This article is from 2009 and originally appeared in War magazine – Issue One – The Beliefs Issue under the title Why I Won’t Be Watching Watchmen.
Comic book fans can be ambivalent about film adaptations of their favourites. Well, I can be, anyway. Persepolis, The Crow, Ghost World, and Adam West playing a camp Batman might be up there with the greats, but Spiderman, X-Men and the Fantastic Four were bastardised.
All too often, producers and filmmakers use comics as ready-made concepts with the panels providing ready-made storyboards. And they also have a ready-made audience of comic lovers wanting to check out their films, and others only too willing to buy in to the cool and kudos that the writers and artists worked so hard to command.
Those familiar with Northamptonite anarchist Alan Moore’s work have reason to be even more ambivalent than usual about the Watchmen movie out this year. Long-standing copyright disputes and legal battles and being fucked-over by the man have meant that Moore wants nothing to do with the film, just like he wanted nothing to do with V for Vendetta (which falls under bastardised, btw), or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
If you check out the film’s high-tech, show-offy website, you won’t find Moore’s name anywhere, even though it was he who wrote the 1986-7 genre-defying mini-series illustrated by Dave Gibbons and coloured by John Higgins.
So, even though the film will almost certainly be an overrated, overproduced, sterile non-event, it is the perfect excuse to read, or re-read the comic.
Maggie Gray is a 25-year-old brainiac studying for a Phd about Alan Moore at UCL’s History of Art department (her thesis is provisionally called Comics as Cultural Resistance – the Works of Alan Moore 1971-1989). Watchmen, she says, “is a very complex work…quite a demanding comic to read and pretty long in its graphic novel form”. I’m surprised at this, because it’s the first Moore comic I ever read, aged 15, and it remains one of my favourite. Even though it is more challenging than stuffing your face with popcorn at the multiplex, Maggie agrees “it’s a fine place to start”.
Watchmen is set in New York in an alternate 1980s, where superheroes exist for real and have done since the late 1930s – when they first appeared in comic books. It explores how the Cold War might have turned out if superhumans did exist – who hasn’t wondered that every now and then? – and plays with mainstream comic book imagery. The characters, for example, are loosely based on the cast of Charlton heroes that DC acquired the rights to. “The work,” says Maggie “is often cited as the ultimate revisionist deconstruction of the superhero. They [the characters] are presented as morally, sexually, psychologically and politically dysfunctional, and Moore considers the impact their real presence would effect on society, as an unaccountable and extra-judiciary force.” In other words, real-life superheroes just aren’t that super.
The book opens with the murder of The Comedian, one of the heroes, and continues with Rorshach, another, investigating his death. Meanwhile, Cold War tensions are rising, adding to an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, not unlike the one engineered by more recent governments.
Like Batman, most of Watchmen’s superheroes don’t have superpowers as such – apart from Dr Manhattan, based on Captain Atom and thought to be named after the Manhattan Project. “His presence [in the plot] has significantly altered geopolitics and technology, resulting in the US winning the Vietnam War and Nixon standing for a fifth term, having amended the Constitution,” says Maggie.
The comic (Moore detests the commonly used “graphic novel”, believing it to be a “marketing term” that destroyed the progress of comics in the 1980s) is hard not to read in one go, and works on lots of levels, more so, I think, than lots of other equally readable, equally respected works.
When Watchmen came out in monthly instalments, it differed from the usual comic book format. The cover art, for example, did not feature characters in the same way as Marvel and DC’s usual offerings, and was instead the first panel of each episode. The back cover, traditionally used for Charles Atlas-esque adverts, instead featured a clock moving towards 12 with each issue, adding to the tension but also the fatalism in the story’s vibes.
I asked Maggie to recommend lesser-known Moore works, in the unlikely event that anyone wants to discover cool stuff before Hollywood trashes it: “My favourites are Marvelman, V for Vendetta, Halo Jones, and The Mirror of Love [originally produced for the Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia anthology, which protested Clause 28].”
Indeed, Moore is an artist who isn’t afraid of being political, and who, Maggie tells me, has engaged with “distinct movements including punk, anti-fascism, feminism, environmentalism and anti-nuclear politics”. Take that Zack Snyder.