Re-Reading Watchmen: Issue #1

Fri, December 19th, 2008 at 10:07am PST | Updated: December 19th, 2008 at 6:01pm

Comic Books
Atom Freeman & Carr D'Angelo, Guest Writers

Retailers Carr D'Angelo and Atom! Freeman will re-read and review one chapter of "Watchmen" each week until Zack Snyder's film adaptation debuts in March
RETURN TO THE OWL-CAVE: RE-READING WATCHMEN 20 YEARS LATER

Sometimes a work of fiction defines you. No matter when you read that particular story, or what mood you were in before you picked it up, your life and the way you see the world will never be the same again.

If you take the medium of comics seriously, it’s not a question of if you’ll read that book, but when. What you take from the experience will define to some extent everything you read after.

Alan Moore and David Gibbons’s post-modern superhero classic “Watchmen” is just such a book. Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels, this groundbreaking work has shaped the world of comics ever since the publication of its first issue in 1986, recently re-released by DC Comics in a $1.50 commemorative edition.

You’ll have to look far and wide to find two people who take comics more seriously than retailers Carr D’Angelo and Atom! Freeman. Between the two, they’ve read tens of thousands of comics. Between their respective California stores (Earth-2 of Sherman Oaks and Brave New World of Santa Clarita), they’ve pitched and sold hundreds of thousands of comics. Both shops have won the prestigious Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award, and Freeman was a judge for 2007 Eisner awards.

Now, the two return to the classic Moore/Gibbons work and try to look at it with fresh eyes. Each week until the release of the Warner Bros. film adaptation in March 2009, D’Angelo and Freeman will review one chapter with a new perspective. Along the way, they may get some help from a friend or two.

Story continues below

CHAPTER ONE: “AT MIDNIGHT, ALL THE AGENTS…”

CARR: My relationship with comics has often been like Michael Corleone's relationship with the family business: "Every time I try to get out, they keep pulling me back in." The first time I was ready to leave comics was probably in my last year of college. Getting ready for the "real world" seemed as good a time as any to leave the fantasy worlds of Gotham City and the Negative Zone behind. But then I picked up “Swamp Thing” #21. It was "The Anatomy Lesson, " written by Alan Moore, and it was like no other comic book I had read. I re-enlisted in the comic book army and in the next few years devoured everything written by Alan Moore.

From the minute I first heard about “Watchmen” I couldn't wait for it. The publication schedule for this book may have been the longest 15 months of my life. It was an obsession then but now I am reading the book in the context what it is today: the "best-seller" that has been adapted into a major motion picture. It was hard to read the first chapter without shots of the trailer popping into my head or seeing how a director would turn these comic book pages into storyboards and production designs.

ATOM: I'm right there with you. It's been so long since I read this issue to issue, that I flip-flop from the teenager I was who read this the first time to the old man who has read way too many comics. But what strikes me first about returning to “Watchmen” after 20 years or so is that it reads simultaneously as dated and innovative. The script is sharp and dead-on but the 9-panel grids and coloring make it obvious that this wasn't produced in the last decade or two. That’s not to take anything away from Gibbons’ work; the linework and figures are just as sophisticated as the day they were drawn. But next to maybe a cover price, nothing dates a comic more than the page layouts and color.

CARR: Since you mention the coloring, it makes me wonder what version you're reading? An old trade paperback or the original issues are definitely dated in their imperfect color presentation. I am reading the Absolute version, which has beautiful re-mastered coloring by John Higgins, and which looks more like what Dave Gibbons wanted, and those separations are also what's in the new TPB and hardcover editions we've been selling.

ATOM: Then I'll just interject and say that I'm reading the current “American” trade paperback. I wanted to just take in the work for what it was the first time we read it and knew that I wouldn't be able to resist flipping back and forth between the story and the back matter. Yes, the colors are leaps and bounds above the coloring on the original issues, but the flatness of the color is something you just don't see today. Plus, those damn sugar cubes are still green the first time we see them and not when Rorschach is popping them. And since we're both retailers, I doubt you'll have a problem with me listing the versions (along with their Diamond order codes and ISBNs) that are currently on our shelves and those of every smart comics retailer.

FEB058406 0930289234 WATCHMEN TP, 19.99 (the one I'm reading)

JUL080172 1401219268 WATCHMEN HC, 39.99

JUL088045 1401222668 WATCHMEN TP INTERNATIONAL EDITION, 19.99

JUL080174 1401207138 WATCHMEN THE ABSOLUTE EDITION HC, 75.00 (the one fancy boy Carr is reading)

Okay, commercial over. You were saying?

CARR: Not being fancy. The big pages are just easier to read with me bi-focals. While I agree there is a dated quality to the design--and remember, in 1986 it was not a period piece the way the movie will be--I believe that Moore and Gibbons intended that "Watchmen" looked like the superhero comic books it was commenting on. That said, the 9-panel grid was clearly a deconstructionist choice that focused the reader on the storytelling. It's also interesting to see the character-defining moments Moore/Gibbons chose to break the grids for: our first look at Rorschach in action, a looming Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias turning his back on superheroics and that sad, sad shot of Dan Dreiberg in his basement. That scene still gets me and Dreiberg is my favorite character. I see him as the protagonist of the story.

ATOM: I did mean to mention that I had forgotten how powerful the 9-panel grid was when it gets broken for effect. I can't imagine any overworked, forced perspective splash page by any artist working today being as powerful as that shot on the stairs. Also, I had forgotten who the real Dan Dreiberg was.

CARR: I presume you're referring to the fact that "DanDreiberg" is my id on the various Delphi retailer forums we post on? Yeah. When I signed up in my pre-retailer days, I thought it was like CB handles and you didn't use your real name and picked a semi-obscure secret identity. It's so confusing some people still call me "Dan" when posting to me.

