Episode 20 – Watchmen


 “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.”

Mike and Casey are charging our electric cars, voting for Richard Nixon, and getting a booth in the Gunga Diner with Ask an Atheist‘s Sam Mulvey, and Rob Kelly of the Fire and Water Podcast. Our topic, the 1986 mini-series that has been labeled “the greatest comic book of all time,” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen.

We dig into the series’ aggressive and intentionally unflattering deconstruction of the superhero genre, the often uncomfortable morality and motivations of its characters, and the controversial and underwhelming 2009 Zack Snyder film adaptation.

*for those interested in donating to a great cause we mention on the podcast, please check out the Hero Intiative.
“Pruit Igoe and Prophecies” from Watchmen (and Koyaanisqatsi) by Philip Glass

Previously titled: “You’re Gonna Like This. It’s Got G. Gordon Liddy in it!”

10 thoughts on “Episode 20 – Watchmen

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  2. I came slightly late to Watchmen; about the time that issue 9 was on the stands. I had mostly fallen out of comics, by high school, apart from a few things, like X-Men and New Teen Titans, with the odd book here or there. I didn’t have a comic shop and newsstands in my area were few. I did, however, discover the independents, thanks to a small bookstore that was apparently getting their comics via the direct market. They had the Nexus magazine issues and the early First Comics, and some Pacific Comics. I picked up Jon Sable and American Flagg; and, I thought, “This is cool, this is different!” When I got to college the next year, I discovered my first comic shop. However, money was tight, so I didn’t buy a lot, at first. However, that time in college coincided with the revolution going on at DC, with Crisis on Infinite Earths and Swamp Thing, followed closely by Dark Knight and Watchmen. Suddenly, comics were interesting again. I was still exploring these new independent companies (some of whom had been around longer than I knew); but, I was back to exploring DC. Not so much Marvel, though I had read a bit of Miller, on Daredevil (again, high school). Marvel wasn’t offering a lot that jumped out at me, though I was later to discover some of the things I had missed, from the Epic Line.

    I bought the entire run of Watchmen for a few bucks (amazing that I could get the entire 9 issues for cover or less, in light of what was to follow) and then sat down to read it. I kept reading and reading, astounded by what was going on, compared to the superhero books of my past. It was adult; but, not because of graphic violence. These were people with real psychological problems, messed up relationships, fears, failings, strengths, noble qualities, horrible qualities. It was a really “mature” comic. However, as I read it, I kept thinking along traditional comic lines. i figured that the killer was Hooded Justice, because he had disappeared, presumed dead, but no body had been positively identified. I assumed the dead circus strongman was a fake or coincidence. Traditional logic was the character who disappeared, presumed dead, was alive and well and about to make a reappearance. I thought I was so clever. I bought the remaining issues as they came out and soon discovered I was way off base. I couldn’t figure out how I missed it, as I read the finale. Then, I went back and reread it, after finishing issue 12. I suddenly saw all of the hints along the way. I saw the little details I was glossing over, since I wasn’t so caught up in plot. I paid attention to the back pages. It was like finding the Rosetta Stone. I needed to gain knowledge of the language to understand what was being said and I didn’t originally have that until the end.

    Watchmen so perfectly encapsulated the elements that are unique to comic storytelling. I bristle every time I see or hear an interview where some producer or director says comics are ready made storyboards. they aren’t, because they have dialogue and narration and inner monologue. It’s hard to do that in movies. Comics allow you to linger and absorb the story, while film is always moving. Watchmen requires you to linger to fully grasp everything that is going on. Dave Gibbons’ art seems simplistic in its layout; but, it’s actually quite sophisticated. Roarschach’s story is done so that the first page mirrors the last page, with each subsequent mirroring the one at the end, until you get to the double page image in the center. That’s brilliant; but, you don’t necessarily recognize it, as you read it. The Tales of the Black Freighter seems like an odd divergence, until you see how it is mirroring the story, once you understand the full story and the true power behind the events. The movie couldn’t do that.

    I was hopeful when Terry Gilliam was attached to direct; but, wasn’t surprised when he gave up, saying a single movie could never begin to convey the story. he was right. I skipped the 300; but, knew enough of Snyder to be skeptical. I sat through the film and it was what I expected; a surface gloss that captured the look of certain panels; but, missed the entire subtext of the writing. Snyder just isn’t a long form storyteller. He is best in short segments, like the video world he came from, much like another video director-turned-movie director, Russell Mulcahy. I love Highlander; but more for the ideas it plants in my head than the film. I don’t even get that here. Snyder’s opening montage is great, the origin of Dr Manhattan is great. The rest isn’t. It’s all artificial and everything looks artificial, which undercuts the reality that was there in the comic. Gibbons world looked real. Slightly different than ours; but, lived in. Snyder’s looked like a computer fantasy. he made the mistake that many comic book writers and lots of fans did: Roarschach isn’t a character to idolize. He’s a seriously messed up puppy. he makes Batman look like Superman, by comparison.

