Minutes to Midnight



Cover to the slipcase of 2005's Watchmen: The Absolute Edition

I've had some friends and family asking what Watchmen is all about, so I thought I'd offer a primer. The post looks long, but you can pick and choose from among the chunks of information.

Here's
a story overview from my review of the film:

Watchmen is set in a world where costumed crimefighters have been around since the 1940s, but true superheroes — or any beings with actual superhuman powers — were just the province of comic books until a lab accident created Dr. Manhattan in 1959. It opens with the murder of The Comedian, source of that now-iconic bloodstained smiley-face button, and plays out in late 1985 with flashbacks to the earlier days of such characters as the gadget-laden Nite Owl, sexy Silk Spectre, and disturbing, possibly disturbed, trenchcoat-wearing Rorschach. Masked adventurers have been outlawed in America since 1977 unless sanctioned by the government, which The Comedian was and Dr. Manhattan still is; his nearly godlike abilities are the main deterrent to nuclear war between the Soviet Union and a United States led by Richard Nixon in his fifth term as President.


Watchmen's 2008 international-edition softcover

Should you read the book first or just see the movie?

I was disappointed by the film on its own merits, not only as an adaptation of the book. Many fans and film critics have had the opposite opinion. (I'll link to some interesting reviews later. Right now
Watchmen has a middling 56% rating from the professionals on Metacritic, but gets a 7.8 out of 10 from users.)

In my own experience it's best to read a book well before or well after the movie made from it. If you want to read
Watchmen but are resolved to see the film while it's still in theaters, wait on it and just go to the movie, because the graphic novel is pretty complex. It's different enough from and broader enough than the film that reading it should still be a rewarding experience even if you more-or-less know where the plot is heading.

There is no group of superheroes called "Watchmen" in the graphic novel, by the way, only The Minutemen in the 1940s and The Crimebusters in the 1960s, but the film changes The Crimebusters to The Watchmen. Alan Moore took the title from the Latin phrase "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"; in English it literally translates to "Who will guard the guards themselves?" and is often rendered as "Who watches the watchmen?". It is taken from the Satires of Juvenal, although Moore only knew it as a familiar saying.

Left to right: Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl, and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach

You can visit Warner Bros. Entertainment's official website for the film for clips and all sorts of other promotional stuff. If you click the link its window will automatically expand to fill your screen and start playing video, so be prepared.

The Watchmen section of DC Comics' website lets you choose between pages dedicated to the graphic novel or the movie. On the latter you can watch trailers, see what DC's line of action figures looks like, or learn about the mobile game. On the former you can read the first chapter of the book free as a PDF file, check out product descriptions of the various collected editions, view some of Dave Gibbons' concept art, download Watchmen desktops for your computer screen, and sample so-called "motion comics" that manipulate the graphic novel's artwork to present it in extremely limited animation, with the captions and dialogue balloons narrated.


Cover to Watchmen #1 from 1986, designed and drawn by Dave Gibbons

Here's some background on
Watchmen's creation and publishing history:

Watchmen was first published as a miniseries of 12 standard comic books in 1986-87. It's written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, who worked closely with colorist John Higgins; all are from England.

The Moore & Gibbons team was already beloved by fans for a 1985 Superman story titled "For the Man Who Has Everything" when
Watchmen was hatched. And Moore had been making waves in the US with decidedly adult material in DC's Swamp Thing and Eclipse's Miracleman, which reprinted and then continued publication of his revival of the British strip Marvelman. His original Watchmen proposal featured characters that DC had recently acquired from a publisher called Charlton; DC executives nixed their use after realizing that some of the heroes don't survive the story and most of them are involved in sex or violence beyond a PG rating. (You don't really need to know this last part, but it's comic-book legend.)

