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Books

Watchmen: An Oral History

Nearly two decades after creating a comic book about superheroes in the modern world, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons revisit their work

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DC Comics

Citizen Kane. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Sopranos. Watchmen. Of this list, the following can be said: (1) Each is a masterwork representing the apex of artistry in its respective medium; (2) you might have no idea what Watchmen is.

Except that in our superhero-saturated, cult-pop moment, Watchmen‘s fingerprints are everywhere. On Lost. On author Neil Gaiman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer auteur Joss Whedon. On almost every comic book published since 1986. Yes, Watchmen is a comic book. But for many honest-to-God not-crazy people, it is much more. ”Watchmen,” declares Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, ”is the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.”

Or, at least, just plain great. First published in 12 installments by DC Comics, Watchmen is considered the first ”adult” (meaning sophisticated, not naughty) superhero comic. It is the signature work of English writer Alan Moore, whose trailblazing oeuvre also includes the movie-friendly V for Vendetta, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Produced in close collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons, Moore’s saga concerns Rorschach, a demented vigilante with a morphing inkblot mask who investigates the murder of a mystery man named the Comedian — though that might be the skimpiest summary ever of a comic book that’s also an intricate conspiracy thriller, a radical deconstruction of superhero archetypes, a furious allegory of Cold War anxiety, and a tour de force of narrative technique. Says Whedon: ”Watchmen took the history of comics and used it as a template for examining the human condition in a way no one had seen before.”

Nearly 20 years after changing the way people think about comics, Watchmen is poised to reenter the pop consciousness. An oversize, recolored edition is now in stores, and talks are under way to produce a long-in-development movie adaptation at Warner Bros. With Watchmen echoing in the culture, EW asked its creators — including the notoriously press-shy Moore — to discuss its history.

I. Marvelman

Raised in the slums of Northampton, England, by a family that put a high value on literacy, Moore was reading and writing by 5 and was obsessed with mythology. At 7, he discovered American comics like The Flash and Superman. ”All these godlike characters, in a vision of America that to me, growing up in the terrorist streets of Britain, seemed like the future…glorious!” says Moore, 51. ”It opened up a utopia of the mind.” Gibbons, 56, grew up outside London and dreamed of working in comics. His parents encouraged a more practical profession, so he became a surveyor. He hated it. In 1973, Gibbons saw an ad in an underground paper for a fantasy bookstore. Giant floating eyeballs were involved. The store’s owner hired him to draw promo materials, which were discovered by an agent repping comics artists. Years later, Gibbons learned that the surreal ad had been sketched by a budding cartoonist named Alan Moore. ”Alan’s psychedelic eyeballs were the turning point in my life,” says Gibbons.

By the early 1980s, Moore (now focused on writing) and Gibbons were the leading lights of a vibrant U.K. comics scene. In particular, Moore had earned a rep as a pomo visionary with Marvelman, a subversive reimagining of a cheesy Captain Marvel clone. Meanwhile, American comics, facing weakening sales, were seeking to cultivate an audience that was no longer composed primarily of children. Adjusting to shifting tastes, DC looked to England for new voices. Moore’s first work for the company, Swamp Thing, made him a star. In 1984, DC asked Moore to work his revisionist magic on a group of superheroes acquired from the defunct Charlton Comics. Moore invited his pal Gibbons to collaborate.

MOORE In my late teens, as I was daydreaming about becoming a comic-book writer, I found myself thinking about a line of ’60s superheroes published by Archie Comics: What if one of them was found murdered, and through the investigation, you explored the world they lived in? I intended to resurrect that idea with the project that became Watchmen. But when we submitted the proposal, DC realized their expensive characters would end up either dead or dysfunctional.

LEN WEIN (Watchmen editor) Dick Giordano, DC’s executive editor, had worked at Charlton and may have been attached to the characters. But he liked Alan’s story, and asked him to reconceive his pitch with new characters.

GIBBONS The Charlton characters were superhero archetypes. There was the Superman figure, the Batman figure…. We realized we could create our own archetypes and tell a story about all superheroes. What were their motivations? How would their very existence change the world?

MOORE I also wanted to write about power politics. Ronald Reagan was president. But I worried readers might switch off if they thought I was attacking someone they admired. So we set Watchmen in a world where Nixon was in his fourth term — because you’re not going to get much argument that Nixon was scum! For me, the ’80s were worrying. “Mutually assured destruction.” “Voodoo economics.” A culture of complacency… I was writing about times I lived in.

GIBBONS Alan saw comics on the same continuum as novels and movies, and would apply the same critical and creative disciplines. He was unlike other writers, who were only writing comics until something better came along. Alan never felt that way.

II. Fearful Symmetry

After sealing the deal, the two artists spent a day at Gibbons’ house sketching costumes, brainstorming details about their alternative U.S., and discussing influences, including comic-book creators Will Eisner (The Spirit) and Steve Ditko (Spider-Man). Their surprising touchstone: MAD magazine’s famous 1953 skewering of Superman, “Superduperman.” “We wanted to take Superduperman 180 degrees — dramatic, instead of comedic,” says Moore, who declares Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD the “best comic ever!” Many choices for Watchmen deviated from the comics norm, like using moodier, secondary colors and dividing the page into a claustrophobic nine-panel grid instead of a few panels of varying size.

WEIN The script for a typical comic was around 32 pages. Alan’s scripts, you’d get 150 pages!

BARBARA KESEL (Watchmen editor) Alan would give you the complete psychological profile of each character, plus the meaning of every object in the environment. His artists would rise to what he asked, because he had a way of outlining an idealistic dream.

