Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
April 2009

And Now, A Review of Watchmen That Will Not Mention The Big Blue Penis.
(Ooops. I Just Ruined That, Didn't I?)

Watchmen: The Graphic Novel versus the Movie

There are two ways for a fan to watch a movie based on a comic book.

The first is to be there in line three days before it opens, dressed in homemade tights that have been let out over the years as your gut has grown more prodigious, ready to be bedazzled and bewondered and discuss the differences between the source material and the adaptation for ages. The second is to determine that "It will ruin my favorite graphic novel because it doesn't include the abusive father/giant squid/mustache" and stay far far away, almost as far away as you stay from real social interaction.

Okay, so I went the second route. But only for a week before I broke down.

I was eighteen when Watchmen the comic blew me away. Middle-class Americans are raised on superheroes along with our chicken-and-cream-of-chicken-casserole. We are all quite familiar with superhero morality. Growing up, I knew for a fact that there was Big Huge Good and Big Huge Evil and they fought, and though the waters might have been muddied a bit, the meaning of what was Good and what was Evil could always be found out.

Watchmen was the first thing I read that really made me rethink that assumption. Without giving too much away, the plot hinges on "heroes" committing monstrously evil acts in the name of the greater good.

Each page of the comic is saturated with this theme of disturbed morality, not least because author Alan Moore, the Warlock Lord of comics, was absolutely obsessive in his detailed script, and artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins were equally nuts.

Their characters are indulgent fetishists, violent psychopaths, megalomaniacs, even an unrepentant rapist, yet they are all superheroes serving the idea of the Greater Good.

The people on the street display typical inhumanity at the same time they demonstrate surprising warmth, their lives rendered in detailed simplicity to contrast the larger-than-life heroes.

There is even a parallel story -- a pirate comic about losing one's soul -- that turns the story of the superheroes into a parable, also acknowledging this ambitious work's roots in a bastard art form.

Rorschach's overdramatic poetic ramblings make a subtle counterpoint to the minimalism of his nemesis Ozymandias. Dr. Manhattan's inability to conceptualize time or humanity counters Nite Owl and Silk Spectre's all-too-human captivity to their superhero fetish.

Alan Moore writes supplementary material for each chapter, from the wonderful fake memoir of the original Nite Owl to the faux-academic prose of Nite Owl II's submission to an ornithological journal. It is overflowing with detail, yet somehow not a word is wasted.

Even the colors are deliberately secondary -- brown and purple and orange and pink, under a sickly yellow that saturates the world.

Read it huddled where no one will find you, in one sitting. You will come out truly moved, truly horrified, and full of such raw storytelling power, on so many levels, that you will be sure that Alan Moore actually has cast a spell on you.

And the movie?

In short, the movie won't do that.

To be fair, it was pretty much defeated from the start. Most of what made the comic brilliant -- the obsessive detail, repeating themes, and multiple storylines -- had to be cut, leaving only the superhero storyline. The superhero storyline is good. It's the main plot of the comic, after all. But when you get down to it, the superhero story is only the plot, with enough detail about the characters to get you through.

The characters' roots in other superheroes show. In fact, the origin of Moore's story was in a series of heroes bought by DC from Charlton Comics, but when DC decided to use the heroes differently, Moore created analogues for them -- the nuclear-powered Captain Atom became Dr. Manhatten, the technologically augmented Blue Beetle got a dose of Batman and became Nite Owl, the uncompromising investigator the Question became Rorschach, the mystical martial-arts master Thunderbolt became Ozymandias, the international policeman Peacemaker became the Comedian, and the femme fatale Nightshade became Silk Spectre.

I prefer the characters in Watchmen to the Charlton comics characters -- there's a lot more cool things an artist can do with that Rorschach blot -- but they are still archetypes. And those archetypes are just not that interesting without everything else Moore piled into his story to augment the plot.

Plus, in the 80s, it was shocking to see nasty things that you have not seen superheroes do before. Now, of course, we are all-too familiar with the psycho avenger of justice -- a third incarnation of the Punisher actually beat Watchmen to the screen.

Yet even without four-fifths of the story, with the archetypes and the jaded superhero clichés working against him, Zack Snyder still tries to slavishly adapt the book, with as few changes as possible. Moore's flashbacks, which worked quite well in the individual character studies that permeated Watchmen, slow the movie incredibly in its first half. Dialogue straight from the comic often works, but often it just falls flat, designed to be read instead of heard. Moloch's line: "You know the kind of cancer you eventually get better from? Well, that ain't the kind of cancer I got," worked great in a two-panel setup and punchline in the comic. In the movie it dies in Matt Frewer's mouth despite his best efforts.

