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How We Watch the Watchmen

by  in Comic News Comment
How We Watch the Watchmen

(In an effort to start producing content around here again, I’m presenting you with this little paper I wrote for that graphic novel course you helped me invent last Spring. Prepare yourself for in-text citations!)

The first page of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal work, Watchmen, has become etched within the collective minds of today’s discerning comics readers. This page holds within it the very nature of the comics/reader dynamic, a relationship discussed in great depth within cartoonist Scott McCloud’s landmark art-text Understanding Comics. McCloud breaks down the mechanics of comics storytelling, and Watchmen holds as a very mechanical work, its style clicking away like watchmakers’ cogs, its themes as symmetrical as an inkblot. The key element in the equation, however, the one who tells the time from the clock face and interprets the Rorschach test, who does the instinctive but important work, is the reader.

Back to Watchmen‘s opening page. Were this a film, one would call this page-long sequence a zoom out, or perhaps a long, backward tracking shot. The film strip, however, differs from the comics strip, in that film exists deliberately in time, though, like comics, it’s composed of a sequential series of images. As McCloud states, film is just a very very very very slow comic” (8), and the uniqueness of comics comes from the “spatially juxtaposed” images (7). For this page of Watchmen, the reader receives seven static images, each one comprising a key moment in time. Put together, the panels achieve, within the reader’s mind, a sense of motion, of progression in both space and time. This action is deliberate on the part of the comics artist-their goal is to lead the reader’s eye from the top left corner of the page to the bottom right, and goad said reader into turning onto the next page. However, the action is also inherent in comics, as the medium can only exist as a sequence of visual information. Therefore, this single “shot,” or rather, a series of seven shots, moves, narratively, through both space and time. It starts with the bloodied smiley face, and moves upward, high above the city street, to the detective who looks down through the broken window to the pool of blood below. The unseen component sits outside and above the page-that of the reader, peering down on the detective.

McCloud dubs the whirring of gears and machinery inside the reader’s brain that does the work and turns static images into sequential art as closure: “observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (63). Hopefully, presuming the artist has done his or her job well, closure is an automatic, intuitive act on the part of the reader. This unseen but essential collaboration between creator and audience is the “invisible art” that serves as the subtitle of McCloud’s book. As he writes: “every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice,” the reader (68). If the first page of Watchmen existed as a film (as, of this writing, it soon will), the effect of the first page would be reproduced effectively by the aforementioned zoom or tracking shot, with Rorschach’s journal captions in the form of voiceover narration. Were Watchmen purely a novel, rather than a graphic novel, the page would have to be entirely different, as would the work itself, due to the elimination of the visual material, which either competes with the narrative material, or completes its effect. In film and television, the story exists independently of the viewer; the audio/visual information and the pace are chosen by the filmmakers for the audience. In prose, the reader is given free reign to interpret the material at his or her own pace, and form unique visual elements within his or her mind’s eye. Comics resides somewhere between these two points; the writer and artist choose moments for the reader to witness, but the time and space between those moments, and the pace at which they are experienced, remains the reader’s duty. The words and images exist in separate slices on the page, able to be read independently, but preferably in sequence. This sequence creates the art, and completes the magic. For McCloud, “time and space [in comics] are one and the same;” images can exist separately on the page but together in time, akin to breaking apart the seconds in a minute and viewing them independently, but enjoying the minute so much more when glued back together (100).

Watchmen could be seen as a cinematic work; Moore and Gibbons forego typical comic book stylistic elements such as the thought balloon and the sound effect, relying on dialogue, voiceover-esque captions, and visual action to tell the story. The unique parts, however-the pirate comic-within-a-comic, the supplemental text pieces between the chapters, the symmetrical imagery of chapter five, and the deep focus that exists in every panel to truly flesh out the story’s environment-are things that could only be gotten away with in the world of comics, the domain of panels. According to McCloud, six types of panel-to-panel transitions exist. The first page of Watchmen features the most common types of closure: the panels could be classified as either moment-to-moment or action-to-action, though it seems somewhere in between (McCloud 74). The professional doomsayer (later revealed to be Rorschach) can be seen walking through the pool of blood and leaving behind a few footprints per panel, making the reader aware of the passage of time. For the reader, however, any length of time can be given to viewing each panel-poor Rorschach’s forever trapped between steps, waiting for the audience to read on. Once the story has been produced and published, the power falls into the hands of the reader. Watchmen understands. The final page of the first chapter mirrors the opening one: it starts with the smiley-face button, and the shot pulls up and up. This time, however, the action begins on a rooftop, and the shot recedes far into the clouds above-there the audience sits as the gods of the story, reading it into existence, like young Bernard, working his way through Tales of the Black Freighter on the street corner.

The final page of Watchmen‘s final chapter concludes the novel’s relationship with the reader. The full-circle imagery from throughout the book and, coincidentally, the very same icon McCloud continually references-the smiley face-returns. The story began at a lofty height, where the heroes reside, looking down on the world; it ends at street level, with the most ordinary of people, who will make the choice Rorschach speaks of on the first page. Unfortunately for him, he can never make that decision, forever trapped as he is in a state of perpetual potential. No panel follows this one. Herein lies the Rorschach test of the work-not interpreting an inkblot, but interpreting the work, making the decision for oneself. The reader must choose: save the world by damning it, or damn the world by saving it. He or she must perform the final act of closure with a panel that does not exist, and bring the work to a close. The last line of dialogue reads, “I leave it entirely in your hands,” and so the fate of the characters-and the fate of the work-remains within the reader’s hands (XII, 32). The major question of the work becomes answered. Who truly watches the Watchmen? The readers do.

(You know, it looks a lot shorter on the screen.)

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