MOORE While writing the first issue, I realized I only had enough plot for six issues. We were contracted for 12! The solution was to alternate issues of plot with “origin story” issues about the characters…. But the opening sequence of issue 3 is where Watchmen really clicked. [In this scene, a news vendor on a NYC street corner pontificates about impending war while a boy reads a grisly pirate comic. In the background, a civil servant bolts a fallout shelter sign to a wall. This intersection, modeled after 34th Street and Seventh Avenue, is revisited throughout the series.] I remember looking at the black shapes of the radiation symbol on the sign and thinking you could construe a black ship. So I started with a close-up on the sign and juxtaposed the ominous narration of the pirate comic with the news vendor saying, “We oughta nuke Russia and let God sort it out.” Something spooky was happening in the way these elements sparked off each other. From that point on, we looked to make it more layered, more complex, more mazelike.

GIBBONS I cannot believe we managed “Fearful Symmetry” [issue 5], where the compositions mirror each other — so the first scene mirrors the last, the second scene mirrors the second to last…. We did that two pages at a time. There weren’t fax machines back then. Alan would give two pages to a taxi driver, who would drive 50 miles to where I lived. We did this on subsequent issues, too, as we began bumping up against deadlines. My wife and son were drawing up the nine-panel grids to save time. It was a sweatshop!

JOHN HIGGINS (Watchmen colorist) I was both so amazed and quite pissed off by the whole thing. Nine panels per page? Agony! Only afterward was it ecstasy.

NEIL GAIMAN My very small part in Watchmen is that, every now and then, Alan would phone me: “Neil, you’re an educated man. Where does it say…?” He would need a quote from the Bible, or an essay about owls. I was his occasional research assistant.

MOORE Around issue 10, I came across a guide to cult television. There was an Outer Limits episode called “The Architects of Fear.” I thought: “Wow. That’s a bit close to our story.” In the last issue, we have a TV promoting that Outer Limits episode — a belated nod.

III. The Dark Age

Released in June of 1986, Watchmen was a sensation. “The hype was intense — and this was before the Internet,” says current superstar comics scribe Brian Michael Bendis. For most fans, the memory of Watchmen is intertwined with Frank Miller’s watershed Batman saga, The Dark Knight Returns, released earlier that year. Watchmen garnered a mantelful of industry awards, including a Hugo from the sci-fi/fantasy literati — the first time a comic book had been so honored. For Moore, though, “Watchmenmania” was mostly maddening.

GIBBONS I remember a magazine photo shoot. The floor was covered with wallpaper that looked like a brick wall. There was also a rope. The photographer said, “Hold the rope and we’ll turn the piece sideways and make it look like you’re climbing up the wall — just like they did on the Batman TV show!” We were not going to do that.

MOORE Celebrity was nothing I enjoyed, and it prompted me to become the mumbling recluse I am. When I started writing comics, “comics writer” was the most obscure job in the world! If I wanted to be a celebrity, I would have become a moody English screen actor.

JUDE LAW (moody English screen actor) I was and am a huge comics fan. Watchmen changed my life. I collected every issue.

MOORE There were certain areas of the comic-book world where Watchmen did cast a black, bleak shadow…. I originally intended Rorschach to be a warning about the possible outcome of vigilante thinking. But an awful lot of comics readers felt his remorseless, frightening, psychotic toughness was his most appealing characteristic — not quite what I was going for.

WEIN  Watchmen and Dark Knight basically defined the industry for the next decade. Suddenly, everything was grim and gritty.

GIBBONS What Watchmen demonstrated was a possible way to do comics. The message was to broaden — not to narrow them down.

IV. “Arnie!”

Watchmen has had no shortage of Hollywood admirers. In the late ’80s, producer Joel Silver (The Matrix) tried to make a film adaptation with director Terry Gilliam. Robin Williams and Richard Gere were rumored to be interested. But the project imploded primarily over budget, and the end of the Cold War deprived Watchmen of its political relevance. But in 2001, the comic found new life thanks to a zeitgeist-mining script by David Hayter (X-Men). Paramount was set to roll earlier this year with The Bourne Supremacy‘s Paul Greengrass at the helm — until a regime change at the studio sent it into turnaround. Still, says producer Larry Gordon, “We have every reason to believe we will eventually make the movie.” By the way, Moore doesn’t mind: He’s adamantly opposed to Watchmen‘s adaptation for artistic, business, and personal reasons — a position that hardened after Fox’s limp 2003 version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — and plans to give any film royalties to Gibbons.

GIBBONS I remember meeting with Joel Silver, who wanted to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr. Manhattan: “He’s gonna be Arnie!” We said, “Well, he’s got the physique, but the German accent…” He said, “Doesn’t matter!” It didn’t come to anything with Joel.

SAM HAMM (first Watchmen screenwriter) I was coming off writing Batman when I was asked to take a whack at it. I thought it too unwieldy to compress into two hours. The comic really is a spectacular piece of architecture. Trying to replicate it [was] just impossible.

HAYTER What I pitched to Larry was actually a miniseries for HBO. But it would have cost $100 million. When I mapped it out as a two-hour movie, I looked at how Peter Jackson broke down The Lord of the Rings. My first draft was 178 pages, which was encouraging; it told me a screenplay was actually possible. One thing that has tripped up Hollywood is the Cold War setting, when there was a sense of impending doom. With 9/11, unfortunately, we got it right back again. So we did update it.

MOORE David Hayter’s screenplay was as close as I could imagine anyone getting to Watchmen. That said, I shan’t be going to see it. My book is a comic book. Not a movie, not a novel. A comic book. It’s been made in a certain way, and designed to be read a certain way: in an armchair, nice and cozy next to a fire, with a steaming cup of coffee. Personally, I think that would make for a lovely Saturday night.