Next month Watchmen will hit our cinema screens. Adapted from a graphic novel first published between 1986 and 1987. As the Cold War disintegrated and America became the last Super Power on earth. These are the heroes of DC Comics and Marvel twisted to suit the ambivalent 1980s. Superheroes battling against reality. Superheroes born not from a meteor shower, but from the depths of their own imaginings.
The book was created by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons. This isnt the first of Moores stories to be transferred from comic book to film. He is the imaginative force behind The League of extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta. Graphic novels adapt themselves easily (if not always successfully) to film. The story boards immediately provide a visual skeleton. And they combine traits of most Hollywood blockbusters fantastical scenes and violent action with minimal dialogue. The narrative is utilitarian. It gets the job done in bold letters. This is sound bite fiction. With dialogue that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the films of Quentin Tarantino. The speech bubbles are littered with slang. They punch. And what gets said is sharp and to the point. It has to be.
Watchmen is a crossroads in the evolution of the superhero. It represents a moment of disillusionment. Watchmens heroes are more or less unpleasant. They are compromised by personal emotions. By their pasts. By their desires. By their hatred becoming personal. They are created and motivated into action by the affects of their dysfunctional environments. The larger than life personas they assume become projections of that dysfunction. These are themes of characterization which would be picked up and applied by film director Christopher Nolan in Dark Knight. The first truly adult depiction of a superhero on film. Christian Bales Batman has no superhuman strengths. He cant fly. He doesnt have enormous strength. He cant climb unaided up walls. He doesnt have x-ray vision. He has no specific powers. He is motivated by anger. By fury. Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent has seen his principles tested beyond endurance. He becomes Two-Face as a result. A man who only allows for black or white decisions. Decisions that are unfair and based on cold chance. The Joker is a product of his background. His nihilism instructed by a broken childhood. There is no spaceship from Krypton delivering salvation or destruction to earth. Watchmen laid down the blue print for this type of superhero. The Comedians state sponsored murder sprees. His blood lust given free reign and rubber stamped by authority provided he killed the right people. These are men and women who have been created by the world around them. They are human beings. Flawed. Perverted. Obscured. Compromised. They have nurtured their problems until they manifest into action. This is pro-active psychoanalysis. They are Charles Bronson in a cape and mask. This is the superhero world created in Watchmen. And its this basis in reality that makes Watchmen so pivotal.
Watchmans only genuine, for lack of a better phrase, superhero is Dr. Manhattan. He is the only character in the book who has special powers. Created like the Hulk or Spiderman in a lab by mistake. Method, results, conclusion gone wrong. Dr. Manhattan has apparently limitless power. He can change his physical dimensions. He transports himself to Mars. He builds cities from the sand. He can modify and create matter. He cares about nothing. He is ambivalent. Manhattan symbolizes the modern superhero. The blind worship of celebrity. He is America.
The rest of the characters are essentially everyday people. Maybe theyve gone crazy down at the gym. Loaded up on Benzedrine and Testosterone. Gone to town with the Canadian Airforce training manual. But they are real people nonetheless. And they perform deeds which we are all capable of. I see it in my friends. It is Flaming Cross stalking the dark streets of Manchester. His encyclopaedic knowledge of World War 2 projected onto the present day. He brings justice to the post-Satanic North. He wears a leather SS trench coat. A Gefechtshelm on his shaven scalp. Jack boots. Hes swinging a night stick. Coshing ASBO teens. He sleeps swathed in a Union Jack. He listens to the Smiths. He rips anti-social drivers from the seats of their Seat Leons and BMWs, street justice for the illegal use of a bus lane. Triumph of the Will. Flaming Cross. AKA Reichsman. AKA Suedehead. I see it in Bootneck. Cammed up. A blood-stained green beret on his head. A hunting knife strapped to his leg. Gutting drug dealers in the Dearne Valley. Leaving their disembowelled bodies swinging from lampposts in Thurnscoe. Creating blood angels. His guilty victims furled in the wings created by their own exposed lungs. He lives with the memory of the Orkney Uprising of 1997. The islanders disrupting the economy with their oil refinery raids. The 713 unit of the Royal Marines sent in to sort it. Killing crofters in hand to hand fighting. His comrades brutally scythed down by booby trapped beer kegs. His dreams haunted by the cries of violated sheep.
The heroes of Watchmen are you and me. What they become is what we are capable of being. What we might be if we let loose. If we didnt restrain ourselves. If we knew no boundaries. We see glimpses. In our moments of road rage. In drunken town centre brawls. In obsessive neighbour arguments over litter and parking. Our anger. Our fury. Our potential for self-righteous justice. The brutal satisfaction of all our frustrations. These are anti-heroes in the truest sense. There are no simple, altruistic champions of humanity. Crime fighting is a personal addiction. A need. A justification.