Book review: Watchmen / The Dark Knight Returns by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons / Frank Miller & Lynn Varley


the cover of the book the cover of the book

If these were turned into movies by people who actually gave a crap about them, then they'd make pretty good films but still probably wouldn't hold up to multiple viewings the way the comics do.

Cover

Unusually, being comic book collections, both titles opt for minimal graphics with maximum impact. Watchmen uses dense yellow-on-black title text and the illustration, from first-person, of a big-city skyline through a smashed skyscraper window. It's the image that begins the story, in fact - each individual issue's cover also functions as the first frame of that chapter. The rear cover is an extreme close-up of a smiley-face badge with blood on it. I suspect that Gibbons and Moore wanted this image (which recurs in the story) to resonate with the readership, but a million T-shirts defacing the little yellow bastard were right around the corner, and from today's perspective the cover is probably the more iconic piece of design.

The Dark Knight Returns uses a less complex, but more striking, image: Batman, mid-leap, rendered in silhouette by a bolt of lightning in the sky behind him. The text is Art Deco, a style which seems to suit the Batman character (see the Gotham of Burton's film) if not the actual art style of this specific book.

Plot

After watching Heath Ledger kick a frankly surprising amount of ass in The Dark Knight Returns (a film which owes the comic nothing more than a title and two main characters), then seeing the seductively impressive Watchmen movie a couple of times, I thought I'd take another look at two of the most acclaimed graphic novels to date.

Both were created in 1986, and both take place in dystopian near-future societies. Both also changed the face of comics forever: DKR with Miller's clever vision of Batman as a middle-aged man coming out of retirement because his psychological issues insist on it, and Watchmen, as the most sophisticated examination of 'superheroes' in a real-world context, e.g. as the sort of men and women who would dress up in strange costumes to 'fight crime,' and the way the world would view their activities - by disbanding them, in fact, a twist later borrowed by The Incredibles, along with the idea of a mysterious entity bumping off retired vigilantes.

(If you'll indulge a personal note, another thing these books share is their impact on the publishing world. They briefly mainstreamed the concept of 'graphic novels,' spreading them through bookshops across the western world, lo, even into the dustiest provincial outposts. Thus, for a few years, in my little town, I could buy real, well-bound comic anthologies off a shelf, and for that I say thankyou Misters Miller and Moore. Sorry I didn't buy your comics for a decade because the artwork wasn't digital!)

The Good

Moore is the most famous comic writer currently working, which, in a field dominated by artists, is a backhanded tribute/blessing/curse. If you've never heard of him, he wrote the comics which became the films League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, V For Vendetta, and Watchmen. Moore is a talented writer and knows it, which makes it all the more miraculous that, after "LXG", he ever let anyone with a camera NEAR his work again. I can only assume he's been given a gold-plated Lear jet or else sold the rights to Watchmen twenty years ago after eight pints of lager. Either way, he insisted on having his name removed from the titles to the film, and not without justification (have you SEEN League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?). Which is a bit ironic, really, because the Watchmen movie is by far the most respectful and faithful adaptations of his work so far.

Personally, I think the League collections are Moore's most enjoyable comics; they achieve a composite effect possible only in the medium, thus raising the whole field in a giant clean-and-jerk. Even if you found a director who had the vision to recreate it on film, you'd never find a producer who would trust his audience's intelligence the way Moore does.

Nonetheless, the more acclaimed Watchmen is an extraordinary piece of storytelling, and, before the LXG books, Moore specifically created it to show what comics can do that films and novels can't. Moore creates a technologically advanced but politically dangerous parallel present(-ish) where Nixon still rules the US, impending nuclear conflict darkens every news bulletin, and electric airships hover over the skyline. This technological advancement was gained from one man, the only true superhero on Earth - a scientific freak called Mr. Neutron. Sorry, that was Graham Chapman in shoulder pads. I mean Dr. Manhattan.

