“Who watches the watchmen?”
–Juvenal, “Satires,” VI, 347
Although I confess to knowing next to nothing about comic books, comic-book heroes, or graphic novels, even I have heard of the “Watchmen.” British writer Alan Moore (“From Hell,” “V for Vendetta”), British cartoonist Dave Gibbons, and British writer and artist John Higgins combined talents in the mid 1980s to create a series of twelve DC Comics depicting the adventures of a group of irreverent superheroes known collectively as the “Watchmen.” Shortly thereafter, they incorporated the stories into a twelve-chapter graphic novel, which subsequently became even more celebrated than the individual, limited-run comic books had been. Then in 2008 Warner Bros. aired a twelve-part animated television series based on the tales, duplicating the comic books almost frame for frame. Now, in junction with the 2009, live-action “Watchmen” theatrical release, WB give us the complete TV series as a single “motion comic” on two DVDs, all twelve chapters, lasting almost five-and-a-half hours (325 minutes). The result is different, to say the least, and not for everyone; but there is no denying the movie is endlessly fascinating.
To begin, though, a word about the animation, which the original “Watchmen” creators supervised. It is not your ordinary cartoon. It is not ultrarealistic 3-D CGI, and it is not exactly traditional 2-D drawing, either. It’s more like a real cartoon strip, with limited movement, dialogue bubbles, and a single voice (Tom Stechschulte) doing all of the voice-over narration and character work (men and women alike). I know, it doesn’t sound like much, minimalist, in fact, but it worked well enough to have sustained a moderate degree of interest even from this previously indifferent judge.
Viewing “Watchmen: The Motion Comic” reminded me of listening to old-time radio, but with pictures. Or, even more personally, listening to my mom or dad or radio broadcaster Doug Pledger read the Sunday comics every weekend when I was a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. As I followed the graphics on the page, my mom or dad would read the comics to me before I learned to read them for myself, or I listened to Pledger reading them. Somehow, these “Watchmen” animations made me think about that, although, of course, the “Watchmen” stories are far more violent and “adult” than anything a kid as young as I was in the late Forties and early Fifties would ever have understood.
Fans and critics alike called “Watchmen” groundbreaking when it first appeared, and it certainly seems that the writers intended the series as a counter to the multitude of superhero books and movies that abounded in the 1980s and beyond, poking fun at them, while exposing their sometimes convoluted, labyrinthine, and unsavory underbellies. Because not all of the “Watchmen” superheroes survive the ordeals the authors put them through and because most of the superheroes are cynically twisted, the authors invented brand-new characters for the adventures, ones who just happen to resemble real comic-book heroes, at least superficially.
The setting is around the time of the story’s creation, 1985, and the place is a sordid, fearful, crime-filled New York City, infused with ironic, ubiquitous Smiley Faces. Yet it’s an alternate 1985, where a paranoid Richard Nixon is still President, his finger poised on the button; detente, perestroika, and glasnost are meaningless words; anger and frustration strangle the populace; and things seldom unfold as they did in our own universe. The world faces moral decay from within, while facing the imminent threat of war from without. This is a grim, decadent, corrupt world, where superheroes used to do their best to keep order and provide justice by exploiting some of the same dubious practices they so decried.
At the center of the action is Walter Kovacs, “Rorschach,” a sardonic, compulsive masked avenger whom some people admire and others think is nuts; and his friends Daniel Dreiberg, “Nite Owl,” an empty shell of his former self; Laurie Juspeczyk, “Silk Spectre,” a disillusioned woman who never wanted to be a superhero in the first place; and Adrian Veidt, “Ozymandias,” a guy so smart he figured it was better business selling action figures of himself than continuing to put himself in danger. By now the government has outlawed most vigilante superheroes for causing more trouble than they’ve prevented, except for a very few like Jonathan Osterman, “Dr. Manhattan,” whose superhuman powers of teleportation and precognition have made him a handy weapon against the Evil Soviet Empire. His powers have also removed him from normal society and from his own human soul.
While Rorschach’s fellow superheroes voluntarily “retired” after the government banned them in 1977, Rorschach refused and continued in secret his crusade against crime. When the stories concentrate on Rorschach’s life and fortunes, the series maintains a strong interest level. When it veers off into its many tangents, it starts to bog down and fall flat, and there are too many such tangents. OK, to be fair, they aren’t really tangents; they’re analogies and subplots important to the story line and characters. But they go on too long and feel like padding.