Moore's meticulous script for the series was particularly noted for recurring visual motifs and the density of information that Gibbons packed into each panel, providing thematic echoes and foreshadowing to the observant reader. The covers of each issue actually served as the first panel of each story, an unusual practice, and each chapter of the main story was followed by supplementary text material taken from
Watchmen's fictional world — excerpts from the first Nite Owl's memoir, Under the Hood; Rorschach's psychiatric evaluation; an article on the pirate comic book Tales of the Black Freighter, which is seen in the story.

DC Comics collected
Watchmen as a trade paperback in 1987, and sister company Warner Books released a nearly identical edition with a different cover to mass-market bookstores at the same time. Later that year, Graphitti Designs issued a limited-edition hardcover that came slipcased with a companion volume reprinting the original proposal and concept art. Watchmen won a Hugo Award, recognizing excellence in science fiction, in the one-time-only Other Forms category in 1988. It was the lone graphic novel on Time's 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923, the year the magazine was founded.


Cover to DC Comics' original 1987 softcover collection and the cover to current printings

The
in-print editions of Watchmen include a $19.99 US softcover, a $19.99 international softcover, a $39.99 hardcover with recolored pages and sketch section, and the $75.00 Absolute Edition oversized hardcover with copious supplementary material. Apparently the international edition's cover has a group shot because the smiley-face design is a registered trademark overseas, but you can look up that story on your own. (The US softcover's cover is zoomed in even more tightly on the smiley-face button than is the title page to the first chapter, which was originally the cover of the first comic-book issue. This continues the motif of each issue's cover, or each chapter's title page in the collected editions, acting as the first panel of that chapter, with the top-left panel on the first interior/chapter page pulling out from the cover/title-page image slightly. The first DC softcovers had a different cover image, looking out at the city skyline through a broken, bloodied window, the smiley-face button suspended in midair as, presumably, The Comedian falls below it out of the frame.)


Dave Gibbons' cover to his 2008 Titan Books release Watching the Watchmen

Here's an extremely brief look at
Watchmen's aftermath:

Watchmen and Frank Miller's 1986 miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight influenced superhero comic books to a considerable degree, bringing more nihilistic explorations of the genre and a turn towards darker, more violent stories in general without any purpose.

Moore and DC Comics have had periodic, substantial arguments over licensing and copyright ownership throughout the 20-plus years since Watchmen first saw print, and subsequent partnerships between them have not ended happily. When the film of V for Vendetta was released in 2005, Moore asked that his name be removed from it and all promotional material, so the credits simply read "based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd". He did the same for this year's Watchmen film and signed his share of any compensation over to co-creator/illustrator Gibbons. Some devotees of Moore have refused to see the film due to his disputes with DC and his general disdain of Hollywood. The movies From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were also adapted from his indescribably superior work with artists Eddie Campbell and Kevin O'Neill, respectively.

Gibbons has continued to freelance for DC as both a writer and an artist, and its Vertigo imprint published his creator-owned graphic novel The Originals in 2004. He worked as a creative consultant on the film and merchandising, and late last year Titan Books published Watching the Watchmen, in which Gibbons discusses Watchmen's creation and provides sketches and other rare or unpublished material from his personal archives.


Trade dress for the Tales of the Black Freighter and Watchmen motion-comics DVDs

There exists
supplementary material to the film of which you may not be aware, and which doesn't really impact the viewing of the movie on its own. As mentioned earlier, a pirate comic book called Tales of the Black Freighter exists in Watchmen's reality; not only is it discussed within the story and in one of the interstitial text pieces, but captions, panels, or whole pages of it are shown periodically within the story itself. You might think I'm about to tell you that a tie-in comic book was produced to accompany the movie, but no. For some reason, an animated film was made of it instead, and it's being released straight to DVD on March 24th. On the same disc is Under the Hood, a pseudo-documentary for which the actors of the Watchmen movie were interviewed in character. The Watchmen motion comics are already available on DVD or as downloads from ITunes.

Oh, don't forget about the
coffee.

Watchmen and related characters are trademarks of DC Comics. Movie images copyright 2009 Warner Bros. Entertainment. Artwork copyright 1986, 1987, 2005, 2008 DC Comics.

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