Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Q: Who watches the Watchmen?

Something of a break with what I usually read: a geeky graphic novel (as opposed, I guess, to geeky science fiction).

In the past few weeks, Alan Moore's seminal deconstruction of the "superhero", Watchmen, has been getting a lot of airplay because of an upcoming film adaptation, and the release of a rather impressive trailer to herald this. Watchmen has actually been a defining fixture of the comic book scene since it was first published back in 1986-1987, and my attention was first drawn to it around about then (= high school) by Graham.

Needless to say, I didn't take his superlatives seriously at the time, and it's taken till almost the arrival of a big screen version for me to get around to it (although I'm in good company there - a columnist at the Onion has recently made the same journey).

The novel [*] is set in an alternative (and then-present) 1985 in which "costumed adventurers" (or "masked vigilantes" depending upon viewpoint) are, or were, a real phenomenon. Starting in the late 1930s, a succession of individuals began dressing up and fighting crime in the cities of the US. As the phenomenon grew, a group of these individuals formed, and called themselves the Minutemen (and, later, the Crimebusters). However, as scandals, tragedies and personality clashes took their toll, the group disbanded, and "costumed adventurers" were finally outlawed in 1977 following police strikes. Some, however, still continue in their activities as either illegal vigilantes or government-sponsored operatives in the Cold War. The latter plays a key role in the novel's backdrop (perhaps unsurprisingly given its publication date), with tensions between the US and the Soviet Union ratcheting up following the latter's invasion of Afghanistan.

The novel begins with the brutal murder of one of these government operatives, the Comedian, and the subsequent investigation by one of his Crimebusters colleagues, Rorschach, the only vigilante still active (and whose name stems from the interpretative inkblot psychological test). Rorschach becomes convinced that this murder is part of a plan to eliminate former "costumed adventurers", or "masks" as he calls them, so he sets out warning his former colleagues. These include the Nite Owl, a Batman-esque "mask" who formerly specialised in high-tech gadgets to fight crime, and whose now quiet life is punctuated with regrets about the end of the Crimebusters. Rorschach also visits Dr. Manhattan, another government operative and the only Crimebuster with real superhuman powers ("gifted" on him accidentally in a particle physics experiment). Dr. Manhattan is practically god-like, and is the US's main "weapon" in the Cold War, responsible for success in Vietnam in this alternative history, and a potential "nuclear shield" if the missiles start flying. However, Dr. Manhattan's abilities are gradually eroding his humanity, a fact only too obvious to his girlfriend, and former "mask", the Silk Spectre. Informed of the Comedian's death, she is almost pleased because of his attempted rape of her mother, a defining event that she has never forgiven him for. Finally, Rorschach visits Ozymandias, a retired "mask" but now a successful high-tech businessman and philanthropist, and Moloch, a former super-villain but now a withered shell of a man, dying of cancer.

These meetings with Rorschach inspire reflections from each of these characters on the Comedian, an utterly amoral man with a supremely nihilist view of human nature. They also trigger further plot developments. During a press interview, Dr. Manhattan is publicly accused of causing cancer in his associates, causing him to leave the Earth for Mars, and abandoning the Silk Spectre. Ozymandias is almost the victim of an assassin's bullet. Rorschach himself is captured by the police, and framed for the murder of Moloch, who had previously supplied him with telling information about the Comedian. And, now separated from Dr. Manhattan by a falling out and his self-imposed exile on Mars, the Silk Spectre becomes a house-guest of Nite Owl, a development that awakens both memories of their "mask" days, and new feelings for one another. These developments lead the Nite Owl and Silk Spectre to take up their "masks" again, convinced that Rorschach's investigation was onto something. After springing Rorschach from Sing Sing, the investigation continues apace, with subsequent discoveries revealing a dark conspiracy. Ultimately, events transpire to create a peaceful new world order, albeit one with rotten foundations, and whose morality asks much of the remaining "masks" who know its secrets.

From a purely structural perspective, Watchmen is considerably more challenging than its comic book origins might imply. Much like other more conventional novels, rather than being a simple, linear narrative, chapters are devoted to different characters and viewpoints, and there's a considerable amount of reminiscence that carefully fills in the backstory. Furthermore, aside from its graphic panels, the novel also includes short, full-page text sections at the end of each chapter. These take various forms including excerpts from a biography, magazine interviews, a psychologist's report and even a scholarly publication. They don't supplant the main graphic panels, but they also impart a lot of significant background material to flesh out incidental aspects of it. And then, on top of this, the graphic panels themselves feature a comic-within-a-comic, a gothic horror tale of a stranded seaman's disastrous efforts to get back to his family, and to save them from malevolent pirates. (And I'm sure that there are between-panel tricks going that are too clever for me to work out.)

