But can the apocalyptic comic book translate to the big screen 16 years after publication?

Hey, Spider-Man — get lost. And you, Hulk — take your gamma rays elsewhere. Those two characters’ upcoming film debuts are probable summer blockbusters, but it’s a comic book adaptation of a very different sort that’s really got fans’ spider senses tingling. Sixteen years after its publication, the monumental graphic novel ”Watchmen” (widely considered to be the ”Citizen Kane” of comics) may be coming to theaters — if a first-time director can find a way around obstacles that even Terry Gilliam (”Brazil”) couldn’t overcome.

”It’s the greatest comic book story ever told,” says David Hayter, the ”X-Men” screenwriter who has just signed to write and direct ”Watchmen.” But Hayter, who’s scripting an ”X-Men” sequel and wrote a draft for Ang Lee’s ”The Hulk,” faces a very different set of challenges with ”Watchmen,” which is to standard superhero comics as ”Pulp Fiction” is to, well, pulp fiction. In addition to grappling with the comic’s complex, multilayered plot and 12-issue length, Hayter will have to deal with a finale that sets Armageddon in Manhattan.

A prior attempt to make a “Watchmen” movie, which would have had Gilliam directing a script by ”Batman” screenwriter Sam Hamm that altered the story almost beyond recognition (the draft is still floating on the Internet), died after Gilliam and studio executives decided the project was too ambitious. Gilliam has said that he would only do the project as a 12-hour-long TV miniseries.

The comic takes place in an alternate reality in which costumed vigilantes prowl cities, Richard Nixon is still president (as of 1985), and America won the Vietnam War with the help of the godlike superbeing Dr. Manhattan. The story begins with the murder of one erstwhile vigilante, the Comedian, and expands to reveal a conspiracy that threatens the end of the world, while all the way interweaving storylines, images, and themes with daunting complexity. (The opening lines: ”Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.”)

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