There are moments where Snyder, like an overexcited kid, destroys the subtlety at the heart of the comic. He glorifies the gore, as opposed to the dark realism of Dave Gibbons' simple artwork, as in the scene where Snydar has an inmate saw off a fellow inmate's arms instead of the simple, vicious stabbing in the book. Or the ridiculous sex scene, as opposed, again, to Dave Gibbons' minimalist naked embrace.

(And of course, there's the pound of latex that Snyder slapped on his Richard Nixon actor and called a fake nose. I think a bird could roost on that thing.)

The most glaring example of a change -- Silk Spectre and Nite Owl's relationship -- is also the most grating. One of the deservedly criticized aspects of Watchmen in both incarnations is the passivity of the female characters. Silk Spectre the Younger, in both movie and comic, serves mostly as a foil for Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan, while her mother gets the not-so-coveted role of bearing a child by her rapist, whom she has convinced herself she has forgiven.

But while they may have been passive plot devices in the comic, they were interesting passive plot devices.

Snyder turns Laurie Juspeczyck from a coy, flirtatious vixen into a milky-pure, passive grope-doll without even the illusion of independence. In the comic, Silk Spectre seduces Nite Owl with what is basically an open frontal attack -- she grabs his glasses and jokes, "Let's do something with that stupid hair," and then jumps on him, clearly hungry for human contact and human lust after the coldness of a life with the superhuman Dr. Manhattan.

In the movie, she sits down and breathily whispers, "Jon sees a lot of things, but he doesn't see me. Not like you do."

I'm sorry, is this Watchmen or Dawson's Creek?

Her relationship with Nite Owl becomes painfully by-the-numbers "romantic." She has no other aggressiveness allowed her, save a few lame fight scenes. She doesn't even smoke -- a good analogue in the comic for her addiction to super-heroing despite her loathing of it. Malin Ackerman's performance is truly painful, but in her defense, the script totally destroyed the character, leaving her only shreds.

On the other hand, Snyder, with the incredible actor Jackie Earl Haley, nails the psychopath Rorschach, the character who is most in love with his vision of extreme violence as a solution to the world's problems.

Coincidence?

It is telling that the bits that Snyder adds to Rorschach's part actually work right along with the comic, including a beautifully psychopathic moment where he tears into his prison psychiatrist's office demanding, "Where's My Face?" referring to his costume.

Snyder seems to understand, at least a little, what can make a film work. The opening credits, where he had to present his own version of Watchmen history for the audience's benefit, and the brilliant interpretation of Rorschach given by the spot-on casting of Haley, prove that. But he is defeated by his own clumsiness, his own reverence and his self-confessed weakness for violence and sex. It's like giving a gourmet recipe to a fry cook.

It is conceivable that some director out there could have made a truer version of Watchmen -- at least a version that felt truer. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adapted an-almost-as-unfilmable book. But Jackson got it in a way Snyder doesn't.

Jackson knew that Tolkien was trying to capture the spirit of works like The Battle of Maldon or Beowulf -- works both long and full of longing, in a high voice that recalled a more noble time. But to make a film of such a thing, Jackson couldn't do Anglo-Saxon poetry unless he wanted to give the audience a three-hour nap.

So he went to the more noble age of filmmaking, and thus we get epic swordfights, dashing rescues, and simultaneous love and hate for the misshapen monsters. Jackson's Ring is more reminiscent of the best adventure movies of the 30s and 40s than it is of epics in Old English. And he knew it had to be so.

Yet, in Snyder's defense, it's hard to imagine a filmmaker who could work with Watchmen. Moore admits freely to writing his comics for the medium and the medium only. Watchmen works because it is a comic, talking about ideas that prevail through the comic medium. The dialogue works brilliantly on the page. The flashbacks suit the episodic format.

To go back to my earlier analogy, that gourmet recipe given to the fry cook is also a recipe that has defeated many better chefs.

P.S. In the hype around Watchmen, there's been a lot of talk about "best graphic novel of all time." It's certainly one of the best, but anyone who goes to the comic expecting the best story ever told with words and pictures will be disappointed. What they really mean is the best superhero story of all time. There is no real "best graphic novel of all time," but if I were to put my money on one, I would choose Maus, Art Spiegelman's humane masterpiece about the Holocaust and the trauma of survival. Read Watchmen only with other superhero comics in mind.

Okay, so next issue is the Secret Invasion/Final Crisis faceoff. I mean it this time. Also, since I'm in the mood, the battle of Greatest Superhero Movie of All Time.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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