The primary conflict develops early on. The police find a man named Edward Blake dead of a fall from his high-rise apartment, either a suicide or a murder. Rorschach recognizes Blake as “The Comedian,” one of his old teammates in the “Crimebusters,” a group of superheroes who had banded together to fight more effectively before the government broke them up. Rorschach sees Blake’s death as murder, and he wonders if somebody isn’t trying to kill off all the old masked avengers one by one. The twelve episodes chronicle Rorschach’s investigation into the matter.
The authors provide their twelve chapters with titles from literature and popular culture:
1. “At Midnight, All the Agents…”
2. “Absent Friends”
3. “The Judge of All the Earth”
5. “Fearful Symmetry”
6. “The Abyss Gazes Also”
7. “A Brother to Dragons”
8. “Old Ghosts”
9. “The Darkness of Mere Being”
10. “Two Riders Were Approaching…”
11. “Look on My Works, Ye Mighty…”
12. “A Stronger Loving World”
At one point Rorschach recites a list of the miserable fates of past masked avengers, clearly indicating the story’s intention of showing a side to superheroes hitherto unrevealed to the public. Unfortunately for Rorschach, nobody takes him seriously when he warns them of what’s happening. Even his old friends think he’s sick. What’s more, everyone appears to have had a reason for wanting Edward Blake dead, he was such a complete jerk, so everyone is a suspect.
“Watchmen: The Motion Comic” provides engaging characters, both good and evil; intrigue galore; a nicely dark, atmospheric tone; plenty of social, philosophical, scientific, and theological discussion; a wonderfully perverse, upside-down look at superheroes; a tangled romance; and an authentic replication of the original graphic novel. In style and substance the movie is unique enough, inventive enough, and creative enough to keep most viewers at least mildly interested, which is more than I can say about too many other animated adventure films.
The plot gets more complicated, more elaborate, and at times more incoherent, as it goes along, with multiple flashbacks to fill in the details and a conclusion that doesn’t quite satisfy the lengthy buildup. No doubt this is a natural result of the story being originally a twelve-part comic-book series. You have to keep developing one conflict after another. After the first couple of episodes, things begin to slow down and lose some of their inspiration, yet whenever Rorschach takes center stage, things liven up considerably. It’s also a bit distracting to have someone reading aloud everything that’s on the screen for us to read ourselves, a consequence of the movie trying to be both a comic book and a motion picture. And despite Tom Stechschulte doing a terrific job with all the narration and all the voices, male and female, I did have the feeling at times that I was listening to Stan Freberg doing his old “John & Marsha” routine.
Partly satire, partly political declamation, partly metaphysical rambling, partly conspiracy-theory rant, partly nihilistic existentialism, partly New Age hokum, partly film noir, partly sci-fi/fantasy soap opera, and partly old-time matinee serial, “Watchmen” is surprisingly entertaining. Loved the “Gunga Diner.” Frankly, I never thought I’d like the movie, nor did I ever think I’d be watching the whole five-and-a-half hours straight through. But I did, and I’m glad I did.
Be aware that even though the MPAA never rated the film, it contains blood, rape, violence, nudity, profanity, and sexual situations. This is not your children’s comic.
The Warner video engineers do a good job bringing the television shows to life on DVD, reproducing their 1.78:1 aspect ratio in anamorphic widescreen. Object delineation is crisp, although on close examination you’ll see that the engineers saw fit to add a small amount of edge enhancement to the images to sharpen them further. Colors stand out vividly, with plenty of high contrast and reasonably strong black levels. Furthermore, the screen is exceptionally clean, free of any excessive grain, noise, flecks, lines, or fades. If you’re not sitting so close to the screen as to notice the slight amount of EE involved, the picture looks quite good.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is ultra clear and ultra quiet, with a well-project midrange balanced between solid, if not too deep, lows and sparkling highs. The surrounds spring into action every once in a while, but they don’t see much dramatic usage beyond a touch of musical bloom and some crowd noises. There is a good front-channel stereo spread, however, and a nice, velvety smooth response overall.
Given the length of this enterprise, 325 minutes, WB had to use the two discs in the set almost exclusively for the movie’s twelve chapters. Still, you’ll find a few trailers and promos at start-up, including a ten-minute, behind-the-scenes look at DC Universe’s animated “Wonder Woman” DVD; six episode selections on each disc; English as the spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Also, the DVD keep case contains an admission ticket worth up to $7.50 to see the live-action “Watchman” theatrical release.
As I’ve said, “Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic” isn’t for everyone. Mainly, it’s for fans of the graphic novel, fans of the live-action movie, and maybe fans of superhero comics in general. It’s also a long stretch to watch the whole thing through even once, and the limited movement and single narrator can become a little static after a while. Notwithstanding, if you give it a chance and let it grow on you, you may just get caught up in the adventure and the fun.
“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.”
–C.G. Jung, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”