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A geek's guide to understanding Watchmen


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Last year was a big one for comic book movies. A bunch of films that were adapted from comics — including Hellboy, The Dark Knight and Iron Man, among others -- hit the big screen in 2008 and proved to be cash cows at the box office (and in the case of Dark Knight, critical darlings).

Now, with the new year in full swing, it looks like 2009 is going to be another doozie for super folk at the cinema. Keep your eyes open for big-budget movies starring well-known characters like Wolverine (his solo flick spins out of the X-Men movies) and G.I. Joe (a live-action version this time).

Me? I'm not really tripping over those particular flicks. Wolverine looks good, but I've seen the guy in three movies already. And when it comes to G.I. Joe, I'm wondering how any director can make that cheesy property cool. (G.I. Joe fans, I look forward to your hate mail.)

No, what I'm really looking forward to is the celluloid version of Watchmen, which hits theaters on March 6.

OK, right about now, you're probably thinking, "Watch what? Watch who?"

But don't fret: It's totally understandable if you've never heard the name Watchmen before. Granted, the movie has been seeping into mainstream pop culture since its numerous trailers started appearing on the Internet and in theaters around the country one year or so ago; however, Watchmen is primarily known to people who read graphic novels (aka comic books) on a regular basis.

Legions of critics consider Watchmen the "greatest graphic novel ever published." Hell, for what it's worth, it even made Time magazine's list of 100 Best Novels.

Trust me when I say that its imminent arrival at your neighborhood multiplex is a big deal ... and not just for comic geeks like me -- for you "gentiles," too.

Of course you, probably don't trust me one bit. After all, you don't know me from Atom Ant. "Why should I," you may ask, "give a rat's ass about Watchmen?"

Well, let me explain ...

What's it all about?

In 1986, before anyone ever thought about making a movie about it, Watchmen was published as a 12-issue limited series by DC Comics. (Years later, it was collected in one trade paperback.)

Looking at the trailer for Watchmen, it comes off like a big, bombastic science fiction epic. And it is ... sort of. Peering past all the costumes and explosions and such, it's essentially a murder mystery that ultimately unfolds into a global conspiracy.

According to Wikipedia, the series -- written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons (both from England) -- "... takes place in an alternate history United States where the country is edging closer to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, freelance costumed vigilantes have been outlawed and most costumed superheroes are in retirement or working for the government. The story [starring heroes with crazy names like Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias and The Comedian] focuses on the personal development and struggles of the protagonists as an investigation into the murder of a government-sponsored superhero pulls them out of retirement ..."

Yeah, that's pretty much the plot in a nutshell (You've gotta love Wikipedia.), but there's so much more to Watchmen.

In the 1960s, Marvel Comics made superheroes more realistic with characters who had "feet of clay" like the guilt-ridden Spider-Man. Decades later, Watchmen would up the ante by almost totally deconstructing superheroes and presenting characters who not only had feet of clay, but who were also emotionally scarred and even psychologically disturbed. (For example, I think this was the first comic to feature a superhero who suffered from erectile dysfunction. Seriously.) More than any comic before, the series asked, "What would really be the social, financial and politically ramifications if costumed heroes ran -- and flew -- around fighting crime?" In one issue, for instance, it's revealed that the Superman-like hero Dr. Manhattan utilized his powers to win America's war in Vietnam, and that he's being used as a poltical weapon against the Soviets in the Cold War. In other issues we see how Manhattan's super intelligence led to a number of technological advances, like electric cars, way before their time. In that way, Watchmen was light years ahead of almost every other comic story being published at the time.

And Watchmen was also groundbreaking when it came to how it told the story. Swiping again from Wikipedia: "Creatively, the focus of Watchmen is on its structure. Gibbons used a nine-panel grid layout throughout the series and added recurring symbols such as a blood-stained smiley face. All but the last issue feature supplemental fictional documents that add to the series' backstory, and the narrative is intertwined with that of another story, a fictional pirate comic titled Tales of the Black Freighter, which one of the characters is reading."


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