    I’m with Rob, in that my high point is what Watchmen meant to the industry and the time that produced it. 1985-86 was a really fantastic time to be a comic fan, especially if you had outgrown a lot of what the mainstream had to offer. The Big Two were experimenting (more Dc than Marvel) and a whole new group of people were there saying, “Comics can be other things.” When I was a kid, you still had westerns, humor, scif-fi, horror, romance, religion, and other things in comics. As I grew older, you mostly were left with superheroes and they got pretty repetitive. There were the exceptional books that stood out, like X-Men, or Daredevil, or the Engelhart/Rogers Batman; but, not a lot. Now, you had Cerebus, Love & Rockets, Elfquest, Nexus, Scout, Miracleman, Neil the Horse, Jon Sable, Grendel, Mage, First Kingdom, Swamp Thing, and so many more. The mainstream media suddenly sat up and took notice. I could actually write a paper looking at the history of comic books, as a reflection of the cultural history of the US, in the 20th Century, and get an A, without any academic poo-pooing, because I was talking about subliterate children’s material. It was a great time.

    Great episode, guys.

  3. Excellent podcast, guys. Like the book itself, I’m probably going to have to listen more than once to really get everything out of it.

    I wholeheartedly share your views on Before Watchmen. Although I haven’t read the comics (nor do I ever intend to), my problem is with the concept itself. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is a complete, finished work. Everything we need to know about that world and those characters is contained in that book. Anything else is fanfic, and every creator involved in that horribly ill-advised project slipped down a notch in my eyes. Even Darwyn Cooke, whom I worship like unto a god.

    The whole project seems intended as nothing more than a giant Fuck You to Alan Moore, whose name and legacy DC have been leeching off since the 80s. Dan Didio (DC co-publisher at the time) described BW as “A love letter to Watchmen”. Comicbook writer Dan Slott more accurately described it as “more of an I’m-sleeping-with-your-girlfriend-now letter”.

    Finally, a minor correction. Watchman was lettered by Dave Gibbons himself, and it is indeed his lettering that the abomination known as Comic Sans is based on.


  4. That was one fantastic episode, everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it (even more so than usual, I should say).
    You’ve also got me morbidly curious about the movie now; last year I saw about 5 minutes of it on TV, the part in which Dan and Laurie are breaking Rorschach out of prison, and found it too much like a straight-up super-hero action movie (which Watchmen is definitely NOT supposed to be) and switched the channel. That just confirmed what I thought when I first heard it was coming out, i.e., it just not something I want to see. Now, however, I’m wondering if it’s worth the 3.5 hours (ouch!) to see just how bad it truly is, Sam’s lamentations notwithstanding. (I’m still unwavering in my firm intention to never touch any of the Before Watchmen stuff, and you guys all just reinforced my convictions on that point.)

    • @Edo,

      Take it from me: no need to crack open Before Watchmen.

      However, I’d recommend spinning the Zach Snyder’s film, at least once. If only to chew on the Dr. Manhattan montage. It’s truly a beautiful piece of visual storytelling (all cribbed note for note from Moore/Gibbons, of course), but it’s a hypnotizing miasma of psychotropic voodoo. <– {Film criticism technobabble, delivered just for you}

      However, I'd recommend watching the Theatrical Cut, which is a merciful 2 hours 42 minutes of cinema.

      As an aside, I don't think I spoke up enough amidst the pile-on of Snyder-bashing that happened on the show; I don't despise it as much as my 3 comrades. I think it does "miss the mark" of being an anti-superhero superhero movies (and the very real sense of existential dread during the Reagan-era 80s, and turns it into a quaint historical afterthought), but it retains the integrity of a movie that is unafraid to portray an ugly, ugly world, and show the brave few who will deign to defend it.

  5. I remember vaguely when the movie came out. To me it looked like it would be another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but after listening to the show I bought a copy of the comic to read.

  6. I just wanted to say thank you. My only experience before this podcast with regards to Watchmen was the movie, which I dismissed. I missed the hype as I was overseas for the release and only caught it on DVD later. I own it, but I think I’ve only ever played it once.

    This podcast inspired me to give the property a second look, however and I picked up the hardbound edition from Barnes and Noble on sale.

    This is probably the best $25 I’ve spent in a decade. You’ve introduced me to a story that I’ll read over and over looking for subtle nuances and changes in perspective for years to come. This comic is what all other comics should aspire to be.

    As a side note, your episode on Conan is what I play for my friends who ask what a podcast is. It’s accessible, entertaining and easy to digest while being content heavy. The other episodes are almost as good, but the Watchmen and the Conan episodes rank at the top of my list.

    Do you have a Patreon? I’d donate.

    • Paul,

      I’m really gratified to read your comment. If there’s one thing that I want to hear from listeners, it’s that we’d gotten them to give something a chance and found something awesome.

      Watchmen is seriously one of my favorite things of all time, and I’m glad you tried it. Thanks for the kind words on this and the Conan panels. This show really is a labor of love for Casey and me, and comments like this make all the work worth it.

      As for Patreon, we don’t have one…yet. But we’ve definitely talked about it. Thanks again!

      • Just chiming in to say I completely agree with Paul’s impeccable taste: the Conan and Watchmen episodes are my favorites – basically tied for first place (the PotA and Bond eps are second and third).

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