Watchmen's attention to detail and mature subject matter brought a whole new audience to the comic-book medium.
Film brings Watchmen's dystopian saga to life
After more than two decades in development, the dark, malevolent world of Watchmen - the most critically acclaimed graphic novel of all time - is about to hit cinema screens around the world.
First published as a 12-part series in 1986 and later collected in book form, the story is set in an alternative 1985, where the US and USSR are moving dangerously close to the outbreak of nuclear war. To make matters worse, Richard Nixon has defied the US Constitution to remain in office, his finger permanently hovering over the launch button. It is also a world filled with superheroes.
Far from the typical cape-and-tights-wearing do-gooders that preceded them, these characters range from thugs who strike fear into the hearts of small-time crooks to government-sponsored mercenaries who carry out political assassinations and even manage to swing the Vietnam War in America's favour. "It makes you think about costumed heroes and ask why on Earth would you put a costume on?" says the British illustrator, Dave Gibbons, who, along with the writer Alan Moore, created the story.
And if all this talk of comic-book heroes and villains makes Watchmen sound like the preserve of introverted teenage boys, think again. It was the only graphic novel to appear in Time magazine's 2005 list of "All Time 100 Best Novels" and has also won a coveted Hugo award for science fiction writing. Set against a paranoid and dystopian backdrop, Watchmen follows a band of semi-retired, New York-based vigilantes who attempt to piece together the truth after one of their former associates, The Comedian, is murdered.
This list of multilayered - and frequently troubled - protagonists sits right at the heart of the story's appeal. For Nite Owl II, think of a retired and overweight Batman; Silk Spectre II, meanwhile, is a reluctant female hero; then come Dr Manhattan, the only real superhuman in the story, and Ozymandias, the "smartest man in the world". However, the shadowy, trench coat-clad Rorschach is by far the most uncompromising character. Watchmen's attention to detail and mature subject matter brought a whole new audience to the comic-book medium. In fact, Gibbons, who is also working as a consultant on the movie adaptation, believes that many people now see it as the definitive entry-level graphic novel.
"It's a very complex story, but we deliberately told it in a disarmingly straightforward way," he says. "When we were doing the original 12-issue comic-book series, we really didn't even think it would be collected [into a graphic novel]. We thought it would just disappear into the back-issue bins.
"Quite often when people hear of graphic novels and go into a bookshop wanting to know where to start, they are told to start with Watchmen." Its greatest achievement, however, is the way it brought more mature subject matter - and audiences - to the comic-book medium. It is partly due to the success of the book that graphic novels have flourished as medium in recent years. Many such books have now moved beyond superheroes and adventure stories, focusing on more traditional literary fare, such as war, romance and even autobiography. When a piece of writing is held in such high regard, it often quickly becomes a candidate for Hollywood adaptation. But few could have predicted the obstacles that would beset Watchmen on its journey to the big screen.
After 20 years in production limbo, which saw potential directors including Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass come and go, it has long been seen as one of the last great "unfillable" projects. But Hollywood eventually went ahead and did it anyway, entrusting the former music-video director Zack Snyder, best known for 2007's blood-soaked Spartan epic 300, with the task.
"I saw a rough cut of the movie back in August," says Gibbons. "The computer graphics and soundtrack were unfinished, but I was absolutely blown away. "It was a very strange experience to sit in the dark and watch the movie that I had seen unfold in my head 20 years ago. I'm extremely happy with what the team has done." His words will come as welcome relief to a legion of Watchmen devotees who are likely to approach the film's release with equal measures of excitement and trepidation.
Although Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 was seen as particularly faithful to the book, it was also criticised for its lack of intelligence and reliance on special effects over storytelling. With Watchmen's labyrinthine plot and complex characters, many fear that Snyder's involvement could lead to an unforgivable dumbing down of the text. Those who question the director's worthiness, or even the idea of a Watchmen movie, have a powerful figurehead to follow… the book's writer, Alan Moore.
