Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Winding the Watch

I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but I've started reading "Watchmen" again, in preparation for the film's release this weekend. I hope to polish off the second excerpt of "Behind the Mask" tonight before I go to sleep. My position on the movie has changed considerably since it was first announced some time ago. Rumors have abounded about a film adaptation since before I started reading comics, though obviously they've been a bit more substantial in recent months. After the first read-through, I was convinced that the story was unfilmable, and other Alan Moore adaptations (JLU's "For the Man Who Has Everything" excepted) have only cemented that opinion. Despite all that this film had going against it in my mind, from the director of "300" to the track record of Alan Moore movies, the trailers have made me really hopeful that it'll actually be good.

They've also made me really hopeful that the movie won't be quite so full as sudden slow-motion shots as the trailers are. I'm hopeful, but I'm prepared for disappointment. And, I guess so I'll be really prepared for that disappointment, I've cracked open my giant and gorgeous Absolute Watchmen (which, thanks to a combination of coupons and rewards dollars, I got very cheap at Borders some months back) to review the story before the weekend. I even went out today to pick up the "Tales of the Black Freighter" DVD, only to find out that it's not coming out for a couple of weeks yet. Fine by me: "Wonder Woman" was pricey enough.

So, this is the third time I've read the book. The first was during or just after my senior year of high school. That first time, I thought the book was good, but vastly overrated. I "got it," but didn't find it especially brilliant. I liked it more the second time through, which was still several years back. This time around, I feel like I'm noticing a lot of the little nuances that were lost on me before.

Take, for instance, Rorschach. I don't think I ever quite noticed how disturbed the man really is, which makes it all the more disturbing and darkly humorous the way modern writers seem to give Batman the same sort of narrative. Much of what Rorschach has written so far reads like a Frank Miller internal monologue, except Miller rarely seems to use them to suggest that the character is unhinged. I especially like the bit where he obliviously wonders why so few of his colleagues have managed to get away without major personality disorders.

The bit in the bar, where he breaks a patron's fingers, once read to me as a demonstration of his dedication and mercilessness; now I see it for what (I think) it is--a demonstration of his insanity. The guy clearly didn't know anything, clearly wasn't involved, and was clearly singled out for making a rude remark. Rorschach was playing the scene as though he were in a typical comic book setting, in which such typical comic book interrogation would inevitably elicit typical comic book confessions. But he wasn't in such a scene, he was in a bar full of people completely ignorant of the crime in question. This wasn't the Penguin's night club, full of ne'er-do-wells; this wasn't Matches Malone infiltrating Rupert Thorne's dock workers; this was one masked nut walking into a random seedy bar and asking basically nonsensical questions. He might as well have been shouting "Kenneth, what is the frequency?"

I'm paying more attention to the recurring motifs and the characters' interactions this time around as well. There's a real richness to the detail here, and it's the sort of thing that I've really liked in Alex Ross's work. I've been trying to pour over every panel with a little more attention than I normally give to a comic, trying to soak everything in.

And that's the real value of "Watchmen," at least this time around. It's a book that rewards patient and thorough reading. If you read it like a normal comic book, you're going to be disappointed. The characters, the plot, even the setting has a different sort of structure and format than what you'd normally get, and that's not necessarily apparent on the sort of quick read-through that one might do as a high school senior.

I'll probably be posting more as I read. Feel free to leave your own thoughts.


Dave said...

I really like your commentary on Rorschach's bar scene. It hits on one of the great aspect of Watchmen that I failed to appreciate for awhile - there are a few scenes like that which seem unremarkable unless you take a step back and look at them as though you weren't an experienced comic reader used to suspending his disbelief. Like the idea that a middle aged man in an owl costume and his deranged friend could stop an elaborate plot hatched by a rich and powerful genius simply by trekking down to the Antarctic in a blimp.

Don said...

Last time I reread it (last fall), I did get more out of it than the first time my freshman year of college. The first time I, like you, thought it was a bit overrated, but still enjoyed it. The second time, after a few years of lit classes and general growing up, I really got more of what was going on, and the whole thing made more sense and seemed more significant.

But I still finished the book last fall with a small sense of overratedness. It wasn't the plot, the characters, the depth, or the deconstruction that bothered me, though. It was The Black Freighter. The first time through I didn't really get the Freighter bits. The second time through I got them. I really got them, because they're so heavy and obvious. For a book that mostly reads smoothly, if densely, the Freighter parts struck me as hamhanded and unnecessary. I had a hard time believing that the in-world comic could be such an accurate metaphorical reflection of the in-world events (and sometimes even the dialogue of the people reading it) and every time the Freighter came up, I was pulled out of the story.

Tom Foss said...

It wasn't the plot, the characters, the depth, or the deconstruction that bothered me, though. It was The Black Freighter.

Yeah, if anything broke the suspension of disbelief for me, it was the Black Freighter segments. Sure, I liked them, and sure, I liked the idea of having them mirror what was going on in the surrounding events, but it was a device that really belonged in a different book.

While some of the parallels might be explained away as intentional or subconscious (since we know that Veidt had read the comics and that they stuck with him enough to influence his dreams), it really doesn't go far enough to provide an explanation of why men-on-the-street are giving a panel-by-panel quasi-reenactment.

On the other hand, it could be that this is what Bernard is seeing, reading the books and seeing/hearing parallels in the world around him, and the presentation is just the book's way of forcing us into that point of view, but even that's a bit of a stretch. Especially since Bernard didn't seem all that aware of either the comic's content or the world around him.

And I'm just kind of pulling the reader's name out of memory. Could be entirely wrong on that.