Take the techniques that make it a masterwork and use them for changing the world. (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part Two: The Nine-Panel Grid, History and Superheroes)

(14 comments)

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Watchmen is defined by its intense formalism, and yet no rule within it ever goes entirely unbroken, including its most basic unit of form, the nine-panel grid.

Figure 837: The experimental panel layouts of Swamp Thing are a marked contrast
to the rigidity of Watchmen and its nine-panel grid. (From Saga of the Swamp Thing
#30, 1984)
As a page layout, it is an unusual one, especially for American comics. For one thing, the standard approach in American comics since the emergence of Neal Adams has been to break the strict grid with irregularly shaped panels that allow for dramatic emphasis. On Swamp Thing, for instance, Bissette and Totleben constantly create new layouts that blend trapazoidal panels, panels splayed diagonally across the page, and panels that cut into each other’s space. It’s as basic a technique for Swamp Thing as the nine-panel grid is for Watchmen. Gibbons completely foregoes this, consciously denying himself a tremendous swath of techniques typically used to draw emphasis to specific beats of the story.

Figure 838: Even when not working in a nine-panel
grid, Dave Gibbons's style is tidy and straightforward.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and Tom
Ziuko, from Superman Annual 1985)
For another, the nine-panel grid means that there are a staggering number of panels per page. The first issue of Watchmen averages 7.5 panels per page. In contrast, Moore and Gibbons’s story for the 1985 Superman Annual, “For The Man Who Has Everything,” averages 5.7 panels, nearly two panels per page fewer. Similarly, in Swamp Thing #52, which came out the same month as Watchmen #1, Moore gives Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala an average of 4.7 panels per page. But in some ways the more revealing fact is that the highest panel count for a page of “For The Man Who Has Everything” is seven, and the highest for Swamp Thing #52 is six. An average page of Watchmen, in other words, has more panels than the most crowded page of most American comics. Of his past work, only V for Vendetta averages anything close to Watchmen’s dizzying panel count, and this can be explained at least in part by the fact that Warrior had a considerably larger page size than US comics. But even in British comics Moore’s panel count generally remained well below Watchmen’s level: Marvelman tended to be somewhere between six and seven panels per page on average, whereas Moore and Gibbons’s most beloved British collaboration, “Chrono-Cops,” averages six. But mere panel count is in many ways misleading. Out of the first issue’s twenty-six pages, nine are true nine-panel grids. More to the point, out of its 196 panels, 177 are 1/9th of a page or smaller. The standard unit of storytelling in Watchmen, in other words, is in effect the comics equivalent of a miniature - a two inch by three inch rectangle.

Figure 839: The one time in "For The Man Who Has Everything"
that Gibbons violates a panel border. (Written by Alan Moore, art
by Dave Gibbons and Tom Ziuko, from Superman Annual 1985)
Gibbons, of course, is well-suited to these particular challenges. His style is defined by a precise and detailed line, but its cleanliness comes at the expense of a certain degree of dynamism. It’s not just the nine-panel grid that keeps Gibbons from using Adams-esque layouts: it’s simply not a technique Gibbons is terribly invested in. “For The Man Who Has Everything,” for instance, is comprised entirely of rectangular panels, with only one moment in the entire story where an object breaks the border of its panel (an otherwise uninteresting panel of Jor-El brandishing a stick). Similarly, while Gibbons is more than capable of drawing effective action sequences, their strength is generally in their clarity, as opposed to their sense of frenetic motion. Which makes his style a strong fit for the self-consciously dense symbolism of Watchmen, where panel transitions are regularly based around symbolic shifts, such as the myriad of moments in the second issue in which a panel transition covers several years while leaving the characters in essentially the same poses. These transitions require a sense of detail and stillness that Gibbons is perfectly suited to.

