You Keep Copying Watchmen (but you keep doing it wrong)

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen is the towering giant against which all subsequent comic works have been judged.  In its time, it changed the direction and scope of comics and today, 25 years later, its influence can still be felt. While copying might be a strong word, let’s say its been a little more than inspirational to a bevy of creators.

And almost all of them missed the point.

What the industry at large saw was a chance to “grow up”.  To be dark, violent, “mature” and gritty.  Superheroes aren’t just for kids, man. A lot of this happened because the other best comic of the decade was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, another tale of gritty superheroes (an awful coincidence). The imitators missed the mark there too.

These books weren’t primarily a revolution in content. They were a revolution in form.

Both books were calculated, mathematical, deliberate attacks on the stagnant storytelling of the medium. Watchmen took the classic 9-panel grid and transformed it into something fresh and dynamic. Dark Knight changed the page into a dense, frenetic, pissed-off assault of images.

So what happened?

Readers flocked to both books. The industry sees this and says “they love dark superheroes! Let’s just do that!”

But what did readers really want? Well-told stories. Stories that expand the potential of the medium, that challenge the way we read and how we think about comics. But what we got instead was lots of monochrome superheroes muttering the mildest cusses – and all told in the same old static ways of the pre-Watchmen era.

Let’s look at the first page of Watchmen. This page is the “Call me Ishmael” of comic literature. It’s been seared into the mind of almost everyone who has read the book, and it was one of my first tastes of what is possible in this medium.

Have you taken that in?

So what makes this page so important? It’s not the talk of burst stomachs and blood and scabs. It’s not the implied violence in the images. It’s not even the challenging political implications. It’s the evisceration of the medium that happens across 7 panels.

Take a look. The first thing we notice, form-wise, is a rather traditional layout. But the innards of that layout are anything but.

Notice the physicality of the “camera.” Instead of being passive observers, as is traditional in comics, the most striking motion on the page is the upward movement of our perspective. We’re asked to be participants in the story, active observers; the heft of the camera impacts a Brechtian awareness to the proceedings.

Then there’s another, subtler layer – pacing. Traditional comic theory dictates that panel size indicates pacing. Sure, but that’s just one of a bevy of methods. But across those 6 panels, there’s a very tangible acceleration, yet all the panels are the same size. So how’s it done?

First, look at the speed of action happening in each panel. Let’s use as our measuring stick the steps of the sign-bearer. Between panel 1 and 2, he appears. Between 2 and 3, he takes a single step. Between 3 and 4, he takes 3 steps. Between 4 and 5, 4 steps. And by panel 6 he’s gone quite a distance.

There’s another factor here, and that’s the “speed” of the camera rise. If you observe the size of the grate, you’ll see that it doesn’t decrease in size the same amount in each panel: it’s shrinking at a exponential pace.

Think I’m reading into it too much? Look at Moore’s script. He describes panel 3 as 9 ft above the sidewalk, panel 4 as 20-25 feet above the sidewalk, panel 5 40-50 ft above, and panel 6 “hundreds of feet” above the sidewalk. That’s pacing.

I could go on. I could talk about how the final panel slams to a halt, yet takes the least diagetic amount of time. I could talk about the interplay between the images and words.

But I won’t. You will.  Next time you read Watchmen (you’ve already read it at least once, right?) look beyond the incredible characters, the tight plotting, the philosophical and political implications. Dig into what Moore and Gibbons do on each page, how they bend our perceptions to their liking.

And if you’re a creator, challenge yourself to advance the medium. Don’t look at panels as little boxes to fill with story, but as opportunities for pacing and composition. Chances to twist the reader’s mind and perception. A shot to give your creation a voice.

And write about anything besides gritty superheroes.

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2 thoughts on “You Keep Copying Watchmen (but you keep doing it wrong)

  1. I remember, while watching the theatrical adaptation of the comic, being surprised to notice the alleyway fight scene so much, which felt like it was taken from some videogame I have no interest in playing.
    When reading the book earlier, I knew of the fight scene, but it was mostly a joke, I didn’t care about any of the fight choreography, instead it was a scuffle which only served as a camouflaged background to the more (emotionally) violent exile of Dr. Manhattan it shared page space with.

    I still think the movie was cool, in a different-beast kind of way.

  2. Great article! Yes, we’re up to our eyeballs in ‘dark’ superheroes, instead of finding comics to be astonished by.

    The pacing is what makes Watchmen a great read – as the story unfolds, the comic effortlessly cuts between storylines, including the Black Freighter, to bring everything together at the end, in a wonderful conclusion.

    Alternatively, the movie combines ‘slap-the-point-in-your-face’ dialogue with superhero fight scenes. Yawn.

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