WATCHMEN CHAPTER ONE
(Warner Premiere Motion Comics)
Writer: (an uncredited) Alan Moore
Art: Dave Gibbons, John Higgins
Narrated by Tom Stechschulte
Beginning Friday on iTunes, internet users have been able to download the entire first issue of 1985’s Watchmen for free, as a partially animated movie. Released as a teaser to build interest in the upcoming Watchmen film, the project manages to be simultaneously beguiling and repellent, because it isn’t just a tease or an attempt at a new form of animation. Rather, it is a possible glimpse of the future of the comic book medium, and it’s as mesmerizing as a car crash.
The big reason Moore’s Watchmen worked so well 23 years ago was that it embraced the comic book genre at the same time it exploded superhero conventions. That’s a distinction often lost on people, who wrongly assume that Moore’s intent was to create an entirely new form of comics. It was just the opposite: He returned comics to their formal roots, laid down in America by Will Eisner and abroad by the likes of Frank Hampson, then used that form to tell a grown-up tale that worked despite its spandex clad characters. Moore took comic books seriously, and he showed how flexible the genre really was.
Case in point: One of the most marvelous things about the original is that it made the characters respectable and believable while tweaking the silliness of the genre. For example, Moore had the lightness of touch to note how daft Dan Dreiberg looked in his now too-tight Nite Owl outfits without making fun of the character, himself, thus sustaining the suspension of disbelief this story needed to work.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about this new “animated” version, which breaks that suspension in the first minute. This is largely because the film is uncertain whether it wants to be a movie, a cartoon, a comic book, or something entirely new. Part of the problem is that the creators don’t seem to have confidence in their medium. The cartoon, the comic book, and the classic noir film all have their rules for a reason. In great hands, those rules can be stretched. Here, jamming the three together comes off as clumsy and derivative.
This version of Watchmen has the feel of Batman: The Animated Series with portentous music and lots of swooping angles. This is meant to feel “noir,” but anyone who’s actually ever watched a classic noir will be baffled by it, because it’s more MTV than moody, and more jarring than unsettling.
While directors wisely used Gibbons’ original artwork as their base, they then undercut it by leaving most of the panels static while moving the character’s legs, the rain, beads of sweat. This immediately conjures up horrible memories of old Superfriends ‘toons (not to mention the very early Marvel cartoons, back when Captain America threw his mighty shield, and all those who chose to oppose his shield must yield), a killer blow, despite the glossy production.
They then made another major mistake with a soundtrack of narration and clichéd “dramatic” music. Hearing Tom Stechschulte affect a woman’s voice to play the Silk Spectre might have worked on an audiotape, but with animation, it came off here as comical.
What this film did do well was add some texture to the set pieces in the original book. The opening scene is nicely done, with the camera pulling away from the Comedian’s bloodied button in the sewer to the detective overhead, his hair slightly mussed by the breeze. Rorschach’s mask now ripples constantly, a nice touch, and some of the sequences — the Comedian being hurled to his death; Dreiberg left brooding in his secret lab with the chains rustling overhead — work well. Others, such as Rorschach’s busting up a bar and Dr. Manhattan shrinking to human-size, don’t.
One thing does help: Turning the sound off. This allows you to listen to the music that Moore was listening to at the time (Billie Holiday) and pay attention to Gibbons’ art, which is still sumptuous after all these years.
Still: Why do I worry that this is the future for the comic book on the web and every portable device that it can work its way on to? Because this film is clever in one respect: It manages to make a complex story accessible to a wider audience by making the reader/viewer far more passive. Books require engagement and imagination, and the glorious thing about the comic book is that while the medium owes something to film, there’s always those little gaps between the panels that require the reader to connect the dots. Remove them, and you rob Watchmen of part of its power.
One can’t help but wondering what the book’s creator, Alan Moore would have thought of this weird hybrid, a sort of audio book mashed into a cartoon that magnifies the faults of both. I hope he’d laugh at this strange mess, and then promptly work on a way to figure out how to make the form better.