"When Watchmen was about to go into production, Alan's request was for a legally binding document which removes his credit from the movie and gives his share of profits from it to me," says Gibbons. To understand this decision, one must first understand Moore. Or at least try to. The self-proclaimed anarchist, occultist and magician looks like a scarecrow that has been let loose in a fancy-dress shop. With his long, scruffy hair and beard, and penchant for velvet jackets and purple bowler hats, Moore's sense of style is as individual as his writing.
Equally remarkable is his love/hate relationship with Hollywood - Hollywood loves him and he hates it right back. Several of Moore's previous works, including V for Vendetta, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been adapted for the big screen in recent years. All were highly celebrated graphic novels, however the completed film versions ranged from difficult to downright dreadful.
After a particularly painful relationship with the V for Vendetta team of Joel Silver and Larry Wachowski, Moore decided to turn his back on Hollywood altogether and refused to endorse a Watchmen movie. He even criticised Snyder as the choice of director, and told Entertainment Weekly he had heard that 300 was "sublimely stupid".
"It's really a reaction to the experiences he has had in the past," says Gibbons. "I really respect his decision and it's typical of Alan. "Signing over the profits to me is a little bit of a poisoned chalice. I would far prefer that he was happy with what was going on and didn't feel so bad about things. "I've always had a very good relationship with Alan. He's very affable and friendly and a great collaborator. He always tries to make his collaborators happy and to keep them busy. But he's not an ordinary, everyday guy."
Despite the difference of opinion with his former creative partner, Gibbons believes that the film will be a success and bring new audiences to the original work. He also says that the film's impending release inspired him to revisit Watchmen.
"We were at that time when we were young enough to be absolutely full of energy and hungry," he says. "There's an attention to detail and a focus to Watchmen that very few graphic novels have." Moore's reservations are not the only things to have stood in the way of Watchmen's journey to cinemas. As well as legal wrangling between the Warner Brors and Fox studios over the rights to the movie, many have also suggested that mainstream cinema audiences were not ready for a Watchmen film.
The screenwriter David Hayter, who adapted the comic book for the film, said at this year's Vancouver Film Festival that the book makes more sense in the post-September 11 world. "Watchmen was considered too dark, too complex, too 'smart'. But the world has changed. I think that the new global climate has finally caught up with the vision that Alan Moore had in 1986. It is the perfect time to make this movie," he said. Gibbons even suggests that the story may have benefited from its 20 years in stasis.
"One of the masterstrokes of the movie is to make it a period piece and to set it in 1985, because that immediately makes it a classic story… except that it is set against the background of an overwhelming threat to civilisation as we know it."
Watchmen opens in cinemas across the UAE on Thursday. The new book Watching the Watchmen, including original art and scripts from the comic series, is now available from Titan Books.
From left to right:
The Comedian Ruthless, cynical and -nihilistic, but capable of great insight, The -Comedian - real name Edward Blake - is a government--sponsored -costumed hero. As his death kick-starts the story of -Watchmen, the -character -appears in flashbacks throughout the action. Silk Spectre II The daughter of the first Silk Spectre, Laurie Juspeczyk has never been comfortable as a superhero and welcomed a more normal life when masked crime-fighting was abolished. But after The -Comedian's death, she begins to uncover secrets that bring her new life into question.
Doctor Manhattan After a laboratory accident, Jon Osterman emerges bright blue and possessed of the -ability to change matter at an atomic level. But his gifts are quickly seized upon by the US government, which seeks to turn him into its first line of defence against the nuclear threat.
Ozymandias The only thing the -billionaire Adrian Veidt loves more than ancient Egyptian symbolism and -mythology is Alexander the Great. Known as "the smartest man in the world" Veidt publicly unmasked -himself after the Keene Act and chose to dedicate himself to legitimate business.
Nite Owl II After the Keene Act bans superheroes from -fighting crime, Dan -Dreiberg decides to hang up his cape and the keys to his flying machine, Archie. But when his former partner Rorschach suggests that someone might be killing off costumed heroes, he -decides to return to the fray.
Rorschach A firm favourite among fans, Rorschach is often voted one of the greatest comic-book characters of all time. His trademark trenchcoat and hat is topped off by a shifting black and white ink blot mask. Named after the famous -Rorschach psychological evaluation technique.