Sunday, March 1, 2009

Who Watches the Watchmen?

By Chris Buchner

Alan Moore is no stranger to Hollywood, despite his personal distance from it. From Hell (2001), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and V for Vendetta (2006) were the adaptations of his works in comics of the same name. The latest is Watchmen, based off Moore’s 1986-87 DC Comics miniseries with artist Dave Gibbons.

Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985 where America is on the verge of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Superheroes have become unpopular among the public and a 1977 legislature was passed to outlaw them. All but sanctioned heroes The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan retired, with a third, Rorschach, operating outside the law. The story begins with the murder of The Comedian, and Rorschach investigating as the NYPD have failed to turn up any leads. Rorschach believes his death was part of a conspiracy to wipe out all costumed adventurers and warns his former comrades, leading each one to don their costumes again to save New York City.

Moore wanted to write a story featuring an unused line of superheroes that he could revamp as he had done with the 1954-63 British character Miracleman (also known as Marvelman in the UK). He wanted to examine what superheroes would be like in the real world. Originally looking towards Archie Comics’ Mighty Crusaders, Moore eventually wrote his pitch using the characters DC acquired from the defunct Charlton Comics in 1985. Moore’s belief was that as long as readers recognized the characters and got the shock and surprise value when you saw their reality it didn’t matter which set he used. The pitch was submitted to DC managing editor Dick Giordano. While Giordano loved the concept, he urged the writer to create an original cast as the story would have rendered most of the Charlton characters useless for future DC projects.

Gibbons, an artist who had worked with Moore before, heard about the treatment and asked to be involved. Giordano assigned colorist John Higgins because he liked his unusual style and lived close enough to Gibbons to allow human contact during the creation. Len Wein joined on as editor while Giordano stayed on to oversee, although both had a hands-off approach to the project allowing the creative talent to do what they needed to undaunted.

Moore and Gibbons designed the book to showcase the unique abilities of the comic medium and its strengths. As the story progressed, they realized the plot itself became irrelevant compared to how the story was told. They created their characters with inspiration from many sources, in particular by a Mad Magazine parody of Superman called Superduperman, although taken in the complete opposite direction for their purposes. While Moore came up with the characters’ defining characteristics, Gibbons was allowed creative freedom with his designs trying to make them as simplistic and easy to draw as possible, resulting in the characters:

Doctor Manhattan, aka Dr. Jonathan Osterman, is a government-sanctioned hero and works for the US Government. He gained superpowers when caught in an Intrinsic Field Subtractor in 1959. Moore, basing him on Charlton’s Captain Atom, wanted to give him a unique perspective on human affairs as he gradually grew from his own humanity, while Gibbons designed the character as being nude and trying to tastefully present that, reusing the skin motif from the character Rogue Trooper.

Rorschach, aka Walter Kovacs, is a vigilante who wears a mask with constantly shifting ink blots. He sees the world in black and white, and thus free to leave his own mark on a morally blank world. Moore used Steve Ditko as an inspiration, combining elements from his Mr. A and The Question characters.

Nite-Owl, aka Dan Dreiberg, is a retired hero who uses owl-themed gadgetry similar to Batman. Taking a cue from DC’s Blue Beetle, Moore incorporated a predecessor for the character in Hollis Mason, who used the same name. Gibbons used a design for Mason he created when he was twelve as the basis for Nite-Owl’s overall look.

The Comedian, aka Edward Blake, is the other government-sanctioned hero and the catalyst for the story when he’s murdered. He’s a ruthless, cynical and nihilistic character with deep insights into being a hero. He attempted to rape the original Silk Spectre in the 1940s and would later father her daughter. He was based on Charlton’s Peacemaker with elements of Marvel’s Nick Fury thrown in.

Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt, retired to run his own enterprise. He’s one of the smartest men on the planet, which leads him to look down on humanity with scorn that makes him the villain of the series. Moore was inspired by Alexander the Great and Charlton’s Thunderbolt, whom Moore admired for using his full brain capacity with full control over his mind and body.

Silk Spectre, aka Laurie Juspeczyk, is the daughter of the original and works for the government because of her relationship with Dr. Manhattan. Unlike the other characters based off the Charlton line, Moore felt he needed a female character in the group and took inspiration from DC’s Black Canary and Phantom Lady.

