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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."

All in all, Watchmen was probably the most successful attempt to create a superhero comic that was adult in both content and narrative construction. So how did this history-making comic come together in the first place? Read on ...

A brief history

As I previously mentioned, Watchmen was written by the British-born writer Alan Moore. A few years earlier, Moore gained some popularity in America for revitalizing the down-right wack Swamp Thing for DC. Actually, you couldn't call what he did with the Swamp Thing comic "revitalization" because it was such an awful character and series; for all intents and purposes, he "remixed" Swamp Thing and became a star in the process. He went on to write several other acclaimed comics before coming up with the idea for Watchmen.

Initially, Moore wanted Watchmen to star a group of rather well-known characters DC had just purchased from a now-defunct comic company called Charlton Comics (including Captain Atom, The Blue Beetle and The Peacemaker, among others). Officials at DC were all for it at first. But after getting wind of the full story, they weren't willing to let Moore screw up some heroes that cost them an ass-load of moolah (the whole erectile dysfunction thing undoubtedly freaked them out).

After hearing that DC was not giving him the Charlton characters, Moore was disappointed. But it didn't take him long to figure out that the story would work better with brand-new creations, instead of heroes weighed down by decades of continuity. So he made up his own super dudes and away he went.

Now, I remember reading Watchmen when it came out back in the day -- I remember being blown away by it, too. Everyone was blown away by it. Unlike some great works of art, it was immediately appreciated by fans and critics alike. No one had ever seen such a mature depiction of superhero mythology. And it wasn't long before it influenced a whole new crop of creators -- and not in a good way ...

The legacy of Watchmen

The success of the Watchmen series should have birthed a new age of literate and thought-provoking comics -- and it did ... sort of.

Some creators attempted to step up their game and make more challenging and artistic works. But most, instead of swiping the weighty aspects of the series (the symbolism, storytelling techniques or even the sheer awe of the art and writing), absorbed the more prurient elements in Watchmen. As a result, the industry was flooded with a new wave of comics filled with violence and contempt for the spandex-clad heroes of the past. The 1990s was a decade of comics with "dark" heroes -- guys with mental problems who carried big guns and weren't afraid to blow a villain's brains out. That wasn't exactly what Moore was trying to do to the comic industry. In 2003, he said in an interview: "[T]o some degree there has been, in the 15 years since Watchmen, an awful lot of the comics field devoted to these grim, pessimistic, nasty, violent stories which kind of use Watchmen to validate what are, in effect, often just some very nasty stories ..."

Ouch. But he was telling the truth.

So what happened next? Well, good things and bad things ...

No more Moore

Yes, Watchmen made DC a ton of cash, but the company pissed off Moore. He was under the impression that the rights of the series would revert back to him and Gibbons after a while, but, as he understood it, that was not the case. As a result, Moore felt swindled and vowed never to work for DC again. And he didn't ... sort of. He created a line of books -- called America's Best Comics -- for a DC subsidiary called Wildstorm. While writing the ABC line, he created a series called The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was later made into a sucky movie. (But the comic was great.) And while we're on the subject of movies, I should probably mention that Moore hates the idea of his comics being turned into films. He's a comic purist and creates work specifically for the medium. To that end, he hasn't made money off the films directly -- he lets his collaborating artists (like Gibbons) take his own share of the proceeds.

Eventually, he stopped writing for the ABC line and for DC and all its subsidiaries for good. He currently does work for a small, indie publisher called Top Shelf.

Still, his influence on mainstream comics -- and mainstream America -- lives on. Several of his other comic works, such as V For Vendetta and From Hell -- have been made into films. And a critically acclaimed writer by the name of Neil Gaiman (the guy behind comics such as Sandman, novels like American Gods and the current hit film Coraline) cites Moore as the sole reason he got into writing comics.

So, see: For good or ill, Watchmen is important. Only time will tell if the film affects regular moviegoers the same way it affected comic geeks (you know, like me). In the meantime, take my advice -- go watch Watchmen.

Other recommended reading

If you're excited about the idea of seeing (or reading) Watchmen, you may want to pick up these other comics by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Yes, the film version sucked, but the comics -- written by Moore -- were excellent. The League is actually a series of limited series that chronicle the adventures of some of literature's most famous characters. All the comics starring the League have been collected in several trade paperbacks. A new adventure is set to hit stores this year.

Swamp Thing: Moore "remixed" this struggling series, and in the process he created the blueprint for the modern horror comic. Swamp Thing tells the story of a man who gets turned into a muck monster and eventually finds out that he plays a role in the world's magical/environmental foundations. As a writer on the series, Moore created the magical anti-hero John Constantine -- who later stars in his own series and is adapted into a wack-ass movie starring Keanu Reeves. Moore's run on Swamp Thing is available in trade paperback.

V for Vendetta: In this limited series, another one of Moore's works that was later turned into a film, a masked revolutionary fights against a facist British empire in the future. It's also collected in book form.

From Hell: Moore wrote this massive tale of Jack the Ripper that was drawn by acclaimed artist Eddie Campbell -- and also eventually made the leap to the silver screen in a film starring Johnny Depp.

Lost Girls: Moore wrote this controversial and sexually charged tale, featuring Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz, and Wendy Darling from Peter Pan. All of Moore's stuff is adult-oriented, but this one really ain't for the kiddies.

The Originals: A rare comic that was written and drawn by Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, The Originals is a graphic novel that stars battling gangs of youth who wear "Mod" clothes and ride hovering scooters in an alternate England.

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