Watchmen is by far the best adaptation of the comic – but should fans watch it?

HBO’s take on the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic succeeds where all others have failed, but it is yet another DC project made without Moore’s approval

It’s been profoundly depressing to watch Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen mutate into a cottage industry for DC Entertainment. The comic book’s suspicion of power and its veneration of persistent kindness now seem an odd fit for DC, which appears to be hellbent on breaking down Watchmen into a sort of paste that it can smear on everything from prequels and sequels the creators never wanted, to a themed toaster (sold out years ago, sorry). The company’s repeated failure to wring anything entertaining or clever from Watchmen might forgivably strike the book’s author and artist, and their partisans, as somewhat gratifying.

But as Damon Lindelof’s HBO spinoff shows, a solid Watchmen adaptation is possible. The first series, which ended last week, still hasn’t been renewed for a second, probably because of Lindelof’s own reluctance to be part of it. But this adaptation succeeds by hitting many of the themes of the graphic novel while reproducing almost nothing of its plot – unlike Zack Snyder’s straightforward 2009 film, which slavishly reproduced the plot and misunderstood all the themes. Lindelof’s series features a prestige drama – a-show-within-a-show, in much the same way that the book contained a-comic-within-a-comic – that pays backhanded tribute to Snyder’s movie, with sneery dialogue, ostentatiously cartoonish costumes, lots of slo-mo and gouts of nearly fluorescent blood. By comparison, Lindelof’s world is muted, its emotional arcs elliptical, its careful and complex set-dressing deceptively drab. It manages to achieve something Moore and Gibbons did in the comic: thoroughly imagine a convincing science-fiction world in which daily life is very similar to our own, just slightly off centre.

From left: Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s 2009 film Watchmen.
Patrick Wilson (left) as Nite Owl II, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009). Photograph: Courtesy Warner Bros

Every writer and director who has taken on Watchmen has tried to make Moore’s dazzling script their own. This often fails, partly because Moore and Gibbons simply seem to be better read than many of their imitators; Watchmen is filled with literary allusions, from Edgar Allan Poe to Genesis. Also, for all that Watchmen draws inspiration from old superheroes, it is a wonderfully prescient book about the deceptions of the American dream. This is something that Lindelof’s show, with its depictions of the Ku Klux Klan and the Tulsa Race Massacre, seems to understand, too.

Perhaps that anti-authoritarian streak is why the book engenders such odd loyalties from devotees, and such antagonism to DC for allowing prequels, sequels and adaptations to happen without the consent of Moore and Gibbons. As I researched this article I did my best to avoid paying DC for the privilege; I bought the Before Watchmen prequels and the movie secondhand, and watched the TV show on someone else’s subscription. I did buy copies of Doomsday Clock, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s sequel series, in which Rorschach meets Batman, and I felt bad about it. The aggregated effect of all these ancillary works is one of sheer scale: the Snyder movie is almost three hours long and comes in multiple, even more punitive director’s cut editions; Doomsday Clock is just as long as Watchmen; and Before Watchmen runs to 37 issues.

For decades, there was a general feeling among artists and writers that it would be crossing a picket line to write more Watchmen comics. DC has seen to it that the rights from Watchmen – and other works – never revert to the creators, who are presumably still making the same royalties they started getting in 1988. For many years, a sense of responsibility for this extended fairly high up the organisational chart at DC Comics. But when the company became a subsidiary of DC Entertainment in 2009, much of the compunction around taking further Watchmen-branded products away from Moore and Gibbons, who would almost certainly veto them, vanished.

It did not vanish from the creative community. DC executives Jim Lee and Dan DiDio approached director and comic-book writer Kevin Smith about a prequels project in 2010. “I said, ‘Awesome, is Alan Moore doing it?’ and they were like: ‘Of course not,’” Smith told me two years later. “And I said, ‘Wow, you guys have a lot of balls.’” Smith knew the score: “All over the internet they’d be like, ‘First he made Cop Out and then he shit all over Alan Moore’s legacy!’” At the time, Lee and DiDio would only say: “It’s our responsibility as publishers to find new ways to keep all of our characters relevant.”

The Before Watchmen comics were roundly criticised for being soulless undertakings. Their most enthusiastic defender was J Michael Straczynski, who wrote the Nite Owl, Moloch, and Dr Manhattan prequels. He said Moore and Gibbons’s contract was simply what happened to young artists. “Did Alan Moore get screwed on his contract? Of course. Lots of people get screwed, but we still have Spider-Man and lots of other heroes.”

Straczynski was correct about the industry’s cruelty. In 1938, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster were paid $130 (about $2,300 today) for the rights to Superman. They later tried to sue DC for more money, and were simply fired. Siegel was at one point found sleeping on a park bench by a police officer; Shuster died deep in debt, though the then smaller, more shame-able DC eventually gave the men an annual stipend.

“Given that Superman had been rebranded as exemplifying Truth, Justice and the American Way,” Moore once wrote of the treatment of Seigel and Shuster, in an essay for Occupy Comics, “it seems ironic that the first two of these qualities had been so casually dispensed with, while to judge from the behaviour of the nascent comics industry it would appear that their interpretation of ‘the American Way’ had little to distinguish it from any other forms of spineless underhand deception, larceny or bullying.”

Lindelof was aware of the case against making his Watchmen TV show, and even asked Moore for his blessing – which he did not get. (Gibbons did approve, however.) His Watchmen, like the prequels and sequels commissioned by DC, contains true heroism, a moving call to individual action and a happy ending (give or take), thanks to the heroes who catch the bad guys at the end. By contrast, the book’s hapless costumed characters either fail to stop disaster or have a personal hand in bringing it about. If they learn a lesson, it’s that the only worthwhile pursuit is not justice but the anodyne, laborious pleasure of love and companionship. Lindelof’s show has a firm morality, but it is a morality consistent with the values of a corporate behemoth that is invested in selling Watchmen toasters.

HBO’s Watchmen, like all prestige television today, flatters the audience. It asks us to imagine a better world and then congratulates us for doing so. But it also addresses the primary problem of American moral ideals, which is the bone-deep conviction of our own innocence, and the commitment to preserving that innocence by ignoring the constant presence of white supremacy. That any show will do that work is valuable. But because anything derived from the Watchmen comic is serving the aim of DC Entertainment to profit from work created by a writer who strenuously objects to its exploitation, the decision to watch the show remains a moral question all fans will have to wrestle with when a second season is, inevitably, announced.


Sam Thielman

The GuardianTramp

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