Moore began writing the series early on to try and avoid any delays suffered by other series at the time, but despite their best efforts the book did fall a couple of months behind schedule. Moore realized that his original plot only left them with six issues of story while they were contracted for 12. It was decided to break up the plot by alternating those issues with origin issues for the characters. Gibbons took pains to ensure the pages couldn’t be confused for any other comic, drawing in a particular weight of line and using a nine-panel grid for each page due to its “authority.” The cover to each issue served as the first panel to the story, and Gibbons often experimented with layout of the issue contents, such as issue 5’s symmetrical pages to go along with the story’s title “Fearful Symmetry.” Moore would also use the pages DC was unable to sell for ad space to do supplemental prose pieces, including fictional book chapters, reports and articles by the characters.

Tales of the Black Freighter was conceived by Moore as a comic that a kid in the comic would read throughout the series. Gibbons suggested a pirate theme and Moore went with it, figuring since the citizens of their fictional world had superheroes they wouldn’t be interested in superhero comics; instead allowing horror, science fiction, piracy and other genres to dominate the books. Moore was also a Berthold Brecht fan, and the Black Freighter was derived from Brecht and Kurt Weill’s song “Seer√§uberjenny” (“Pirate Jenny”) from their Threepenny Opera. This story ends up, according to Moore, describing the story of Adrian Veidt.

Watchmen was a commercial and critical success, and helped DC surpass rival Marvel in the sales charts. Along with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns miniseries, Watchmen was collected and marketed as a graphic novel, a term that allows a publisher to associate comic stories with novels and disassociate them from comics. The success of these graphic novels inspired bookstores and public libraries to give shelf space to them, which in turn led to new comic series to be commissioned on the basis of reprinting them in the collections for those new markets; a practice which continues today. The book has since been reprinted and re-released multiple times, including as a motion comic with voice acting on iTunes in 2008.

Moore had stated that if the series was well-received, he and Gibbons would most likely do a 12-issue prequel series focusing on the 1940s superhero group in the story, the Minutemen. However, Moore and DC had a falling out over ownership of this and other properties he had produced for them, as well as how his imprint America’s Best Comics, part of Wildstorm, was treated after DC bought Wildstorm in 1998. If DC should ever not use his creations for a year, the rights revert back to him and their respective artists. But, with several printings of the trade paperback collection as well as the reprint of the first issue released for the film at the book’s original $1.50 price tag, it doesn’t seem likely DC will let the rights lapse anytime soon.

The Watchmen movie had been in development as far back as 1986. Several directors and writers had been attached at its various stages, including David Hayter, Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass and Sam Hamm. Problems arose such as inadequate budget, creative differences and a conflicting desire to keep the script as true to the source as possible, and the project kept moving from one studio to another. Finally, in 2005, the project returned to Warner Bros. for the second time with producer Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin. Thanks to his work on 300, director Zack Snyder was approached to direct the film with Alex Tse writing.

As with 300, Snyder used the comic as a storyboard, but extended the fight scenes and added a subplot about energy resource to make the film topical. He also had Night Owl and Ozymandias’ looks designed to make Owl scarier and Ozymandias’ armor a parody of the rubber suits from the movie Batman & Robin. Series artist Dave Gibbons became an advisor for the film, but Moore has stated no interest in seeing the film, despite saying David Hayter’s screenplay was as close as it could get. Moore’s main reasoning is Watchmen was designed to only work in comics and not any other media; a challenge Snyder and company will try to overcome.

Watchmen comes to theaters March 6th, 2009. The Tales of the Black Freighter will be adapted into a direct-to-video animated feature released on March 11th. Series editor Len Wein has written the game Watchmen: the End is Nigh, available for download on March 4th. Watchmen collections are out now and available at your local comic shop and most book retailers.

1 comment:

Carl V. Anderson said...

Very nicely done! I read Watchmen for the first time in December of this past year and really enjoyed it. I was surprised at how relevant it seemed today, perhaps because many of our governmental situations seem to echo the ones from 20 years ago in the graphic novel's time period.

Recently saw the film and enjoyed it as well. Very nicely done. It is a shame that Moore continues to have such issues with his books being adapted to film, I would have liked to hear an honest assessment of the film by him.