People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
  Watching the Watchmen
The New York Times is reporting that since the release of the trailer for Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen was released around the time The Dark Knight came out (it was supposed to debut attached to The Dark Knight, but leaked online the night before), sales of the graphic novel have soared, with DC Comics printing an additional 900,000 copies to meet demand. I know that as soon as I walked out of The Dark Knight on opening day with a friend, said friend and I immediately crossed the street to a bookstore so he could buy a copy. And I’m currently re-reading my own yellowed, dog-eared copy for the seventh or eighth time, this time with an eye towards how Snyder could potentially adapt it.

Watchmen is the brilliant graphic novel from writer Alan Moore (one of two comic writers I unhesitatingly refer to as a genius) and artist Dave Gibbons (no slouch himself) that has long been considered unfilmable. Moore, one of the greatest minds the comics medium has ever seen, has an unfortunate history of his incredible books being horribly bastardized in movie adaptations (his most complex work that I’ve read, the terrifyingly well-researched Jack the Ripper story, From Hell, was made into a generic murder mystery with Johnny Depp and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie shares only the title and vague concept with Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s wonderful series; the V for Vendetta movie was pretty good, as well as pretty faithful, but still nowhere near the book’s quality) has since refused to be involved in any film versions of his own work – including refusing any payment.

As great as it is that interest in the film is leading to interest in the graphic novel, Watchmen has been a consistent top-seller since long before the current boom in comic book trade paperback collections, going back pretty much to when it was first collected in one volume back shortly after its publication as a 12-issue series in 1986 and 1987. It’s often hailed as the greatest comic of all time, which I don’t know that I agree with, but I’d call it the best superhero comic of all time (medium and genre being used interchangeably being a pet peeve of mine and most other comic readers who don’t just read superhero books). The story is, on the surface, pretty standard: it starts off as a murder mystery involving a small group of aging superheroes in various stages of retirement, with the narrative eventually stretching from the 1930s to the present (“the present” in Watchmen being America in 1985 where Nixon is still president). The hook is that Watchmen was the first comic book that really tried to examine what the world would actually be like if certain people felt compelled to don gaudy costumes to fight crime. Some are well-meaning but naïve, some get a special kind of “excitement” out of it, and others are just flat-out nuts. (The book’s other nod to realism is that only one character, the godlike, blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan, has what could accurately be described as “superpowers.”) It’s been considered one of the medium’s high points pretty much since its release more than 20 years ago, and it even made Time magazine’s list of the 100 greatest English-language novels.

The reason Watchmen has been considered unfilmable is because it’s stunningly complex; I always tell people that every time I re-read it I discover something new, and I’ve yet to prove myself wrong on that front. But as my excitement for the release of the film next March grows with every image I see or interview with Snyder I read (I say stuff like this a lot and often regret it later, but it’s looking like Watchmen is basically a lock as one of my favourite movies of all time), I don’t know that it will actually live up to the book, because I don’t know if that’s even possible. Watchmen, the book, is very much about comics, not just superheroes, but the medium itself. It comments on the tropes of the superhero genre (and some ultra-hardcore fans of spandex books resent the book’s critique), but also on the medium itself; I’ve never read a comic as meticulously constructed as Watchmen, from its rigid panel composition to its thematic use of symmetry, it truly is a remarkable work of craftsmanship. In terms of displaying its creators’ mastery of the form, it rivals cinematic masterpieces like Citizen Kane. So as stoked as I am about the movie adaptation, I really can’t see it living up to the original. Which is okay; so much changes in translating any work from one medium to another that a great book can be made into a mediocre movie (see pretty much any previous Alan Moore adaptation), or a mediocre book can become movie legend (I’ve never heard anything particularly great about Mario Puzo’s Godfather novel, but the movie is, well, The Godfather). What I do think is possible – hell, I expect it – is that Watchmen will be the first movie adaptation of an Alan Moore comic to really get everything right.

If the trailer piqued your interest and you’re at all interested in reading Watchmen to see what all the fuss is about, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of the book as the hype for the movie builds. I’m polishing off my latest read-through of it (just finished Chapter 10 on the streetcar ride to the office this morning), but I’ve got an oversized hardcover version due to arrive from Amazon any day now, and I can’t wait to read it all over again. There's a lot of time to kill between now and March 6, 2009.

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