Chances are if you’ve only ever read one comic book in your life, it will have been Watchmen.
Created by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons and published by DC Comics, Watchmen is frequently held out as one of the finest examples of the medium’s potential, and its psychologically nuanced take on superheroes in the “real” world continues to make it accessible to comics newbies and die-hard fans alike.
For better or worse, the book – along with The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley – has defined the face of “capes and tights” comics for the next 30 years, which serves as a pretty solid indication of just how influential it was (and still is).
Something that often comes up when discussing Watchmen is how cinematic it feels, and certainly, an argument could be made that it is to comics what Citizen Kane is to cinema.
As with that film, Moore and Gibbons haven’t simply invented new storytelling tricks (although they certainly do plenty of that), but also brought numerous existing techniques together to build one cohesive story, the end result of which is nothing short of dazzling.
And yet, as much as Watchmen shows us how similar comics can be to film, it was also designed – as Moore himself noted – to highlight the ways the two differ, and to showcase what comics can do that movies simply can’t.
A perfect example of this can be seen in the opening sequence of the book’s first chapter, “At Midnight All The Agents…”, which forms the basis for this month’s Anatomy Lesson feature.
For those of you who haven’t yet read Watchmen – and full warning now, this article is riddled with spoilers – the story takes place in an alternate 1985, in a world where costumed crime fighters were once a going concern but have now been outlawed as vigilantes, except for government-sanctioned agents the Comedian and Doctor Manhattan, a nigh-omnipotent walking nuclear deterrent.
The narrative soon branches out in some pretty complex directions – at one point there is a pirate comic plot being told within the main comic book, and it is amazing – but at its core, Watchmen starts and ends as a murder mystery, with unhinged detective Rorschach attempting to track down the person responsible for the Comedian’s death, and it’s here our lesson begins…
Watchmen kicks off its story from the front cover of the first issue – that’s right, the cover itself is part of the narrative. It’s one of my favourite devices, and it in this instance, it effectively establishes the “blood smeared smiley face” iconography that will become a recurring motif throughout the wider work.
Here, we see the imagery in its initial form: the Comedian’s badge, lying in a pool of its owner’s blood, with a streak of said blood across the left eye. It’s an arresting yet slightly revolting image – the innocent graphic of the smiley face jarring harshly with the blood so vividly rendered by Gibbons and colourist John Higgins.
In addition to setting up one of the story’s key motifs, this first “unofficial” panel also does a lot of heavy lifting in terms of making the tone and world of the story clear to readers.
First of all, it’s the type of image that immediately warns you that you aren’t about to sit down to a typical (for the time) bright, upbeat superhero tale.
Secondly, thanks to Gibbon’s highly detailed pencils – not just on the blood, but also on the heavily textured city street we can see beneath it – we’re given our first hint that this is a story taking place in a gritty, hyper-realistic environment.
Moving on to the first page proper, and we see the same image, only now it’s one of seven panels. This marks our introduction to the strictly gridded page layouts of Watchmen, which generally follow a nine panel grid format.
Even those pages with less actual panels still conform to the same grid – they simply link up multiple panels to make one single frame (on this page, panels seven, eight and nine are all merged together, for example).
This is also our first exposure to Rorschach’s journal, one of several documents used by Moore to drive the narrative and reveal more information about both the characters and their world.
“Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach,” is a bold opening salvo for any type of fiction, and as the text goes on and morphs into one of Rorschach’s soon-to-be-signature rants, its a key part of helping us to understand who this guy is: a bit of a raving loon, who thinks in purple prose.
This isn’t an attack on Moore’s writing; on the contrary, I’m quite certain that he intentionally wrote Rorschach’s words in an overly melodramatic, hard-boiled style as an expression of his paranoid and self-consciously nihilistic world view.
It’s also an undeniably powerful authorial voice that immediately draws you in and makes you want to read more, and later chapters will provide ample evidence of the raw emotion, even poetry that such a frowned-upon style can evoke.
As the captions continue to rant on, another big part of Watchmen‘s stylistic repertoire makes itself known – text/imagery symmetry and juxtaposition.
It starts as Rorschach – himself in panel, holding the “End is Nigh” sign, although we don’t yet know this – begins talking about looking down and we pull out steadily with each successive panel, ourselves looking down on the street, until we arrive at the top of the Comedian’s apartment building.
At this point, Rorschach’s journal raves that “…the whole world stands on the brink” just as we see the arm of a detective stationed at the top of a broken window (text/imagery symmetry), then as detective peers out over the shattered glass at the city below, Rorschach declares that “…nobody can think of anything to say,” which is quickly disproven by the detective’s comment “Hmm. That’s quite a drop” (text/imagery juxtaposition).
Symmetry also comes into play throughout the series courtesy of the page layouts themselves – indeed, a large creative force driving Watchmen‘s is its intricate structuring – and it’s not surprising that the layout and content on the chapter’s opening page closely mirrors that of the very last.
