Detail in the Watchmen

Without a doubt, my favorite graphic novel is Watchmen.

Watchmen is Alan Moore’s magnum opus. I like almost everything about it, beginning with the theme: in a world where superheroes are real, they are also confronted with the dawning realization (and corresponding insecurity) that while they can tackle villains with evil names and matching costumes, they are powerless against the world’s real problems: nuclear arms race, an increasingly hostile Cold War, and growing unrest and unemployment on the streets.

The Watchmen that I own is the big hard-bound Absolute Watchmen edition. This has the added bonus of having Alan Moore’s commentary on what went into the making of the book. Also included is a sample ‘script’ of one episode.

Moore started doing Watchmen with a very simple theme. I think he was one of the first mainstream comic writers who realized that comics come somewhere between books and movies, but are, in reality, neither. And just as you cannot translate a book to a movie – you must ‘reimagine’ it – you cannot design a comic book the way you would write a book. A comic book is like a movie except that the user has ‘history’ – he is not limited to viewing one still at a time, but instead, is able to pause, assimilate, move back and forward, dwell for several minutes on a single panel, and compare it with its next one.

The power that this gives a writer of comic books is the ability to pack in a sheer amount of visual detail into a comic book that is not possible either in a book – where such detail would necessarily run into dozens of boring pages – or a movie, where any background detail is a one-frame marvel that 90% of viewers are likely to overlook.

Moore’s ‘script’, which is presented in the Absolute Watchmen book is, therefore, mind-boggling in its level of detail. For a single panel, Moore writes what would amount to an essay – he is able to describe every square millimeter, for all intents and purposes, of what the scene should be composed of. This includes the physics of background objects: for example, if a bottle of liquor is left half opened and in a tilted state in one panel, you can be sure that it will fall down and empty its contents onto a sofa painstakingly over the next eight panels. It also includes tying together completely different events that happen at the same place; for example, if there is a billboard in a particular location in the first chapter, the same location six chapters later will have the same billboard, looking a bit worse for the wear (for example, with a little more grafitti on it).

Moore also makes it a point of principle not to use ‘motion lines’. In most comics, motion is indicated by curves that follow the path of the moving object; for example, if one character hits another, you will see the lines that trace the path of his fist superimposed on the actual scene. We take these so much for granted in comics that we cannot imagine comics without them; however, we read Watchmen in its entirety and will not realize that it lacks motion lines till someone points it out to us.

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Watchmen also has another characteristic it shares with movies and not with books: the lack of thought bubbles. Everything in text in the Watchmen is either something someone says or something written. Surprise, sarcasm, anger, indignation – all of these are expressed, not through the ‘easy way’ of thought bubbles, but through facial expressions.

It took a hell of a combination of a writer and an artist to create a comic book that is basically an unrolled movie. I would not have believed it possible if Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had not showed the world how to do it.

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