Review by KC Carlson
Depending on your worldview, the new Watchmen Complete Motion Comic DVD is:
- The graphic novel version of Cliff Notes, or more directly, the “For Dummies” series. Both series have become synonymous for the lazy person’s method of learning about literature without having to go through the tedious work of actually reading it yourself. A true milestone event! (Although it should be noted that watching this entire production will take over five hours of your time, and right now it costs almost twice as much as the Watchmen book.)
- The Hollywood version of an audio book, except with the added value of jiggling versions of the original illustrations and with the caveat that you really shouldn’t play this in your car during long trips.
- A cool new way to make older material interesting to a more visually oriented modern audience.
- Just more exploitive “product,” another tie-in in to the most talked-about movie on the planet at this very moment.
- No replacement for the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Per Alan Moore’s wishes, his name is not mentioned anywhere on this product. That’s probably for the best, as his original script and dialogue have been edited.
In a nutshell, Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic presents the entire graphic novel in 12 chapters, based on the original individual single issues of the 1986-87 comic book series. (There are two discs with six episodes each.) It was made by taking the original Dave Gibbons illustrations and enhancing them with various camera movements and animation techniques so that they appear to “move”. Heads and arms shift position, and characters are brought forward against the background, as though the image was made of stacks of paper, in different planes, instead of just one flat sheet. All of the captions and dialogue are still visible on-screen, even as they’re being read to us. The word balloons are a little strange, since as the characters move across the screen, the tails shift to stay pointing at the speaker’s mouth. (At times I wanted to warn the cast, “Watch out! They’ll put your eye out!”)
There is a narrator (Tom Stechschulte, who has also acted in movies and several Law & Order episodes) who actually “plays” all the characters in the story. (This is particularly odd when it comes to the women.) There are also sound effects and music (credited to Lennie Moore, who has previously done a lot of work for video games and commercials), so this appears to to be a full-blown Hollywood-style production. Actually, its animation roots are probably closer to the 1960s Marvel Comics syndicated cartoons (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, and Sub-Mariner) produced by Grantray-Lawrence Animation, which were also made using the original comic book artwork (mostly by Jack Kirby).
On the surface, this is a very slick production, high quality while remaining faithful to the original material. Dave Gibbons’ original artwork looks incredible on the screen, and John Higgins’ colors are lush and evocative. While some of the limited animation techniques come off a little cheesy, seeing Rorschach’s mask design actually moving after all these years will take your breath away.
But let’s be honest here — as amazing and impressive as parts of this may be, it is no substitute for the subtleties of reading the actual graphic novel. Even the end credits of each episode indicate the same: “Be sure to experience WATCHMEN in its original graphic novel form.” At the very least, you lose the masterful graphic presentation of the original and the strength of the nine-panel grid. In the Motion Comic, the camera movements either undercut or overemphasize Gibbons’ original layouts and pacing, and despite the additional movement, many scenes seem graphically static. Part of this is that the camera forces you to go along with its pace for better or worse. In the graphic novel, you control what you want to look at and study, something you can’t do with the Motion Comic unless you really ride the the pause button on the remote control.
I’m also not a big fan of the added “distractions” of the narration and music in works I have previously enjoyed, and am used to, without them. Watchmen is a work that that I already know well through multiple readings and largely know, in my own head, as a silent work. I realize that this argument is akin to those complaints of fans of old-time radio, who despaired when images were added to their “audio-only” experiences. I suspect I will have many of the same “problems” when I see the live-action version in the theater next week, as I have for most every comic-book based movie to date. I guess I like it the way I like it. By the way, I don’t find the narration and music of the Motion Comic bad or offensive in any way, just personally distracting. I also know that such additions are frequently used to influence emotional reactions, and I can be very resistant to that, especially if I want to experience my own emotional reactions. (This is the secret origin of why most people don’t want to see comic book movies with me.)
One other thing: Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic adapts only the main story from the comics. It doesn’t include “Under the Hood”, “Tales of the Black Freighter”, or any of the back-matter from the original graphic novel. The Tales of the Black Freighter segments will be adapted as a direct-to-video animated feature, along with the “Under the Hood” material, scheduled for DVD release on March 24, 2009. A trailer for that project is included on this disc.
Anyway, to end on my usual bizarre (and not quite serious) note, my biggest disappointment with the Motion Comic is that they didn’t take the animation to its fullest and give everybody “Clutch Cargo lips”. (Or do what they frequently do with Conan O’Brien’s fake celebrity interviews for all you youngsters out there who don’t know what a Clutch Cargo is. Look it up!)
The only extra on the disc is an extensive Wonder Woman sneak peek mini-featurette, featuring leaping comic books and quotes from the voice cast and DC company representatives. This DVD also comes with a coupon worth $7.50 towards admission to the Watchmen movie in theaters. Note that, due to the content, the disc, while not officially rated, is labeled as “inappropriate for viewers younger than 17.” (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)