Friday, December 12, 2008

Watching the Watchmen
When Watchmen was first published in 1986 by DC Comics as a 12-part miniseries, the term “graphic novel” was barely known in the United States. The Europeans and the Japanese had been taking the comics medium seriously for years, though, with the French referring to their publications as “albums” and the Japanese unabashedly gearing their work to adult audiences. In the States, where the medium was invented, they were still comic books, largely relegated to a literary and graphic ghetto. A revolution had been quietly festering for years, however. Jim Steranko’s work on Marvel’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. built on Jack Kirby’s action style, and redefined what could be told in the confines of a 7”X10” vertical layout. Neal Adams and Denny O’ Neil laid the groundwork for resurrecting Batman from campy cartoon to grim avenger. Mostly, only the comics diehards took note at the time. That all changed in 1986, when writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, along with colorist John Higgins, teamed to produce a 12 part series for DC called Watchmen.

Watchmen wasn’t a superhero story so much as it was a tale of youthful excesses and midlife crisis set against a backdrop of murder, conspiracy and global turmoil in an alternative 1980’s. That it continues to reflect the uncertainty of Western Society As We Know It may explain why those 12 issues evolved into a single edition that’s never been out of print since first published, It also explains why a movie version, once thought impossible, is scheduled for release in March 2009. And it definitely explains why Time named it one of the 100 most important novels of the last 75 years.

Twenty some-odd years later, comes Watching the Watchmen, artist Dave Gibbons’ recollections on how the masterpiece came to be. At 256 pages bundled in a 12”X9.5” hardcover edition, there’s no denying that this is a book that any fan of Watchmen would consider an essential companion piece to the series that became a graphic novel. Given Watchmen’s cult status, that’s not surprising.

But Watching the Watchmen is much more than a coffee table book. Sure, there’s a wealth of art (early sketches evolving into finished illustrations), and that would be enough from a historical perspective. Dave Gibbons’ detailed memories of how it all came to be paint a landscape of the world before computers and FedEX, where everything was actually done by hand, and delivered via cab to the participants in the project. Consequently, the book works as a time capsule that seems somewhat quaint today, even though it all came about scarcely twenty years ago.

It’s hardly necessary to be a fan of Watchmen to appreciate Watching the Watchmen. What Gibbons achieves here is more than a memoir of the creative process that goes into any collaborative effort. It’s a personal recounting told from the illustrator’s point of view—writer Alan Moore’s perspective is absent here, due to his ongoing disputes with DC. That’s all the better in this case. Because of his writing prowess, Moore tends to eclipse his collaborators. To see in detail the creation of this seminal work from the artist’s perspective is is resultantly quite refreshing. As much as Moore’s story deconstructed the superhero mythos, they would have been shallow without the almost detached approach Gibbons’ nine panel grids imbued the characters with a sense of ennui in the face of global devastation.

At its core, Watching the Watchmen is more art book than scholarly history. The design of the book, by Chip Kidd and Mike Essl, both of whom are noted for their design work on various adaptations of Batman in film and graphic novels, ensure that Gibbons’ sometimes scattered sketches and remembrances remain cohesive. As a result, the artwork, from marker layouts to pencil sketches to the rare finished art is a joy to behold.
With The Dark Knight a serious Oscar contender and Frank Miller’s The Spirit opening Christmas Day and the film adaptation of The Watchmen coming out in March, superheroes are the new canon of 21st century literature. “Who watches the Watchmen?” is no longer merely a clever catchphrase—it may be a clear indicator of movie trends in 2009. That in mind, Watching the Watchmen may be the perfect gift for anybody interested in pop culture, film evolution, contemporary art or graphic novels in general. It’s a book I’d strongly recommend as a gift this year.