As most comics-connoiseurs will know, 1986 was a groundbreaking year for comics. Frank Miller’s monumental tract on Batman; The Dark Knight Returns, made “comic books” about super heroes acceptable for a grown up audience. I stress the term “super heroes”, because traditional comics had already for some time begun to grow in (at least a fraction of) the public’s consciousness as somewhat being able to occupy a more serious place in the pantheon of literature than earlier times had allocated it to. Will Eisner’s “A Contract With God”, released with little fanfare in 1978, was the first comic book to receive the moniker “Graphic Novel”. A few of these graphic novels were reviewed in the mainstream press. Typically they were in black and white and dealt with everyday concerns. No super heroes in sight. The Dark Knight Returns changed that. Men in tights were a serious business in tales that could be presented seriously.
As good as Miller’s work was, later in the year he had to see his four act story surpassed by the English writer Alan Moore’s Watchmen. It was then as it is now the most ambitious, and certainly most artistically successful, foray into the world of super heroes. Watchmen is complex, it is narratively in another ball park than pretty much anything the genre has ever tried. Time Magazine has declared it one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. This is no exaggeration. Every new reading of the work lets the reader see one bit more of the puzzle, one more thing he overlooked the previous time. It is not a book one will read once and have a full grasp of. Almost every panel gives information about what has happened before, what will happen. As such the narrative itself follows the overlying watchmetaphor, as if the author is turning the clock back and forth at will to finally end the tale in one cataclysmic and perhaps inescapable moment. The book definitely proved that super hero comics could be both realistic in its situations and imaginative in its scope and overall composition.
It starts as a murder mystery: Who killed the Comedian? Equally important, of course, is the why. Our guide in the investigation is the slightly psychopathic “detective” Rorschach. The story he doggedly pursues shows us a world that is almost like our own, if it hadn’t been for a small incident in New Mexico in August 1959, which would not have happened if it hadn’t been for a father’s change of heart August 7th 1945 because of what happened the day before, which I think was a Monday.
Each chapter consists of 32 immensely detailed pages, not one image superfluous, each panel giving more information upon closer inspection than the action it seemingly narrates. Of course the whole thing has twelve chapters, one for each hour of the watch. While the written narration takes the reader from the singular (the case of the dead Comedian) to the global and universal (the ultimate consequences of the discovery of atomic particles), the illustrations by the English comics artist Dave Gibbons keep it all rooted very much in reality, such as it can be showed in the medium. The very first image of the book is a smileyface, one eye of the face soiled by something that probably is the blood of the dead man. The last image, separated from the first by 384 pages, is of the same smileyface, now also soiled, in the same place but by something else. The face is round, like a clock, the stream of blood like an arm of a clock. We have reached the same time we started from. Quis custodiet ipsos custodies, the novel asks us finally, quoting Juvenal’s Satires: Who watches the watchmen? It turns out it is us, the readers. And as such we are given an obligation at the end of the book.
It is thus no surprise that Watchmen has long been deemed unfilmable. To even begin to do justice to the novel, it would seem any director would need at least 12 hours to tell the tale. Terry Gilliam tried for more than ten years to get the rights – and a studio to back him, but to no avail. Maybe that’s a pity, but I have trouble seeing how a filmatization could have been accomplished before the state of computer technology had reached the level of sophistication it has today. This does not mean that said technology is used rightly in most of the block busters, but at least it serves as a tool for telling different sorts of fictions than was imaginable on film just ten years ago. It can only be lamented that these days CGI (mostly) is being used to cover plot holes and a lack of story, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This, however, is a story for another day. The story of today is Watchmen and it’s premiere as a film in 2009.
Zack Snyder started his directing career by remaking George Romero’s classic anti-capitalist zombie movie “Dawn of the Dead”. In Snyder’s hands, most of the political and social criticism was left out in favour of faster action. The film, though, had significant entertainment value, and as debuts go, Snyder’s was far from the worst. He followed up Dawn… with another stalwart of popular culture, namely Frank Millers mythological testosterone fantasy of the battle of Thermopylae: 300. Here he showed that he knew how to translate a comic book relatively faithfully to film, which is no easy task, contrary to many a critic’s belief. Among the things that impressed me by that film was how he managed to utilize the same colour palette as Miller and make it work filmatically. It did not equally impress me that he bowed to commercial pressures by including female parts in what was meant as a purely male story. I thought Lena Headey’s role, for example, as Leonida’s wife, had little purpose in the film other than catering to fantasies of adolescent fan boys and instilling an emotional/sentimental tone in the film that I felt didn’t belong there.
The film was a success, though, and showed crossover potential in that it didn’t only sell to the comic buying audience. With the clout Snyder achieved he pressed on with the great white whale of comics: the uncatchable and unfilmable Watchmen. I myself was – and to a degree still is – sceptical as to his chances of achieving something close to the qualities of the comic. But maybe we should choose another yard pole to measure the film by. I do think it has the potential, at least, of being the first truly great comic book adaptation: and that could mean everything from a kind of Gone With the Wind of filmed comics to the Citizen Kane of same.
Snyder has hinted that he wants the film to be 3 hours long. It remains to be seen if the studio will allow for that, but I suspect that at least the DVD will be something to look forward to. We already have confirmation that the story of the black freighter – a tale within the tale in the comic – will appear on the DVD as a half hour long Anime-like story. As such we might be witnessing a new way of telling films, so to speak, in which the ordinary cinema premiere will serve more as an appetizer for the whole package. Of course, we already have examples, e.g. “Lord of the Rings”, with their extended editions, but Snyder has been more vocal than Peter Jackson in claiming that DVD will be the much preferred way of telling and seeing the entire story.
So why blog about this now? Well, three days ago, the teaser trailer for the film was released, and damn if I ain’t just a bit excited! These are the first moving images released from the film and it looks promising. Maybe it won’t instil the same kind of anticipation in those unfamiliar with the work, but I felt a definite tingle, yes, sir, I did. Click here to check it out in high def. (it takes a bit of time; best to pause it and let the file be fully uploaded before watching), and here for a quicker load, but lower resolution and smaller image (let it load to about 40% before starting). I expect we’ll see at least one more trailer for the film this year, and I guess that’ll tell us how much hope we can dare put into the end product which will premiere march 2009.