's a subtle but telling distinction, and I was left wondering if Snyder understood the difference. And, if so, why he made the change.

Like so many in Hollywood these days, the craft of moviemaking for Snyder is a technical issue rather than one that stems from the footlights and greasepaint. And while Watchmen may not be Shakespeare, its also a comic where people sit around and talk for 12 issues, with a few scenes of action when absolutely necessary to the plot. The skills Snyder demonstrated with his zombie movie and 300 just weren't applicable.


Most of the effects were as cutting edge as anything else in Hollywood, and I can't fault the production design team. Nite-Owl's HQ and townhouse were lifted exactly from the comic, and Archie (Nite-Owl's airship) was beautifully convincing. As was the decision NOT to follow the comics and have Archie rise from a converted warehouse, which seemed a little conspicuous in the comic. The costume design is actually pretty nifty, even if I did miss the huge cowl apparatus on Nite-Owl. Obviously Rorschach and Manhattan were true to their original appearances, as were the Minutemen and Sally Jupiter.

The snake eats its own tail

It's difficult, too, to know what blanks I was filling in as someone not just familiar with the book, but who just read it. Its impossible to know if I was making connections that the average viewer might not. Moore's original series is an intricate piece of clockwork (pun unintended) with all the cogs fitting one way or another to tell the complete story. As a movie go-er, you receive the broad strokes, but you're going to know what time it is, and maybe be aware of the gears, but not see how they pull together in quite the same manner as the book.

Further, the movie does lose a bit in translation. Moore and Gibbons' use of the medium isn't really possible on the big screen, lest you tempt the wrath of movie go-ers the way Ang Lee did with his interpretation of "The Hulk" and his panels. Watchmen's largely 9 -nale per page structure told the story as mucha s words and pictures, with interchanges of color in some sections, or even the breakdown of the panels such as in "Fearful Symmetry" (the chapter of the movie that told Rorschach's past). It's not a loss you'll notice in the film, but its impossible to say that there's no loss moving from one medium to the other.

This may surprise some readers at this point, but as per the huge change at the end of the script, I wasn't sure, once I'd accidentally stumbled upon the change online, how that would work. But in the end, it changed very little and tightened up plot elements that might have become too cumbersome in even a 3 hour movie. It was far less of a change than, say, turning Galactus into a cloud and never actually interacting with the Fantastic Four (although these movies were on two completely different levels).

The movie isn't terrible. It's just that its a single volume story, so given the choice, every time I would suggest picking up the comic rather than watching the movie. The three hour run time means that they had to greatly reduce the content of the comic, dropping several elements that aren't going to make the cut in a WB picture concerned with budget and narrative economy. Snyder claims he'll reinsert some of the stuff, like the Black Freighter, in the DVD, and I'll probably actually give it another shot at that time, just to see how it works. After all, we do get a few shots of the news vendor and the comic-reading kid, so perhaps that whole subplot will be restored?

We did have at least one couple walk out. Maybe more, but with waiters coming and going at the Alamo, its hard to tell. We do know the couple next to us had enough, and left during Jon's background story. Some small part of me wanted to dash out after them and ask a series of questions. What did you think you were going to see? What was the first inkling that you were going to leave? What broke the camel's back?

I have a new fear.

When Watchmen was released as a comic, paired with other comics in the 1980's that parlayed the kid's medium into a a market with an adult readership such as Dark Knight Returns, Elektra: Assassin, American Flagg!, etc... it was seen as giving license to a lot of bad ideas that were welcomed under the idea that comics were no longer just for kids.

Sadly, I think Snyder may have ridden dangerously close to the direction those comics decided to go with his adaptation of Watchmen. From the insert shots of gore, to the lingering shots of superhero lovemaking, this comic fan who survived the 90's isn't looking forward to a repeat of the excesses of the post-Watchmen era played out on the big screen. It took a wide-proliferation of Kingdom Come for that scene to finally die down at the comic shop. And the comic racks are still full of ideas that are "awesome" and totally extreme.

For every Rolling Stones you get, you're going to wind up with thousands of lousy bar bands cranking on twelve-bar-blues and identifying with Keith Richards.

I also have a new hope.

It's that Watchmen can become the Frankenstein of comics. Not as in "sewn together creature of used parts". We'll leave that to the Sci-Fi channel originals and Nicholas Cage flicks. Rather, where Superman, Batman, etc... are a fixed origin and then open-ended serial stories open to anything, Watchmen is actually self-contained. And just as Frankenstein has seen all kinds of adaptations (or Dracula, Moby Dick, I don't care...), maybe Watchmen will survive the dent it takes from its first foray into cinematic adaptation? Maybe in fifteen years, if we haven't toally forgotten about the 1980's by then, we can give it another shot, maybe even as that HBO mini-series every single fanboy thought would work better than a movie (except Zack Snyder)?

As I said, I saw a lot of adaptations of plays. I've seen some really terrible productions of "Midsummer Night's Dream", and I've seen the weirdest "What is It Girl, there's a fire down by the well?" version of "Children of a Lesser God" that a man can stand. It's my hope, that if Watchmen the comic is what I think it is, then maybe we'll get around to a better version one day. In the meantime, enjoy Snyder's popcorn-flick take on Watchmen. Or, better yet, just get on Amazon and buy a copy of the comic. But do not, under any circumstances, buy that frikkin', shameful animated comic version.

Whether this means we'll be free of the adaptations when returning to the source material, its up to someone younger and smarter than me whose going to come to all this fresh.

As an after thought to all that, I should mention... well before I ever read Watchmen, the first I knew anything about Watchmen was an article in "Comics Scene" magazine when I was in middle school. At the time they were talking to Arnie about painting him blue. In the context of the late 80's, this sort of makes sense, and is why, no matter my grief or gripes, why I am still grateful in some small way that its post Raimi's Spidey, Singer's X-Men and Superman and Nolan's Batman that we get Watchmen.


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com