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Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic

(Warner Home Video; US: Mar 2009)

Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic, issued and marketed in conjunction with the theatrical film, is a fascinating specimen that offers a third option for those debating the merits of the film versus the graphic novel. It is an attempt, essentially, to apply film language to the comics format and sell a DVD version that you can watch instead of read.


Panel by panel, the 12-chapter graphic novel is faithfully reproduced digitally, complete with dialogue balloons and sharpened color and clarity. In fact, the art here is conspicuously superior to the muddy mass-market editions of the graphic novel currently available. The crisp digital transfer is perhaps the DVD set’s biggest selling point for hardcore Watchmen fans who already have their own print edition of the title.


Less successfully, the DVD creators attempt to jazz up the original work by adding voiceover, music, sound cues, and a deliberately primitive style of limited animation. So, for instance, foreground characters in a given frame are pulled out and animated paper-doll style—much like the characters in South Park, actually. Background images are slightly blurred to suggest film perspective, and the camera restlessly pans, scans and zooms around the page.


Meanwhile, narrator Tom Stechschulte reads aloud everyone’s dialogue, similar to an audio book treatment. As with most audio books that depend on a single narrator to voice multiple characters, this approach often fails—particularly when Stechschulte attempts female characters. If you bear in mind that Watchmen is almost entirely dialogue with very little in the way of traditional narrative text, you have a crippling dilemma.


In fact, Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic may be the first DVD ever issued that is markedly improved with the sound turned completely off (not counting Nickelback concert videos). The only actor I’ve ever heard able to pull off something like this—giving discernable voices to dozens of characters—is Jim Dale, the award-winning actor who voices all the Harry Potter audiobooks. That guy is unbelievable.


Nevertheless, there is a lot to like with the motion comics strategy, at least in terms of visuals. Comic book and film geeks will enjoy analyzing it all in a meta sort of way. The pan-scan-and-zoom approach necessitates certain creative choices as to where to direct the viewer’s attention, and it’s occasionally expanded to more useful ends. For instance, a panel in the print comic shows a brief glimpse of a static flowchart detailing corporate skullduggery. On the DVD, the flowchart is expanded and animated, giving more heft to a critical plot point.


Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic appears to be aimed at the casual fan who wants to experience the graphic novel without the hassle of, you know, reading it. I could see this working better if the format were ported to some kind of mobile device, ideally something like the Amazon Kindle or a similar dedicated e-reader. As it is, though, I doubt casual fans will want to spend five hours watching on DVD.


Maybe they would on a laptop where you can drop in for a few pages at a time. It’s an interesting problem. We’re used to watching DVDs in one sitting, like movies. But we’re used to reading books in chunks, over time. “Motion comics” would like to split the difference, and if there were ever a format in need of an e-reader solution, this is it.


In any case, serious Watchmen geeks will want to check it out. The DVD set is getting a good push in retail and you can find it at Blockbuster. You can also buy individual chapters via iTunes.


A variation of this column was previously published in the NPR blog, “Monkey See.”

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Glenn McDonald writes about popular culture from his home in lovely Chapel Hill, NC. His humor essays have been described as "grammatically consistent" and "remarkably frequent". He is editor of the Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me daily news quiz at NPR.org, and a film critic at the Raleigh News & Observer. He lives virtually at www.glenn-mcdonald.com.


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