Shadows and masks– thoughts on Watchmen

Note:  There may be spoilers in this review of both the comic and the movie of Watchmen.  I’ve tried to keep the events of both stories general and avoid specific spoilers.

Remember sleepovers from when you were a kid?

Paul, my best friend growing up, and I never went to the same schools so sleepovers were some of the only times that we had together.  Somehow, independently of each other, we both discovered comics at a young age and that kept us together.  We used to have sleep overs with a couple of other friends where we’d lug our comic collections (back in the days when they could fit into one or two brown paper bags) over to the others house and sit up all night haggling over books.  This was before we had any idea of the monetary value of books but we still had some idea of the intrinsic value of them.  We knew what those stories meant to us and how much we wanted what someone else had.  As we grew older and learned about price guides and comic shops, we stopped trading but spent a lot of time and money discovering more new and different comics.

One of the last sleepovers I can vividly remember was during high school, probably our junior year.  It was a Friday night and somehow or other, we had hit the comic shop before heading over to his house to hang out, read some comics and probably watch a movie or three for the night.  In the stash I had gotten from the comic shop that day was Watchmen #12 and it was the first thing that I read that night.  In issue #11, we saw the destruction that one man unleashed on New York but we didn’t know why.  Why did the events of #11 and the whole series have to happen and what did they mean.  #12 answered those questions; wrapping up the whole series but opening up a whole can of moral and philosophical questions in my mind. The book hit me hard that night as I tried to wrap my head around Alan Moore’s ideas and theories.  Was what he wrote the only thing that the world could to find some kind of peace?  As a society and as humanity, how big were the sacrifices that we had to make?  And how easily could those sacrifices fall apart?  For the past 22 years, I’ve regularly grabbed my copy of Watchmen off of the bookshelf, flipping through it and remembering those questions that my 17 year old self had.  And I still don’t have the answers.

Zach Snyder’s Watchmen movie takes 12 issues and boils it down into a 2 hour and 40 minute movie so of course there’s going to be things left out.  In any kind of movie adaptation, whether it’s a novel, a comic book or even another movie, we have to accept that the film maker has his own constraints and choices to make of what stays in, what gets left out and what needs to be added.  Giant alien squids become more accusatory master plans, the pirate story gets relegated to a supplemental DVD, small bars at Gila Flats get tossed out completely while the sex still remains hot and heavy about Nite Owl’s airship.  These are all parts of Snyder’s choices about movie making.  And it is these choices that a lot of us will be arguing about probably for the rest of the year.

There has always been one image in the comic book that has a strong impact on me that got downplayed in the movie– the graffiti Hiroshima lovers.  Showing up explicitly for the first time in the 5th issue, these lovers are spray painted in the doorway for the Knot-tops, a gang/movement seen through out the story.  Rorschach observes them from his table at the Gunga Diner while waiting for information from Moloch.  These shadow lovers play into the cold war sensibility of the comics, reminding us of the seeming inevitability of nuclear devastation while reminding us of just how alone and unloved we and the characters we’re reading about are.  Rorschach thinks that they make a doorway look haunted.  These painted lovers show up a few more times on the New York streets but we see their image many more times in the book.  For all of the lip service that Synder’s movie pays to the Cold War, this simple image by Dave Gibbons drives the fear and isolation that existed during the 70s and 80s home.  While they have been painted by a gang, these lovers could be messages from the past or a grim prophesy of the future.  Their absence is notable in the film as an example of Snyder’s lack of subtlety.

When reviewing the book, you can notice that this image of a lovers sexual embrace pops up as early as issue #2 in a Tijuana bible that an aged Sally Jupiter shows to her daughter Laurie.  The Tijuana bible shows Jupiter and some unnamed schlub as the lovers in a tawdry and salacious affair.  It’s actually a simple cartoon that Jupiter gladly accepts as an artifact of an older time but how odd is it that she proudly displays it to her daughter, expecting Laurie to accept it as easily as she did?  Snyder keeps the scene from #2 in the movie but for some odd reason, totally discards the followup scene in #12 where Jupiter gives the comic to Dan (Laurie’s new lover) as a gift which he gladly accepts.  He actually owned a copy of it once back when he was a kid.  The lovers show up again, bringing some joy and more discomfort to those who view them.