And while action sequences are not necessarily Gibbons’s forte, Moore approaches violence in Watchmen so as to further play to Gibbons’s strengths. Where most superhero art focuses on the dynamism of the characters, heavily stylizing their physiques and poses to give them a sense of magnitude and grandeur, Moore and Gibbons make violence in Watchmen a particularly visceral thing. On a basic level, this can often mean little more than Gibbons drawing characters in somewhat static poses as they are punched and kicked, and then simply adding enthusiastic quantities of blood. But it also means taking a smaller scale view of violence, moving it away from laser beams and explosions and towards a more materialist sort of violence, which includes looking at superhero standards from new angles, such as the mention at one point of a police officer shot by Rorschach’s “gas-powered grappling gun” who suffered “a shattered sternum and is still on the hospital’s critical list.” But the most iconic instance of this consciously low-scale violence comes in the first issue, and indeed, in the story’s first act of violence not to be shown in flashback. In the scene, Rorschach walks into a bar full of low level criminals seeking information about Edward Blake’s murder. When none is forthcoming, he walks up to a patron, grabs his wrist and hand, and calmly bends one of his fingers back, breaking it. 

Figure 840: Violence made all the more disturbing by its
understated nature. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons
and John Higgins, from Watchmen #1, 1986)
The act of violence is confined to two panels, framed almost identically, so that the focus is on the small movement of Rorschach’s hand as he bends the man’s finger back, and the look of pain on the criminal’s face. Its impact comes precisely from the complete lack of any exaggeration or stylization. There’s not even a sound effect (another comic book standard forgone by Gibbons), with the weight of the nameless criminal’s agony being conveyed only through his face and Gibbons’s oversized and chaotic lettering of his reaction, a simple “AAAAAA.” The effect is not only to immediately render Rorschach a genuinely intimidating figure, but to fundamentally shift the grammar of violence in superhero comics to focus on brutal impact instead of kinesthetic beauty. But what the overwhelming majority of Moore and Gibbons’s imitators ended up missing was that the scene’s effectiveness depended on the staid, methodical tick of the nine-panel grid.

The nine-panel grid, however, is far from Watchmen’s only defining structural element. The first eleven issues all culminate in short and lightly-illustrated text pieces - six pages in issue #1, four in subsequent issues - that flesh out the comic’s world. These pieces are all presented as artifacts from within Watchmen - internal memos from within Adrian Veidt’s company, documents from Rorschach’s case file, or, as in the first three issues, chapters from Hollis Mason’s autobiography Under the Hood. These text pieces are rarely highlights of Watchmen - indeed, one suspects no shortage of readers have traversed the graphic novel multiple times without actually reading them all. Put simply, most of the pieces’ ostensible authors are not particularly good writers, and Moore captures them, perhaps, a bit too well. Moore is a capable prosesmith, but the pieces status as artifacts of the fictional world means that he is generally writing from the perspectives of people for whom his baroquely imagistic style would be inappropriate. He generally makes a good show of writing slightly unreliable narrators who inadvertently reveal more than they intend, especially when their words are taken against events elsewhere in the comic, but the fact remains that the text pieces are among the weaker links in Watchmen.

Still, they fulfill their purpose, which is to let Moore flesh out the elaborate backstory he invented for the world of Watchmen. The nature and scale of this backstory forms another key element of Watchmen’s overall success and brilliance. It is not just that Watchmen takes place in a bespoke superhero universe, but that it takes place nearly fifty years into the history of that universe. The apocalyptic bent of Watchmen, represented very literally on the book’s back covers, which, over twelve issues, depict a clock ticking ever closer to midnight as blood starts to run down from the top of the page, is not merely the endpoint of the story featuring the core of six characters but the endpoint of an ongoing superhero narrative with, if not as much history as the DC Universe itself, at least a sense of scale equivalent to the DC Universe. Indeed (and unsurprisingly given the publisher) the emergence of costumed heroes within Watchmen’s timeline is explicitly tied to the 1938 release of Action Comics #1, and the Tales of the Black Freighter comic that appears several times within the narrative is revealed to be a DC comic. For all that the consequences of Watchmen were unexpected (if not, strictly speaking, unintended), this, at least, must be acknowledged: its apocalypse was always meant to play out over larger symbolic territory.