Moore's vision of a parallel Earth in Watchmen is a consciously sophisticated construction, as are the stories which takes place within it (more than you can say for the Thatcher-squared police state of V For Vendetta - if you'll forgive me, Watchmen is the Brave New World to V's 1984). There is foreshadowing, metaphor, satire, symbolism, and meta-narrative. There are themes of paranoia, the basic nature of humanity, and the way in which the former degrades the latter. Moore may be a pessimist, but his Vonnegutian view of society's future is a complex one, balanced and qualified by the plot, and far above the reflexive adolescent sneer of a thousand narratives which followed (sneering along just fine today, in fact, in Warren Ellis' work, among a lot of other stuff which is worse, e.g. Mark Millar). Moore's heroes are humans first and costumed crime-fighters a distant, DISTANT second. Most of them are damaged goods but, again, unlike in much of what followed, even the worst of them have empathetic elements to their identifiable emotions and three-dimensional personalities.

Dave Gibbons is an accomplished artist from the old school of superhero comics. Simply put, he's a fantastic illustrator and draftsman - his perspective and proportion are impeccable, his faces are realistic and instantly identifiable from panel to panel, his hard shadows are exemplary, and he knows exactly how much detail to employ for maximum effect. He also works wonders with Watchmen's 9-panel-per-page format, using a clean, rhythmic flow of identically-sized panels to create a cinematic "window" through which we watch the action. If this sounds boring, I can tell you that you soon forget about it entirely, which is exactly what's mean to happen. Gibbons may not have the flash and dazzle of modern artists, but his art is undeniably effective and never wrestles the narrative. Called on to draw everything from muscled comic standard-bys to an entire future society, complex human emotion and the surface of Mars, it is extremely difficult to imagine another comic artist who could have pulled it off with the same care and consistency. Certainly your average contemporary digital whizz kid would varnish the story with a dense surface gloss and ruin its ability to show the sinew beneath the skin beneath the costumes.

Frank Miller's Batman book, by contrast, is much closer in look and feel to the legion of imitators these graphic novels inspired. This is partly because The Dark Knight Returns is less sophisticated than Watchmen. TDKR spotlights a traditional crim-punchin' protagonist, and the narrative cord is less of a braid and more of a live wire. Generally, though, Miller's work trained more imitators through its still-impressive one-two impact of body-blow narrative and uppercut art. We open to page one and pow, Miller's drawing and writing lay into both the audience and each other. We're introduced to Bruce Wayne through a car-racing sequence that uses tiny, screen-shaped frames (a technique Miller employs for "News Bulletins" throughout the book) - we can barely see what's going on (especially if we're unfamiliar with Miller's needle-and-Texta delineations) but we hardly need to, because the abbreviated bass-line of Bruce's thoughts has thumped into our minds and set pulses bouncing. This style owes much to Chandler and film noir narrative - Miller's Sin City is nothing more than a nitro-boosted homage - but Miller deserves credit for popularising its use in superhero comics. Combined with his ultra-kinetic, high-contrast art and angry, lined, brutal old Batman, it's irresistible.

Yes, Miller re-vivified Batman and the Joker with a dark energy so infectious that the highly non-superheroic Tim Burton was inspired to reinvent the character on film. Sadly (or not, if you like comics more than the frequently awful films they inspire) Miller's vision of Batman was such a unique combination of empathy, brutality, high-tech and plank-with-nails-in that, five films on, they're only now approaching its quality on screen. Ledger's Joker was spot on (if less lethal) but Bale's Batman is cold, controlled and insular next to Miller's, not to mention at least fifteen years too young. And, of course, comics have other advantages over film - Superman, Robin, and Ronald Reagan all make relevant, non-cameo appearances in TDKR, and there's room for a lot of gradually shaded nationalistic and metropolitan atmosphere (nuclear tensions and a heatwave, for instance) which film can't usually make room for.

Though it lacks the subtlety, subtextual density and detail of Watchmen, Miller's The Dark Knight Returns created a smouldering mood every bit as effective as Moore's - demonstrated, if nothing else, by the legions it drove to copy it, and their consequent lack of success.

