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The Hero Takes a Fall: Watchmen (1986)

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Monday, Feb 9, 2009
It's Watchmen week here at Short Ends and Leader. Yesterday we debuted the controversial TV channel from New Frontiersman Magazine. Today, we tackle the book that started it all - Alan Moore's amazing graphic novel masterpiece. Tomorrow we will look into the career of Zack Synder, wrapping up our coverage with a discussion of the casting and the creative challenges faced by the film. Enjoy!

A watch works on balance. It’s a combination of mechanical function and a jeweler’s sophistication. Old world craftsmen strove to create art within the springs and gears of a gentleman’s timepiece, forging a lasting symbol to that most immortal of elements - the passage of eternity. Take one apart, and the various components confuse as to their import and purpose. Yet when moving together in synchronized control, tension and fluidity forced to perfectly coexist, the universe is kept in check. Alan Moore’s amazing Watchmen graphic novel is a lot like the noble chronometer. In the book, the title refers to a band of rogue vigilantes, the masked avengers inspired by comics to become the guardians of justice and the scapegoats for a society gone mad. But as a work of literary triumph, it’s a series of seminal sections that, when combined, create one Hell of a majestic whole.


The story is told in twelve chapters, each section involving many layers, asides, subplots, suppositions, and conflicting character beats. The main thread sees famed hero The Comedian killed, and a former fellow crime fighter, Rorschach investigating. He believes that the current cultural climate suggests a possible plot against all masked heroes. He fears for the safety of such unusual champions as The Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Silk Specter, and the only one of them with true super powers, Dr. Manhattan. After looking to a past nemesis for answers, Rorschach is framed for murder and arrested. Then the all blue doctor decides to leave Earth to its own devices and takes up residence on Mars. Nite Owl and Silk Specter hope to free Rorschach, and with his help, discover the truth about the Comedian’s death, who was responsible, and what it might have to do with the possible end of the world.


Alan Moore has a right to be pissed, especially when it comes to the big screen interpretations of his pen and ink masterworks. He has seen such stellar titles as From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta turned into less than successful dilutions of his ideas. While often matching the visual panache of the artists Moore pairs with, these films find little of the prosaic magic the man offers with his words - and Watchmen appears to be no different, at least from this prerelease arms length appraisal. As a book, it’s a beautiful puzzle, a complicated set of strategies and storytelling devices driven into each other with skill, intelligence, and a sheer force of personal resolve. How Zach Synder will recreate that element in his otherwise faithful version of the tome will be telling indeed.


But there’s more to Moore than simple words. Watchmen is a work of definite ideas, of contrasting geek nation knowledge superimposed over the old Joseph Campbell concept of heroes. Moore makes it very clear, right from the beginning, that we are dealing with a world so paranoid, so bereft of options either diplomatic or rational, that a glowing blue man with unlimited control over matter gives the US the perfect “God and Country” power trip conceit. It’s like reliving the Cold War except that America has aliens as well as nukes. Similarly, the internal fabric is shredding since masked vigilantes are no longer allowed to prowl the streets (by government edict). Moore stresses the differences between the two, using the frailty of humans as the underlying message about the state of the planet and the ineffectualness of individuals like the heroes.


For support, Moore tosses in parts of a proposed autobiography, an incomplete edition of the Right Wing rag The New Frontiersman, a few clippings about the character’s past, and most intriguing, a Tales from the Crypt style funny book featuring a sensationally sick story about a sailor, a shipwreck, and a rescue raft made out of dead, bloated corpses. Of all the material utilized by Moore, this is the most unusual and confusing. We initially see the storyline as a comment on the desperation of man. But as the narrative takes nastier and nastier turns, some of Moore’s message gets lost. In the end, he seems to be suggesting that, no matter how hard it tries, humanity is destined to destroy himself by his own insane hand.


In fact, much of Watchmen is a cleverly disguised anti-nuclear arms race rant. The Nixonian US with its McCarthy-esque ideals, the ineffectual Europeans with their roll over and hide mentality, a still vital Soviet Union relying on Communism as the “great alternative”, and existing within them all, a group of people who used to run around in handmade uniforms, their desire to protect the people perverted by a newfound love of power, popularity, and publicity. Only Dr. Manhattan seems centered and stalwart - and he’s a human A-bomb waiting to go off. Within Moore’s multilayered argument, we see that the pursuit of goals doesn’t necessarily lead to the achievement of same, while showboating strength (and preserving those who can back it up) turns into something very sinister.


But Watchmen is also about characters, about unique individuals with everyday problems that seem to pale in comparison to their alter egos’ grand designs. Moore sets the stage for films like The Dark Knight here, digging deep into the psychology of someone who used to save lives as a career. Most intriguing is Nite Owl (otherwise known as Daniel Drieberg). A fan of ornithology, he becomes the winged crusader when the original hero retires. He still longs for the days of flying in his Owl Ship and acting as the face of justice. Of course, now such actions are illegal, and without them, Dan is lost. He even takes up with Silk Specter partially out of attraction and partially out of a need to reconnect with his crusader past.


All of the ex-heroes here have issues. Rorschach is horrifically antisocial. The Comedian appears to be a wet dream for anyone in love with jingoistic patriotism and Soldier of Fortune magazine. Even the ethereal Dr. Manhattan can’t avoid the sting of losing the one he loves - even if he can foresee the break-up happening before it actually does. Such striking contrasts and intricate narrative devices make Watchmen a magically read (even for those of us not used to having illustrations along with our text). It also makes it a potential problem come movie sign.


Synder and company must find a way to keep the story shuttling along while bringing the depth and diversity that Moore managed on the page. If they can do it, then Watchmen will be more than just a great graphic novel. It will be that celluloid rarity - an adaptation that does the source material proud. If it fails to fulfill its promise, it will be yet another reason why Moore hates film. It’s all a matter of meticulous management and clever creativity. Like the balance of a great timepiece. Like the work of Alan Moore.


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