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Watching the Watchmen

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By now, it practically goes without saying that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is a work of brilliance. With its gritty deconstruction of superheroes, complex structure, and skillful, mature execution, it holds a place alongside the great works of comics. Now, as Warner Bros. prepares to spread Watchmen’s vision to a wider audience with a film adaptation, Dave Gibbons and Titan Books take a look back at the creation of this extraordinary work.

Reading Watching the Watchmen is like a getting a glimpse at Gibbons’ scrapbook. The pages are filled with sketches, storyboards, character designs, script excerpts, color guides, promotional art, and kitschy merchandise of all stripes. Practically every detail of the graphic novel’s origins, visual development, and aftermath is examined. All of this is beautifully arranged by Chip Kidd (known for his work on similar comics history tomes such as Batman Animated and Jack Cole and Plastic Man) and book designer Mike Essl. Kidd and Essl’s innovative page layouts and artful photography of the original drawings transform the book into a visual feast. Organizing such a massive amount of material had to have been no easy task and the designers are to be commended on their work.

Those already familiar with the story are given an opportunity to see aspects of it in a half-finished, larval state. Readers can watch the genesis of Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, the Comedian, and the others as Gibbons and Moore gradually work out the final designs and names for their creations. Among the more eye-opening steps of the evolution are a drawing of the original Nite-Owl created during Gibbons’ youth (very much in the style of Golden Age Jack Kirby) and an early concept of Rorschach with a full-body ink blot costume. It’s fascinating to see an almost universally acclaimed story during a work-in-progress stage, reminding us of the thought and care that went into creating it and the disparate directions it could have taken.

Simultaneously with the artistic journey, we get a behind-the-scenes overview of the creation of a comic book circa 1985. In the days before word processors, email, and computer coloring, the business of comics was a decidedly different process. Gibbons muses on the expensive air mail delivery and even cab rides that his artwork undertook, as well as the occasional battle with a misguided or overzealous post office attendant. He heaps overdue praise on unsung heroes of the process, such as colorist John Higgins who guest-writes a chapter to discuss his technique and moody palette choices.

Perhaps most importantly, Gibbons addresses the role that Watchmen and its contemporaries had on securing creator rights and royalties in an era when comic book writers and artists were considered exploitable commodities. Watching the Watchmen calls attention to the series’ significance to the industry—not just in the way its source material elevated the art form of comics but in the impact it had on the prestige and the rights of those who create that art form.

Most fans familiar with the series know of its origins with the Charlton Comics heroes and Alan Moore’s early story pitch. But there are a number of surprising secrets, coincidences, and, as Gibbons terms it, "weirdness" connected with Watchmen that may not have been previously known. Smiley faces on the moon, Grateful Dead album art with eerie significance, an uncannily similar Outer Limits episode, and a grocery bag autographed by Archie Goodwin are among the more unusual oddities discussed. These previously unknown tidbits combine with the step-by-step overview of the book’s artistic development to make Watching intriguing to both the eyes and mind.

With artist Gibbons at the helm, the focus of Watching the Watchmen is primarily on the artwork and anecdotes about the creative process. An insightful analysis or commentary on the plot and themes of the graphic novel is not the book’s intention and at any rate, much has been written in that vein elsewhere. What Watching does present is a fascinating snapshot of a phenomenon in the making and two ambitious creators who gradually began to realize what it was they had.

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Watching the Watchmen was released October 21, 2008 by Titan Books.

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