The characters themselves are also framed in a far more rounded way, and have individual complexities and moral depths that one might expect more from literary fiction than a stereotypical comic. None of this came as a big surprise to me, since I've read a handful of the "more serious" comics over the years (plus a smattering of the more, well, conventional), but it's still rather singular that one graphic novel might contain several distinct moral visions. The most prominent of the novel's characters are Dr. Manhattan and, particularly, Rorschach, although Ozymandias brings his own brand of utilitarianism and even the Comedian is given a degree of complexity and ambiguity. Throughout the novel, Dr. Manhattan gradually loses his ability to empathise with the humans around him, eventually coming to see their plights in a sort of "value-free" light, remarking at one point that:
A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?

Rorschach reaches somewhat similar conclusions to Dr. Manhattan about the nature of the universe, and the meaning it puts on our lives, but he responds to this very differently:
Looked at sky through smoke ... and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us ... The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.

Admittedly, the characters are drawn rather heavily with stereotypically individualistic philosophical outlooks (e.g. existentialism, nihilism, objectivism, utilitarianism), but together they present a far more interesting moral tapestry than most fiction. And, to my mind, it's always useful to be confronted by outlooks in opposition to one's own, so that one can re-evaluate and clarify one's own thinking. Mainstream fiction may have many virtues, but it doesn't frequently engage so transparently with these sorts of issues. Although, equally, that might just be me completely missing the subtext of all of the books I read!

Still, if you can't expect overblown dissections of morality from the inherently overblown superhero genre, where are you going to get them from?

A couple of quick final points. The calamitous event in New York near the end of the novel now foreshadows a later event in our own world (albeit with direct consequences around 1000 times more dire). Interestingly, they also provoke similarly positive international reactions to those that occurred in our world almost exactly seven years ago. However, we now know from first-hand experience that the good will and cooperation created by terrible disasters can be dissipated rather rapidly, something that even Watchmen doesn't consider.

Overall Watchmen is a worthy read. Obviously its genre (and format) means that it operates at a more simplistic and, well, cartoonish level than more conventional fiction often does, but its still an impressive piece of work. And, regardless of its individual worth, it's clear that it has cast a long shadow over much of popular culture in its aftermath. Watchmen's deconstruction of superheroes (together with The Dark Knight Returns), in particular, has clearly been a significant shaping force. TV series like Heroes, and films such as The Incredibles are considerably in its debt (the latter even steals, and plays for a joke, an episode from Watchmen that illustrates the perils of wearing a cape).

Anyway, back to regular fiction for my next book I think.

But will it make a good film? While there are always doubters whenever anyone tries to convert a favourite novel to the screen, and Watchmen does present a number of challenges, I don't think that it's impossible to pull off. Unlike conventional novels, its art design is obviously already fleshed out (and, looking at the trailer, has been carefully followed), and while there are internal monologues, they mostly carry character development, and the novel's central questions of morality can be posed through the action carrying the story.

However, this latter point is something of a weakness, since lazy filmmakers may be tempted to shave off the character development and just rely on the plot to make their points. While the resulting piece might still make a fairly solid action film, it would only be a shadow of its source material. Whether this happens may depend on how the studio sees the film - is it to be allowed the sort of length afforded to "classics" like Lord of the Rings, or is it to be a standard, truncated 2 hour action film? The former may allow the filmmakers to create the world of Watchmen faithfully, but the latter seems a not unlikely outcome.

On another point, one thing that's noticeable from the trailer is that the cast appears rather young. In the novel, the youngest character is still 35, and the others are in their 40s or even older. This may seem a trivial point, but it's not unimportant that these people are at this later stage in life. They've seen a lot, they've had their characters and morals tested, and have made certain accommodations along the way. I'm not sure whether actors in their 20s or early 30s can pull this off convincingly, but we'll see.

Anyway, in principle, given both a sympathetic filmmaker and (more importantly) studio, I think it could be pulled off rather well. But it could easily be a huge fiasco. Shortening it is pretty much a sure-fire route into trouble, one travelled frequently by book-to-screen translations, including the recent film of Northern Lights. But there are plenty of other ways that could stuff it up, and some of these, such as "updating it" to take in recent events, are an obvious temptation. Come next March, we'll see.

[*] Although, yes, it is a comic book, I'm going to do it the courtesy of calling it a "novel" here. Partly through geek-respect, but also because it's less time-consuming than writing "graphic novel" every couple of sentences.


g_google said...

Cheers for the link to my flickr page. Incidentally, why aren't your blog photos on flickr?

Further required graphic novel reading imho should include Give Me Liberty by Frank Miller.

g_google said...

Forgot to add, having read Watchmen 2 or 3 times (and planning to make room for a refresher before the film hits) I must say that the opening line(?) of the book is permanently etched in my head. It's a hell of a way to grab your attention.

Plumbago said...

I think that for reasons of Google ownership, my blog pictures (which are really low-res parodies of pictures) appear instead on Picasa. I've not set myself up properly with Flikr yet (not been on any more holidays!), so I'm stuck with low storage space there for the time being.

Regarding Give Me Liberty, I'm inclined to agree. I really enjoyed that, although it is a bit odd in places - I mean, what was all that about the gay nazis? But I think that Watchmen is definitely the best (that I've read ...) of the "serious" graphic novels.

I'm just hoping that they don't stuff up the film ...