Chances are if you’ve only read one comic book in your life, it’s Watchmen. Created by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons and published by DC Comics, this dark deconstruction of superhero archetypes is widely considered one of the finest examples of the medium’s true artistic potential, and its influence can still be seen today, thirty years after the first issue hit stands.
Something that often comes up when discussing Watchmen‘s lasting legacy is how cinematic it feels, earning it a reputation as the superhero comics equivalent of Citizen Kane. It’s a fair comparison, too; like Citizen Kane director Orson Welles, Moore and Gibbons don’t simply invent a bunch of new storytelling tricks, they’ve also brought numerous existing techniques together for one time. The result is nothing short of dazzling, and arguably as close to a movie on paper as we’re ever likely to see.
And yet, as much as Watchmen shows us how similar comics can be to film, it was also designed (as Moore himself has noted) to highlight the ways the two artforms differ, and to showcase what comics can do that movies simply can’t. Moore and Gibbons don’t waste any time on this score, either: from the opening of the very first issue, “At Midnight All The Agents…”, the pair use juxtaposition, time dilation, and page layouts in ways that movies never could.
Juxtaposing words and images as only a static medium can
One of Moore’s writing trade marks is the juxtaposition of text (particularly dialogue) and imagery – and Watchmen highlights how uniquely suited this technique is to comics. In film, it’s much harder to achieve the level of precision this juxtaposition requires; everything is moving too quickly and there’s too much information for us to process the interplay of words and visuals.
Take the murder of Comedian that plays out in flashback during first few pages of “At Midnight All The Agents”: this could never be replicated verbatim on screen (which is probably why director Zack Snyder didn’t even try in 2009’s Watchmen adaptation). The scene shifts back and forth from the past to the present too frequently and so much of the action unfolds so quickly, that this could only work in a static medium like comics.
We need time for clever word/picture combinations like the Comedian being hurled out a window in the past as an elevator operator in the present says “Ground floor comin’ up” to sink in – and fortunately, time is something that comics like Watchmen (unlike movies) aren’t short on.
Stretching out moments in a way that’s unique to comics
See, time in Watchmen (like in all comics), works very differently to how it does in movies. Sure, filmmakers like Christopher Nolan can play around with time using various narrative tricks and technology like slow motion, but ultimately, there are limits to how long they can stretch out a given moment.
The same doesn’t apply to comics, though. On the contrary, in Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons can include a lengthy prose caption in a single panel (like the detectives’ narration that accompanies the Comedian’s murder) and because these moments are essentially frozen in time, it reads naturally.
Moore and Gibbons really cut loose with this storytelling mechanic later in the series – most notably, in the Doctor Manhattan-centric fourth issue, “Watchmaker”. But its more restrained use in “At Midnight All The Agents” is still a stunning demonstration of a comics-only storytelling technique you’ll never see done on screen.
Designing layouts for an active audience
Then there’s Watchmen‘s page layouts. Here we have something that no other storytelling medium – not books, not movies, not video games – can mimic: the size, shape and placement of the panels Moore and Gibbons use to tell the story. How could they? Only comic books use this exact method of storytelling, and few better than Watchmen.
While the series famously uses a nine-panel grid, this ostensibly conservative approach belies the symbolic depth Moore and Gibbons have infused each page with. A key element of Watchmen‘s success lies in how intricately structured it is is, and this extends to the layouts, which have been meticulously designed to subliminally enhance the story.
Look at the first page of “At Midnight All The Agents”, then flip to the last – notice anything? They mirror each other perfectly: not only do the panels match, but even the “camera move” is the same, pulling out with each panel until we’re miles above where we started.
This gets to the heart of how comics like Watchmen are capable of doing things movies never could: active audience participation. When you’re sitting in a cinema watching a film for the first time, you’re passively absorbing what you’re shown; when you sit down to read Watchmen, you’re free to flick between pages to make connections whenever you want. You can link juxtaposed dialogue, to revisit moments frozen in time, to notice patterns in the layouts, then dive back into the story.
No matter how hard filmmakers try, they’ll never be able to achieve this on screen – and Watchmen proved that, right from its very first issue.