The Bad

Well, neither book's art can hold up against the computer-coloured slickness of today's superhero comics. You could argue that Miller's art is unique and couldn't be topped without making an orange into an apple, but Gibbons' is a tad harder to defend. This is not entirely the artist's fault - Watchmen's comic chapters were printed with old-fashioned techniques that use big, non-blending areas of ink, making any airbrush-style gradation impossible. Also, the inks themselves have a garish colour range which blends badly and is hardly an aid to subtlety - at worst it looks like a cellophane collage overlaying the tight black linework. It must be said, too, that while Gibbons' anatomy and composition are beyond reproof, he isn't much of a graphic designer. This wouldn't matter so much in a normal superhero book - his retro costume designs actually suit the story - but Moore is also asking him to visualise an entire parallel future where cars run on electricity and float on air. Ridley Scott used an entire team of artists to concoct his Bladerunner streetscapes; it's lot to ask one man to do alone. Gibbons does seem to regard this aspect of his art as the least intriguing, however. Transmetropolitan's Darick Robertson can't visualise high-tech either, but at least he has fun drawing the ads - there's a recurring perfume advertisement in Watchmen which serves as a symbol/foreshadowing echo device, but it's a jarring recurrence to the eye because the perfume bottle at its centre is an undeniably crappy piece of design. Nothing horrendous, but it's like in Elephant, where Lars Von Trier uses, as a restart point, that scene with the really mediocre acting which doesn't get any better after you've seen it four times. This visual stuff is a complex skillset - hundreds of different disciplines packed into "illustration" alone, and being gifted at one aspect is no guarantee of another.

Miller, unfairly, is gifted at writing AND drawing. This gives him the ability to cheat, in fact: he can write his way clear of a lacklustre layout, and push a hacky dialogue bubble into the background with a boffo splash page. Ideally, however, this wouldn't be necessary, and it's sometimes hard to imagine that an author or writer would put up with this kind of sloppiness from vice versa. The fact that they apparently DO, on a daily basis, does not let Miller off the hook. He DOES know better and should've been taking every possible advantage of the fact that he could write and draw for himself and was getting paid to do so. I'm grateful he used the opportunities as well as he did, however (and if you want to see what REALLY lazy, self-indulgent art looks like, have a look at Dark Knight 2, from 15 years on.)

On the whole, Miller's art holds up better than Gibbons'. Like, say, Tron, the style as a whole is so effective and idiosyncratic that it's time-proof. The combination of Miller's trademark angular linework, dense shadows, flat, clean eighties colours, and Lynn Varley's (I think) watercolour pencil detail is odd, but effective. There's a lot of white space, but the drama of Miller's iconic layout demands it. In addition, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of, TDKR's white space looks more modern than Watchmen's colour-crammed pages.

On the other hand, Miller's writing hasn't worn as well as Moore's, and this can't be wholly blamed on the turgid internal monologues every hero was spouting for a decade after TDKR. If you strip back the intensity of Miller's monologues and art, then you're left with, at worst, a straight-line superhero story that has huge rusty bolts poking out the sides. The character of Batman is what holds TDKR together, and, though Miller reinvents him, he didn't make him up. Moore builds better characters even though he's got far more ground to cover AND his story is as much about humanity in general as it is about individual crusades.

Alright, enough comparisons. They're both great. TDKR will play better with artists and film buffs, but Watchmen will impress writers and readers, plus its old-school aesthetic helps it take comic novices and casual readers by surprise to this day.

What I learned

I learned the main reason why comic-to-screen translations have a history you could call "chequered" only if you commonly play checkers using human feces as the pieces and the board. Which is this: Comics may LOOK like a nice neat storyboard with the screenplay squished into handy ellipses, but, though deficient to film in many ways, are nonetheless a free-standing art form, and, at their best, no more easily converted to celluloid than a novel. For instance, if we think of film from the point of view of editing, e.g. a discipline with its own Oscar and everything, then, in a comic, the space between EVERY SINGLE PANEL is an "edit", with a vast array of possibilities, many impossible on a given film.

That in 1986, despite Ronald Reagan, ALF and hilarious shoulder pads, the future apparently looked pretty bleak.




In short

Title: Watchmen / The Dark Knight Returns
Author: Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons / Frank Miller & Lynn Varley
Publisher: DC Comics
ISBN: 978-1401219260 / 978-1563893421
Year published: 1986
Pages: 436 / 224
Genre(s): Fiction, Graphic novel