Re-visiting the work with some foreknowledge of where the story goes makes the opening pages oddly chilling. The answer to one of the story's central mysteries is right there on the first page. It seems so obvious now, but it certainly isn't on the first reading. Opening with the two cops investigating Blake's murder is such a familiar scene now due to all the police procedurals and "Law & Order" spin-offs we've seen, but in retrospect, I am reading this as more of a Shakespearean opening. It's the sentinels talking about the death of Hamlet's father, the three witches forecasting the fate of Macbeth, the bit players setting the stage for the grand tragedy destined to unfold.

ATOM: Did you ever read the published scripts for “From Hell?” I wanna say it was Rick Veitch who was publishing them, and he only got the first batch out before some rights issue or other forced him to stop and the one that he did publish went out of print. One thing I remember was the page-and-a-half that Moore dedicated to describing the sounds and smells that the boy was experiencing as he performed his forest floor animal autopsy. Every time someone would mention how bad Rorschach smells, it made me wonder if Gibbons was made to read descriptions of that smell each time to get him to put just the right look on the face of the smeller.

CARR: The Absolute edition has some script pages, as does the "Watching the Watchmen" book that just came out. The script for the 26-page first issue was 101 pages of single-spaced type. I bet there's something about the smells in there. I feel like I was cheating on our chapter-a-week plan by jumping to the extras in the back, but Moore's wordiness is really about inspiring the artist to turn abstract sensory ideas into drawings that would lead the reader to the desired perception.

ATOM: Moore says he developed that style to work around the fact that when he was writing for “2000AD.” He never knew what artist would get assigned the story, so he wanted to make certain that whomever it turned out to be was prepared to do his script justice.

You make an excellent point about his using classical techniques to tell the story. I wonder how many people read this for the first time recently and said, “They ripped off ‘Rising Stars!’”

CARR: I've heard similar reactions from people who have read so many things that "Watchmen" influenced before they read "Watchmen." It can affect your appreciation of the original. I watched so many sit-coms in the '70s, I used to hate "I Love Lucy." It wasn't until I realized she was the first one to get locked in the freezer or get outpaced by a conveyor belt that I was able to laugh.

When “Watchmen” #1 came out in 1986, it did not look like other comics. For one thing, there were no sound effects or thought balloons, which were a staple of contemporary bestsellers like “X-Men” and “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” The only captions are the first-person narration of Rorschach's journal; this was a departure for Moore, who was famous for his colorful captions in “Swamp Thing.” Some of Rorschach's diary is leftover from that kind of writing, like, "I shall go and tell the indestructible man that someone plans to murder him."

The storytelling is cinematic in that you really have to glean the necessary plot info from the pictures. Signs tell you that you're at Mason's Auto Repair. You have to figure out what Rorschach is measuring with that coat hanger because there's no thought balloon that reads, "Hurm, the closet is smaller on the inside than the outside. I wonder if there's some sort of secret--ah, there it is!" Frank Miller was re-introducing some of this Eisner-esque approach in “Daredevil,” but letting the art tell the story had become surprisingly uncommon.

ATOM: Ah, 1986! It's kind of hard to believe that the year that gave birth to “Watchmen,” “Dark Knight Returns” and “Maus” was so long ago. Though it seems longer ago that we didn't have anything to sell people after they had read those three.

ATOM: I don’t think I’ve ever read the text pieces before. I remember trying and getting impatient for the "real story", but I was seriously missing something. While the name of this column might end up being “ReReading the Watchmen,” I’m going to enjoy experiencing those for the first time. That story about the mechanic and Wagner was just the sort of stuff that you come to Moore for. Pathos layered with comedy with a slight aftertaste of motor oil. Delicious.

CARR: Never read the text pages? Really? Wow.

ATOM: What can I say? I was young and foolish.

CARR: The first chapter of "Under the Hood" is one of my favorite things in the whole series, particularly the Moe Vernon story. It is one of the saddest things I have ever read and it reads so true it’s hard to imagine it didn't happen to someone that Alan Moore knew. As I waited for each new issue of "Watchmen," I re-read the previous one over and over. The text pages were like a delightful sorbet after the meal of the issue. Eventually, there are clues and Easter eggs in them that illuminate the main text. I was actually disappointed that "Under the Hood" was excerpted only for two issues. I would have loved to read the whole thing. And here's my "D'oh" moment: it was only at this past San Diego Comic-Con, while I was buying my Mason's Auto Repair tee-shirt, that I realized "Under the Hood" had a double meaning since Mason is a masked hero and a mechanic.

ATOM: Time for my “D'OH” moment then. Amazing that there are still layers to this thing to find for the first time.

CARR: What's exciting is that I can't wait to read the next issue. And I think I will get more out of it because other times I have looked at the book, if I do it in an afternoon I start skimming, I can't help it. I think people do skip the text pieces in the collection because they want to get to the next chapter as quickly as possible. The first time I read "Watchmen," it took me almost a year-and-a-half and part of me still believes that's the right way to do it. Even if you have the collection. Read a chapter, read the text piece, put it down and think about it before the next part.

ATOM: Okay, but we don't have to wait months between issues, do we?

Carr D'Angelo is a member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. and co-owner of Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, California, the 2007 winner of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award. Visit them online at: http://www.earth2comics.

Atom! Freeman co-owns Brave New World Comics (2008 winner of the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award) in Santa Clarita with his wife Portlyn. Since “Watchmen” came out the first time, he's lived in ten different houses, had five different jobs, got married, bought a business and had a son. Read it today and maybe you can, too.

TAGS:  watchmen, re-reading watchmen, atom! freeman, carr d'angelo, dc comics

 
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