Imagine this scenario: Mr. Langerman has assigned you to read Watchmen. Normally you stumble your way through class, but this book is different. It’s a… drumroll: “graphic novel”. So it must be a little bit entertaining, right? I mean… drawings. Need I say more?
You turn to the first page, looking to the first panel in the top left corner. There’s a yellow smiley badge slowly being surrounded by a velvety substance, probably blood. In a text box, some guy called Rorschach writes about how the city fears him and how he’s “seen its true face.” Overall, not much going on. There’s only what, like, three stand-out elements in this panel? How much work could have gone into that?
Luckily, some of the scripts from Alan Moore, the writer, are available online. Let’s see what he wrote for just that panel, probably only a couple-
Wow. That’s a lot of words for one picture.
I will admit that this is a longer example, but Alan Moore was known for writing expansive, detailed descriptions of scenes for artists to turn into panels. Steve Bissette, the artist for Swamp Thing when Moore was writing it, said that “Alan’s scripts were dense. They were like long, narrative letters to the cartoonist. And they were playful in a lot of ways, too… but they were also these elaborate blueprints of not just what was happening on each page and panel, but where it was going to go. Like ‘This object is here because, on page 22, it’s going to come back in. So be sure to emphasize it.’ And it was unusual at that time to have scripts not just of that length and that detail, but scripts that carefully thought-out.”
Arguably, what made Moore’s comics so influential and great was all the storytelling that wasn’t done with speech bubbles or text boxes. A comic like Watchmen works so well and is so revered because it makes full use of everything in a panel to tell its story. Background details like newspapers, advertisements, shops, and even clothing can not only build up the world but also the characters and themes. A classic example of this is that whenever we see a clock in the comic, its hands always show a couple of minutes to midnight, symbolizing the mounting disaster that looms throughout the comic.
Another example of this is in Batman: The Killing Joke, as Batman descends into the bowels of Arkham Asylum. There’s a brief moment when he and Commissioner Gordon walk past Two-Face, who is looking out of his cell at them. The bars clearly divide his face in two, with the deformed side having an eerie resemblance to the pale face and greenish hair of the Joker. This scene sets up both the physical and ideological conflict between Batman and the Joker in the story and shows they may not be so dissimilar, just two sides of the same coin.
For a long time, Watchmen was considered impossible to adapt for a long time due to its non-linear storyline and the small details that don’t translate easily to a fast-moving picture show. Zack Snyder did a good job capturing the feel of the original comic, with some scenes being lifted straight out of the panels, but his adaptation misses the messages of the original comic entirely. The subtle details in the background are rarely translated over, and when they are they don’t have the same thematic weight they had in the original comic. Picking out the details in the movie feels more like finding content for a “10 Things You Missed” clickbait YouTube video instead of doing critical analysis.
HBO’s adaption/sequel to the comic looked like it was going to be even more different from the source material than the movie. Not only would it be set in the modern-day, but it would depict a much smaller-scale conflict between a police force and a white-supremacist group in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Compared to the grand conspiracy of the original set in 1980s New York, it seemed like it would be hard to ground Damon Lindelof’s take on Watchmen in the same alternate history setting. And yet, it is.
While the story is unique and seemingly disconnected from the plot of the graphic novel, those who have read it will immediately recognize aspects of the show that place it firmly in the comic’s continuity. The police now employ high-tech hovercraft technology seized from the second Night Owl. Squids rain down from the sky in the aftermath of the fake alien Ozymandias sent to destroy New York and “save” the world. A white supremacist terrorist cell dons Rorschach masks, an embodiment of the original character’s extremist ideologies taken to their logical conclusion. The vigilantes that once roamed the streets at night, fighting crime in spite of or in service of the government, are now deputized detectives working within a masked police force.
However, the show is not cemented in the Watchmen universe by set dressing alone. It not only captures the style of the original comic, but also the small, meaningful details that Moore is known for. Even though the nature of live-action television means you can’t hold a shot long enough for the viewer to take in the whole scene at once, the show utilizes the full potential of its medium to tell its story, much like the comic it’s based on.
For example, if you watch closely in the first episode you can learn the current state of politics in this alternate-timeline America, without anyone in the show ever speaking a word about D.C. In the classroom where we’re introduced to Angela Abar, A.K.A Sister Night, you can see a poster of presidents on the wall that shows Nixon (who held office for decades because he abolished term limits) being superseded by Robert Redford. (Yes, the actor Robert Redford is in this show as himself as the president.) This was actually something hinted at in the comics, so it doesn’t come as a complete surprise.
However, the show goes beyond making Redford just an Easter egg-like nod to the comics, as we learn early on on what people think of his policies as well. At one point a white, middle-school kid uses the term “Redfordations” when Abar, a black woman, is talking about a bakery she’s opening. Later on the term is seen again, this time in graffiti that says “[expletive] Redfordations.” With the graffiti being sprayed in a trailer park built around a giant statue of Nixon and the fact that Robert Redford is a generally liberal person in real life, one can extrapolate that Redfordations is a slang term referring to something done by Redford’s administration that white conservatives have an issue with. The second episode reveals that this term refers to reparations given to victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre and their descendants, but the viewer could learn that information before it ever became relevant because the show uses small moments in the backdrop of the main story to build up its world.
Moore’s small details don’t just exist to relate the world to the viewer however, they also convey themes and character motivations. Take the Tulsa police chief Judd Crawford, one of the few members of the force required to have a public identity. On his desk, he has a copy of Under the Hood, the fictional biography of the first Night Owl, who would pass on the mantle to his successor. Later on, we see that he has a picture of his grandfather in his home, who was also the chief. Both of these details, while small, are intentionally framed in their respective scenes, drawing parallels between the generational roles of a vigilante and a police officer. This comparison echoes the show’s conflict between law-following cops and law-breaking vigilantes, and how those two extremes are now a blurred line in Watchmen’s universe, and perhaps our own as well.
Those examples come from just the first episode of the show, and with five episodes out now there’s even more details to analyze about Watchmen. The show’s playing with some intense themes, and while it could handle them very poorly in the end, I’m interested to see where it ends up going. At the very least, the show’s creators know what made the original comic a masterpiece of fiction, and are employing its techniques to build up the world and characters of the sequel. Taking the time to look around each scene rewards the viewer with small details that contribute to the larger story being told and the messages the show wants to communicate. Whether it will be worth it to do so, only time will tell.