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Simple fact: Alan Moore is not an average person. Read or watch his interviews, look at his photos. If you were making a movie and looking to cast a warlock, your job would be super easy. Of course, Moore is deeper than that, and so is Watchmen. The man’s got a powerful look and a powerful voice, which is made up of many, many tones.
For our purposes, his three main ones are devilish, playful, and enlightened. What proves he’s such a talented writer is that he can incorporate all three tones into one short scene. Curtains open: we’re in Antarctica with Nite Owl and Rorschach, who are riding hoverbikes on the way to Karnak for the showdown with Veidt. Here is their exchange on XI.3.4-6:
Nite Owl: And anyway, this is Adrian, for God’s sake! We know him. He never killed anybody, ever. Why would he want to destroy the world?
Rorschach (eating a Sweet Chariot sugar cube): Insanity, perhaps?
Nite Owl: Ha. Well, that’s a tricky one. I mean, who’s qualified to judge something like that? This is the world’s smartest man we’re talking about here, so how can you tell? How can anyone tell if he’s gone crazy?
Okay, let’s break it down. With a straight face, these characters are talking about murder and someone actually trying to bring about the destruction of the world. Rorschach makes light of the whole thing, and that’s only half the joke. They’re riding on hoverbikes and he’s eating a “Sweet Chariot” sugar cube, get it? Moore geeks out with the puns, as you know.
But there’s also philosophy embedded in here, too. Recall the epigraph of the entire book: Who watches the watchmen? How do Nite Owl and Rorschach know if the smartest man is crazy like a fox or just plain crazy? They don’t, they can’t, and neither can we. Some might say that’s nihilistic (believing in nothing), but maybe Moore identifies with Veidt, and is simply more (or, you know, Moore… ) enlightened than the rest of us. Sorry, we couldn’t resist.
Think of reading comics like learning a new language. There’s a visual vocabulary and a grammar, too. Flip to a random page of Watchmen. Chances are it’s a 3 x 3 (three panels to a row, three rows to a column). If not, like, say, the first appearance of Dr. Manhattan on I.20.1, why does Dave Gibbons break form? In this instance, the answer’s simple. The big blue guy is larger than life, and so he stands three rows tall. For another example of freestyling, go to the climax of the book on XI.28. The panels are rapid-fire here, as the characters fade to white. Because the way a graphic novel looks is just as much a tool for story telling as the words included are, breaks in visual patterns are clues to pay close attention. Something important is happening.
Also, color matters. Let’s look outside Watchmen to wrap our heads around just how much color matters. You know stop lights? You know stop signs? They’re both red. They both tell us to do the same thing, too. Now picture one of those glowing exit signs. What color are they? Yup. Red. And they tell us how to stop our experience of a place, how to leave it. This is just a small example, but we can see that red is sending us similar messages time and again. This sort of communication-through-color happens all over the place, and Watchmen is no exception.
“Finally,” colorist John Higgins is saying, “somebody’s thinking about me! Enough with the bearded guy already!” Time to break out the color wheel. That cover is blinding yellow, the brightest color to the human eye. To contrast with that, we have tons of purple, too. That’s the royal color, and a favorite of Adrian Veidt. Interestingly enough, yellow and purple sit directly across from each other on the color wheel. Could Higgins be trying to tell us something about the Comedian and Veidt? What do you make of the fact that Dr. Manhattan is blue and Nite Owl is brown?
Each character belongs somewhere inside a box of Crayola crayons, and that’s well and good. Also of interest, though, is the way color balances and works on the page. Flip to the first page of Chapter II. The panels alternate light/dark as we cut back and forth from Edward Blake’s rainy funeral in New York to Laurie Jupiter paying her mom Sally a visit in sunny SoCal. Color symbolizes mood, power, and personality, and seeping meaning into our brains without us even noticing it.
So why are certain moments in particular shades or hues? That’s as fair game for analysis as any one of Moore’s lines of dialogue. Speaking of text, Gibbons has hand-written every word in the book. In comics, you’re allowed, even encouraged, to embolden things for emphasis. As you might’ve noticed, we mostly stick to italics here in Shmoopland though.
One of the other visual moves that make Watchmen unique happens in mini-Chapters A-K. To make Under the Hood seem real, Gibbons adds a paper clip and a photocopied-look, as if they were actual objects. Same with most of the other included bits, whether they’re letters to Sally Jupiter or notes by Adrian Veidt. They’re all artifacts; you can practically pick them up and feel them. This is an important detail, because this story is about people first, and superheroes second.
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