Indeed, for all that the work is a product of Moore and Gibbons’s genius and for all the role it played in Moore’s eventual falling out with DC, the truth is that Watchmen needed to come out from DC in order to have anything like the impact it had. This isn’t true merely on the level of sales, although it’s true that there were no other comics publishers in 1986 who might both plausibly publish a book like Watchmen and who could give it anything like the distribution and promotion that DC gave it, but on an altogether more symbolic level. Put simply, it mattered that Moore and Gibbons were conducting an apocalypse of superheroes at the company that had invented the genre, and their apocalypse was deliberately designed to engage with the history of that company. The historical timeline of Watchmen is deliberately set to track with the broad history of superhero comics in America: an initial burst of heroes following the 1938 release of Action Comics, a decline at the end of the 1940s, a moral panic and Congressional hearings in the 1950s, and a second generation of heroes that emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s. (Moore even develops a history of how the comics industry itself is changed by the existence of actual superheroes, with pirate comics emerging as popular alternatives to superhero books.)

More than that, the history of superheroes within Watchmen is consciously intertwined with the history of the world, so that the Cold War paranoia that animates its apocalypse is made to extend intrinsically and inevitably from the existence of superheroes. For instance, the emergence of Doctor Manhattan in the 1960s leads to his deployment in the Vietnam War, which in turn leads to the United States winning that war. His existence is also inexorably tied to the rapidly deteriorating international situation, with the power imbalance he introduces to US/Soviet relations having led to comparatively unchecked US expansionism and an angrier and more resentful USSR that reacts decisively upon Doctor Manhattan’s departure by invading Afghanistan and, subsequently, Pakistan. Beyond that, it’s strongly implied that the Comedian murders Woodward and Bernstein before they can report on Watergate, resulting in Richard Nixon managing to pass a Constitutional amendment allowing him to serve more than two terms, winning reelection in 1976, 80, and 84. 

Figure 841: The Charlton characters as drawn by
Dave Gibbons for an abandoned project.
There is also the non-trivial matter of the specific historical antecedents of the Watchmen characters. Obviously, much has been made of the specific similarities between Watchmen and the superheroes created by Charlton Comics, a line acquired by DC in 1983. But while it is true that Watchmen originates in a pitch Moore and Gibbons made for the Charlton characters, and that, once one knows this, it is a fairly easy exercise to match the six main characters of Watchmen to specific characters created by Charlton, this is at best only a partial account. In many regards what matters more is the fact that Watchmen’s world is comprised of fairly generic heroes. With the exception of Doctor Manhattan, all are without superpowers, and are instead ordinary (except perhaps in the psychological sense) people who wear costumes and fight crime. In this regard Batman, obviously, hangs over them all as both the most commercially successful character in this vein and the historical archetype, especially within DC Comics. But this in turn points at a variety of other heroes: the Punisher and Green Arrow, for instance, or pre-comics pulp heroes like Doc Savage and Green Hornet. More broadly, there are few substantive differences between these sorts of characters and characters where the only fantastical element of their premise is a MacGuffin explaining their extreme physical prowess such as Captain America, or ones like the Sandman who make use of specialist technology. And while Doctor Manhattan does have outright superpowers, his character is in many ways stitched together from bits of other superheroes: the alienness of Superman, the powers of Firestorm, the science-trauma origin of the Hulk, the higher consciousness of Swamp Thing, et cetera. In other words, the cast of Watchmen is like any other aspect of the book: a dense but fundamentally imprecise set of symbols. 

And so the world that is brought to an apocalypse within Watchmen is, in multiple regards, particularly well-suited to the task of serving as an apocalypse for the superhero as a whole. But for all that Moore and Gibbons created an elaborate superhero universe based on the principle of taking a more materially realistic view of the impact superheroes would have on the world, going so far as to think through the comics industry of his fictional world, there is a crucial tangible oversight within Watchmen: it almost completely ignores the way in which superheroes are, historically, generally corporate owned franchises. [continued]

Comments

Scurra 1 year, 8 months ago

The nature and scale of this backstory forms another key element of Watchmen’s overall success and brilliance.
For me, this is a key reason why I rank Watchmen alongside The Lord of the Rings in terms of literary achievement: the "artefacts" are the equivalent of the poetry. As you note, people can skip all the text stuff in Watchmen and not miss anything of real narrative significance, and the same is true of the poems in Tolkien. But they both provide a significant depth and breadth to the mythos that makes the foundations seem far stronger than rivals - no matter whether that's an illusion of course! Skipping them seems to me to be wilfully missing the point. (Mind you, I didn't think the conceit worked nearly as well in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but that's a different argument.)

