Why Watchmen failed to usher in a comic-book revolution.

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March 5 2009 6:34 AM

Watchmen Failed

The revolution it was supposed to inspire—comics about ordinary people—never happened.

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While the Watchmen movie uses the comic book as an excuse to get another superhero property on-screen, what makes the comic a classic are the normal people. Watchmen is a so-so superhero murder mystery until in Issue No. 3 it takes on a resonant third dimension when characters who would normally be relegated to walk-on roles in the background take center stage: a news vendor, a kid reading comic books for free at his newsstand, Rorschach's therapist and his wife, a gay cabdriver and her activist girlfriend.

A fourth dimension is opened up when a comic book about pirates being read by the freeloading kid at the newsstand becomes part of the narrative, amplifying and commenting on the action. Visual details linger from scene to scene, linking disparate locations and characters; conversations started by one character are finished by another; and every detail, every image, every sentence seems to contain the entire DNA of the story. There is no center because it's all center. The lurid violence of the superhero plotline is overshadowed by truly heroic acts of forgiveness, selflessness, and the facing of hard truths by characters who would normally barely merit a glance in an issue of Batman. Needless to say, most of these characters and techniques are missing from the finished film, which views Watchmen from only the superhero fan point of view, which is the least rewarding approach.

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It is Watchmen's formal invention, its de-centering of the narrative, the way that Moore and Gibbons use the trappings of a superhero story to smuggle in a series of sketches about ordinary people, that is its great achievement. After Watchmen, Alan Moore attempted the most ambitious comic book of his career, Big Numbers. A miniseries in roughly the same format as Watchmen, it would completely avoid superheroes (whom Moore describes as "a bit morally simplistic") and instead focus on the residents of a small British town thrown into disarray when an American shopping center opens in its midst.

Production problems resulted in the cancellation of Big Numbers after only three issues, but it's a clear indication that even at the time he was finishing Watchmen, Moore was less and less concerned with superheroes and more and more concerned with average folks. The achievement of Watchmen is that it showed comics could do something exciting and complex that wasn't tied up in the concerns of the superpowered set. But it's a testament to the power superheroes have over our imaginations that the costumes ultimately overshadowed everything else and will be front-and-center this Friday.

Slate V: The critics on Watchmen and other new movies

Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.

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