Who Will Watch the Watchmen?

Somewhere in the stunted, sensitive heart of every reader of superhero comic books there lurks a savage, brutal vigilante streak. “Spandex books”, as superhero comics are often derisively known, have long been dismissed as garish, clumsy male adolescent power fantasies, and while many a Comic Book Guy no doubt clings to his battered, weary copy of Spawn or Micronauts or Giant Size Man-Thing (yes) because of haunting memories of an emasculating experience in junior high school, what’s seldom addressed is that superhero comics are even more resonant as, well, adult power fantasies.

Sure, Peter Parker is a high school everydork who happens to be so strong, graceful, and witty that a brutish, athletic predator like Flash Thompson causes him no real lasting psychological trauma, but more interesting by far is Batman, who bypasses jocks, bullies and other teen geek adversaries to instead fulfill the conservative armchair quarterback’s dream of battling such uniquely adult antagonists as political correctness, bureaucracy, and the tolerance of all that is “weird”, effeminate, or otherwise baffling to this sort in 21st-century America.

Curiously, this vigilante component of superhero comics has seldom if ever survived the translation to cinema. Though Hollywood has provided us with plenty of stand-up, take-charge, get-results tough guys over the years (Dirty Harry, Rambo, John McClaine), the lawlessness of its spandex-clad do-gooders tends to be downplayed or disregarded altogether. If you feel powerless and you’ve yet to discover the vicarious vigilante thrill of a good superhero comic, you’ve likely relied instead on such TV and DVD rebels as boss-baiting Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Shield’s Vic Mackey or Samuel Jackson’s Shaft. (The disproportionate baldness amongst the badasses of the screen is a topic that will have to wait for a future column.)

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal ’80s comic book classic Watchmen has superheroes to spare, but it boasts only one proper vigilante: Rorschach, also known as Walter Joseph Kovacs. The runty, redheaded son of a bitter, broken prostitute, Kovacs is the definitive comic book vigilante. Moore strips away all the charisma and cuteness and rock video posturing with which lesser writers typically obscure the more unsightly and unsettling elements of vigilantism; Rorschach is sleazy, self-righteous, deluded, unkempt, unwashed, homophobic, racist, sexist and vicious. Beneath his Rorschach-patterned mask, he’s even the one thing we can never forgive of our heroes: ugly.

Warner Brothers has tapped 300 director Zack Snyder to helm Watchmen’s long-delayed and ill-advised Hollywood adaptation, and every fan of the 20-year-old comic book is asking himself whether a character like Rorschach can possibly find his way to the big screen intact. Will such enigmatic narration as “Disturbed to find I had fallen asleep without removing the skin from my head” and “The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown” find their way into Watchmen’s no-doubt CGI-heavy Tinseltown adaptation? Will Watchmen’s violence be compromised? How about its Cold War paranoia, or its scenes of superhero sexual dysfunction and fetishism?

Ultimately, these questions are as irrelevant as Watchmen’s flaws as a comic book (it would be fascinating, among other things, to read a feminist critique of the comic’s few female characters: a negligent mother who’s also a prostitute, a daughter largely defined by her two lovers, and the latter’s mother, whose final act in the story is to kiss a portrait of the man who raped her decades before); Watchmen is less a story than two men’s love letter to a long-disrespected medium. Indeed, while the narrative is gripping, one must look beneath all the surface themes (from “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies” to “Superheroes are kinky”) to find Watchmen’s most important and compelling message: “Look what you can do with comics!”

Much has been said of the comic book’s unique ability, as a medium, to simultaneously engage seemingly disparate components of the human mind (indeed, many novice readers find the panel layouts of a given comic book to be impenetrably confusing), and no comic book of the ’80s used the medium’s logovisual potential as fully as Watchmen, with its repeated visual motifs, rigid panel layouts and clever meta-textual story-within-a-story gimmickry. The entire book was an experiment inextricably linked to its medium. To reduce it to just another superhero movie is to miss the point entirely, and while many fanboys are no doubt comforted at the thought that someone as literal-minded as Zack Snyder is in control of Watchmen’s big screen fate, anyone with any critical capacity whatsoever knows that Snyder’s slavish, seemingly panel-by-panel cinematic recreation of Frank Miller’s desperately macho 300 comic (or Robert Rodriguez’s similarly fawning adaptation of Miller’s Sin City) was no less tiresome than the comic itself, and if Snyder chooses to placate Watchmen fans with an equally unimaginative and unthinkingly loyal approach, the Watchmen film will still be at best an awkward, ill-fitting supplement to the comic, an unnecessary spectacle with all the cultural relevance of a supermarket paperback novelization of Citizen Kane.

Will Watchmen be a financial triumph despite my histrionic protests? Most likely. Despite their tendency to complain about any perceived failure to do justice to their beloved comic book heroes, superhero moviegoers are not by and large a particularly discriminatory lot once the time comes to actually purchase a ticket, and even if Zack Snyder fails to do justice to the comic’s Cold War time capsule aspects most likely to appeal to the indie/artsy crowd, Watchmen’s considerable summer blockbuster popcorn appeal will still no doubt put plenty of asses in the seats. The answer to “Who Will Watch the Watchmen?” may very well be “Everyone but Monte Williams”.

So it goes. And in the meantime, I have a habit of pairing a book’s opening and closing lines to check for hidden meaning, or even simply a succinct recap of the book’s overall theme. (The greatest example thus far remains Robert Mailer Anderson’s Boonville: “Boonville. Yee-haw.”) Well, Watchmen opens with one of Rorschach’s paranoid journal entries (“Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach”), and to close, I would like to draw director Zack Snyder’s attention to Watchmen‘s final line:

“I leave it entirely in your hands.”