The harshest image of the lovers may explain some of Rorschach’s distaste for them.  In Chapter 6, when he’s having to explain his life to the prison psychologist, the lovers become his mother and a nameless john.  The Hiroshima lovers in a New York doorway become his mother, selling her body and sex for money.  A young Rorschach caught his mother in the act, prompting her to smack him and yell, “I shoulda had the abortion!”  The line as delivered in the movie is melodramatic and over the top but it speaks to the damage done to him by the act of sex.  Here the lovers also become shadows of Rorschach and his mother, in a weird Oedipal complex as she beats him.

And then the lovers are present at the end, in issue #11, but this time they’re not lovers but just two people trying to escape destruction.  The movie drops the whole subplot about the news vendor and the ever-present kid reading pirate comics and it loses this one moment where the book isn’t about super powers or super heroes but about two people.  New York is being destroyed and the two men are caught in the blast.  In a great visual trick, Gibbons morphs the shadow lovers into the blood splotched shape of the Comedians badge from the first issue, visually tying everything together.  For 11 issues, the shape of the Hiroshima lovers have been disturbing, ugly and destructive.  They’ve been the ever present reminder of the nuclear threat that Moore and Gibbons have been playing off for the entire book.

In issue #12, after all the destruction when the “heroes” realized that they’ve won as much as they lost, Moore and Gibbons include this poolside scene, with Nite Owl and Silk Spectre as the lovers.  The ugliness off the shadow lovers is gone as we see two people connect.  Over on Twitter, Ty asked me what I thought of Watchmen and I answered that I didn’t find the ending of the movie as hopeful and healing as the end of the comic.  Snyder’s exclusion of this scene goes a long way towards that.  In many ways, the movie ends and it feels like the characters haven’t learned anything or haven’t progressed as well.  While in the comic this may be another sex scene, compare and contrast this to the sex scene Snyder gave us on the Owl Ship.  That scene was all about the fire and lust brought about by action and danger.  This last scene in the comic is more tender and shows two people finding each other in all of the ugliness that we’ve seen the Hiroshima lovers in.

In a classic Watchmen transition, Moore and Gibbons go from the pool-side scene of the lovers to this image of Rorschach, with the lovers now displayed on his mask.  This is a powerful scene, where Rorschach has to decide what his next move is– to reveal the cause of the destruction or accept the evil that has been done in the name of the greater good.  The tenderness of Nite Owl and Laurie contrasts the cheapness and meanness of Rorschach’s mother and that tension is literally playing out on his face in this one image.

Are the Hiroshima lovers good or evil?  Are they cheap or beautiful?  And what do they say about those of us watching them voyeuristically?  Moore and Gibbons planted them everywhere so you can’t miss them.

“Nothing ends, Adrian.  Nothing ever ends.”

Watching the movie took me back to that night in 1987, as I finished Watchmen #12 and contemplated what it meant.  A day or two after seeing the movie, I’m still not sure what to make of Snyder’s decisions or my own reaction to the movie.  Is it the comic book?  No, of course it isn’t.  As shown by the Hiroshima lovers, Snyder misses out on the small things that make Moore and Gibbons story truly unique.  What’s Snyder saying about the nature and misuses of power? What’s he saying about love and death and the thin line between them?  All I know is that next year, I’ll probably read the comic book again, looking for more clues.  And I’ll probably watch the movie as well and do the exact same thing.  Maybe in another 22 years, I’ll have more answers on what both of them mean.

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1 comment for “Shadows and masks– thoughts on Watchmen

  1. March 9, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Wow, Scott. Awesome reflection here, man. Well done!


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