Turning to page 2, the text/imagery symmetry and juxtaposition goes full bore when both police detectives’ observations and comments are overlaid onto scenes of the Comedian’s brutal murder.
This offers us an early glimpse of Moore and Gibbons using visual storytelling in a way that film can’t easily replicate.
True, movies are brilliant at combining words (via voice over) with imagery, but there’s also a limit to how precisely this can be managed, as there are only so many words that can fit into the time it takes to complete an action.
Not so in comics, where a fairly lengthy prose caption can accompany a single panel – or moment in “time” – in a way that would be virtually impossible in live action or animation.
If you’re looking for further proof of this, check out the Motion Comic version of Watchmen, which valiantly attempts to bring this sequence (and others like it) to life, and never quite manages to make the text/artwork interplay work:
Not to belabour the point, but I think you’ll agree that the timing of the motion comic seems a little “off”, which means the full impact of the intended interaction between words and pictures never fully lands.
This might be why director Zack Snyder wisely steered clear of re-creating these scenes verbatim in his 2009 adaptation, and instead opted to juxtapose the violent imagery with music – something comics themselves aren’t really capable of doing, but which plays to the strengths of film:
Leaving adaptations aside and returning to Moore’s scripting, and it’s worth noting how he cleverly engages the readers by putting us one step ahead of the detectives in this scene, allowing us to see that many of their assumptions about the case are wrong.
Particularly telling is the assertion that the Comedian would have fought back, when in reality, we realise that he didn’t do much more than serve as a punching bag throughout the entire affair.
Moore also fuels our curiosity at this early stage, as not only do we know nothing about Rorschach, the Comedian (our victim is just regular ol’ Edward Blake for now) or the killer, but the reference in the last panel to Vice-President Ford not only hints at far greater secrets yet to be revealed, but also provides our first clue that this is not quite 1985 as we know it.
Before we jump to the next page, I should also quickly give a shout out here to colourist John Higgins.
Higgin’s use of all red panels for the flashbacks is a master stroke, not only allowing them to stand in stark relief to the panels set in Watchmen‘s present, but also making the killing blows seem extra vicious.
His choice to leave the smiley face badge as the only non-red item presented in its actual hue is a nice touch as well, and really helps to draw attention to the most significant visual touchstone in the story.
Looking at our third and final page for this Anatomy Lesson, and we’re confronted with even more brutality than what had come before.
Whilst it’s fair to say that American comics readers weren’t exactly strangers to graphic depictions of violence in their stories, this was still an era where this kind of savagery was uncommon enough to shock, and having it happen in such visceral and realistic fashion – Boot to the gut! Coughing up blood! – makes it difficult reading even now.
I’m always keen to gush at length about Gibbon’s equal contribution to the series – his densely detailed yet easy to read pages, realistically aged and de-aged characters, the list goes on – but taking in this page again, I’m drawn to the facial expression he gives the Comedian in the third panel.
When initially reading this page, it simply looks as if Blake’s face is filled with weariness and agony (understandable after he’s received such a thrashing).
Yet upon re-visiting this sequence, knowing that Blake was aware of the plot by his killer, fellow hero Ozymandias, to save the world through mass murder – if you’ve not read the book, trust me, it makes sense – Blake’s features suggests a different expression entirely.
To me, he’s displaying a kind of exhausted acceptance, almost as if he hasn’t put up any kind of fight because he welcomes the death he knows is only moments away, a death which will bring him freedom from the knowledge that a horrendous crime will be committed that he believes he must not stop.
Now, I might be reading too much into this – although the story does later make it clear that Blake was cracking under the strain of being privy to Ozymandias’ plot – but regardless, it just goes to show the amount of subtly Gibbon’s brings to each character’s “acting” across every single chapter of Watchmen, and which allows for this sort of speculation.
Before the final coup de grace at the end of page 3, Moore further teases our intrigue by establishing that the Comedian’s lone killer must be superhumanly strong – by virtue of the detectives’ reasoning that Blake was thrown, which would ordinarily require at least two assailants – before the act itself happens.
It’s a horrific death (I don’t think anyone would argue in favour of being thrown alive from a high rise building), made all the more cruel by Moore’s final text/imagery juxtaposition.
As the elevator operator in the present helpful announces “Ground floor comin’ up”, the Comedian is hurled to his doom – yes, the ground floor is comin’ up alright.
You could argue that this final caption is a bit too on the nose, however I’d argue it works, and that a piece as complex as Watchmen is always going to have an equal share of moments both in your face and understated.
And that’s the thing about Watchmen: it’s so densely packed with moments and details. I could have written another 2,000 words about this scene alone, and many more times that just covering the first chapter.
Moore and Gibbons designed the book to work that way, to take control of the active role readers play in pacing a comic book story – flicking back from page 3 to page 2 to check for an overlooked detail, before plunging forward into the narrative all over again.
Which is of course yet another way that reading comics – especially Watchmen – differs from a trip to the cinema, and why the former should never be viewed as any less special than the latter.