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IG 1 year, 8 months ago

I think those of us who read the comic as it came out ended up reading the text pieces during the interminable wait for the next issue! I did enjoy them though, and there were a few clues in there as to what might happen later on in the story...

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C. 1 year, 8 months ago

the toughest text piece is Dreiberg's essay on owls, which I think Moore intended to be dense and purple---don't think I've made it through that in its entirety & it's been nearly 30 years.

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timber-munki 1 year, 8 months ago

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timber-munki 1 year, 8 months ago

I never read the text pieces in any comic in the first read, sometimes never. The exception would be Gillen's Über, which are more a commentary on what I've just read rather than an abrupt swerve and change of pace in the narrative. When I'm re-reading Watchmen sometimes I'll read them, sometimes I'll skip them.

The one thing that stays with me is how much of an insufferable coke bore Doug Roth was. I'm only tangentially familiar with Rolling Stone of the time but his interview with Osymandius really catches the narcissistic solipism that makes punk a perfectly sensible & sane reaction to music in the mid seventies. I'm not much of a fan of the pointless exercise of committing violence against fictional characters but I really could never get tired of punching his smug 'A coke joke! Adrian Veidt, Ozy-freakin'-mandias himself has just told me a coke joke!' commodified counter-culture self insertion to the story face. (It still vexes me so much I've just found out I can't underline something in a post so every cloud and all that...)

I suppose it's another reason to re-read Watchmen just to check if he was in the New York at the end of #11, possibly to review the Pale Horses gig...

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Ice 1 year, 8 months ago

Dreiberg's essay is so dry it's almost unreadable. But, that really highlights the character's nature. I've never thought about this before reading this post and your comment. But, Moore really sacrifices some readability for the sake of making the text pieces seem authentic.

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Kit 1 year, 8 months ago

Worth noting that Moore's direct influence for the use of the 9-panel-grid was Eddie Campbell's autobiographical works under the Alec umbrella title.

Also that Under The Hood was intended to be the only text feature, just to fill space until letters arrived on the first issue; by the time they reached issue 4, Moore had become excited by the possibility of showing further contextual richness for the story's world.

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Roy Batty 1 year, 8 months ago

Christ, I hate Watchmen so much. Your write up of it is fantastic and very illuminating but it can't change how much I hate the original text.

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elvwood 1 year, 8 months ago

I know I did - after all, there's only so many times you can pour over the issues to-date, so you might as well extract every ounce of goodness from them.

Watchmen is the series that has most worked as an Event for me - there might have been individual issues of other comics I anticipated more, but never a sustained run. It's also one of only two series where I bought two copies of each issue (although the first two were "after the fact", once I realised how much I was obsessed with it) - one for re-re-reading and one for bagging and admiring from a distance. This eventually transmuted into "one signed and one unsigned"...

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Josiah Rowe 1 year, 7 months ago

Apparently Ted Cruz has named Rorschach as one of his favorite superheroes. Says so much, doesn't it?

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

With you on this Scurra. I for myself find them not to be skippable, but texts that add more to the characters and give layers of understanding to the world we are reading.

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

I wasn't for some reason buying the issues at the time (think I was two years away from leaving school, my peak period of comic buying was to come). But I loved these text pieces when I got the trade and had never seen anyone do this in comics before, I was then 17 I think.

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

I agree, as with the other text pieces, they tell us more about the characters.

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

"Put simply, it mattered that Moore and Gibbons were conducting an apocalypse of superheroes at the company that had invented the genre, and their apocalypse was deliberately designed to engage with the history of that company."

And such an immersive world (including the text pieces for me) for it to happen in. The book grabbed me immediately when I read the trade as a kid. I loved as an artist immediately the very careful and designed nature of Gibbons' work, with the whole story told through symbols and design.

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