While the origins of the "graphic novel" can be dated as far back as the 1930s, it wasn't until the 1970s with the publication of Blackmark that an underground movement, viewed as an "alternative" to mainstream comics, suddenly emerged. Comprised of four short stories about growing up in the Bronx, Will Eisner's A Contract With God (1978) later revolutionized the format, receiving critical success and cementing its status as a viable literary medium. Now viewed as a groundbreaking classic, the semi-autobiographical novel has influenced many with its mature and complicated subject matter about contemporary immigrant life. But it would be another decade before the media finally took notice of the genre and brought it some much needed attention from the general public. Three novels, in particular, challenged readers to rethink stereotypes of the storytelling form of comics.
As a story about one man's struggle to connect with his stubborn and distant father, Art Spiegelman's Maus was immediately celebrated for introducing an emotional and psychological complexity to the genre. Broken into two volumes, it recounts his father's experience at Auschwitz and went on to be the first and only illustrated novel to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. That same year saw the publication of Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which charted bestseller lists and today is considered one of the best tellings of the Cape Crusader, with an older Bruce Wayne troubled by the conditions of Gotham. The following year, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons released their twelve-issue limited series Watchmen as a novel-length comic, stunning audiences and becoming a commercial success. Honored with being the only graphic novel to be included on Time magazine's "All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels", the narrative and structure was a radical approach that scrutinized the concept of the superhero. Twenty years later, Watchmen continues to be as popular as ever and is still respected as an innovative masterpiece of the genre.
For those uninitiated, the novel takes place in an alternate 1985 reality. Though oddly similar to our world, the emergence of costumed crime fighters in the 1930s significantly altered the course of history, one where the U.S. wins the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon serves his fourth term as president. In 1977, the Keene Act outlawed all acts of masked vigilantism, forcing many into retirement, while two became government-sanctioned operates (Doctor Manhattan and The Comedian) and one, the near-psychopathic Rorschach, fights crime as a wanted criminal. One October night, the murder of Edward Blake interests Rorschach and reveals him to be the man behind The Comedian. Fearing a conspiracy against costumed adventurers, he sets out to warn his former comrades: the Batman-esque Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl, the successful businessman Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, an angst-ridden Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre, and the only true superhero of the series Dr. Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan. As the investigation progresses, Rorschach, along with Nite Owl, uncovers a plot more sinister and gruesome than he initially expected.
One of the most brilliant aspects of the series is the way in which our understanding of the superhero is deconstructed, given a more realistic and human fascination, and confronted with contemporary real-world events. Unlike its peers, Watchmen is more dramatic and lacks the action-packed heroics typical of comics. Also missing is a central villain or villains commonly utilized to move the story forward. Instead, the characters must cope with the world as it truly is: a dark and unpredictable existence, driven by fear and uncertainty of the future. As a mirror to our universe, the 1980s were very much defined by a constant awareness that the Cold War was reaching its breaking point and that nuclear holocaust was imminent. As nihilistically existential as that may sound, the idea posits these would-be superheroes against issues of power and the failure of salvation. If the ending feels at all like a bit of let down due to its build up, that's also partly the point and clearly expressed by Bernie's reaction in reading the comic within the comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, which analogizes the whole of the narrative.
Added to this seriousness, our protagonists are deeply flawed and heavily haunted by their pasts, each one almost characterizing a certain aspect of living in the 80s, as well as certain superhero archetypes. Much like the inkblot from which he takes his name, Walter Kovacs/Rorschach is an ambiguous personality that seems to fight crime as a means to battle his own demons. The Comedian is a complex character who claims to understand the world as it truly is and roughly epitomizing the harshly conservative and cynical worldview that society needs him for leadership and order. Emotionally detached from humanity, Doctor Manhattan serves not only as a reminder of nuclear threat, but also as a philosopher struggling with his own limitations to save humans from themselves, despite his powers. (Funny, that The Comedian is the one to bring this to his attention in Vietnam.) As the world's smartest man, Ozymandias typifies the desire to achieve greatness by any means necessary and a great embodiment of Shelley's most famous sonnet. His actions open doors to the discussion of Nietzsche's central theme of the "Master-slave morality". While Dan Dreiberg ideally captures that essence of self-doubt and insecurity of the world's future, Laurie Juspeczyk personifies the loss of childhood, growing up bitter and angry at living someone else's dream.
With elements of its critique on superheroes clearly seen in television shows like Heroes, the Watchmen universe continues to be an influential literary work that changed the way many look and read comics. Timed with the debut of Zack Snyder's film adaption, Warner Bros. released what they called "The Complete Motion Comic" on Blu-ray, a presentation that offers a new and unique way to experience the popular graphic novel. Under the guidance of Dave Gibbons, all twelve chapters were recreated (panel-by-panel, page-by-page) to give the characters some limited mobility, while retaining their original look, and shown as half-hour episodes. A few things were changed for the sake of time (e.g., excerpts from Hollis Mason's book, Under the Hood), but the end result is nothing short of phenomenal. Actor Tom Stechschulte provides the narration that while good, can sometimes be a bit jarring, as he also does the voices of female characters. With a terrific musical score by Lennie Moore and fine direction, this is the closest fans will ever get to the perfect adaptation of the Watchmen.
The 2-D world of comics is not a style one would expect to yield great picture quality in high definition, especially when compared to the 3-D animation of computer-generated feature films, but equipped with a 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.85:1), Warner Bros. delivers an outstanding video presentation that stunningly reproduces the original artwork of Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. Looking exactly as the title implies, Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic features a boldly saturated palette of colors, which pop from the screen with vibrancy and perfectly replicate the illustrated universe of masked avengers. While primaries are resplendently solid and pure, secondary hues are well-balanced and accurate within each frame, creating distance and a sense of three-dimensional space.
The picture is incredibly well-defined and crystal clear, revealing a great wealth of information and exposing the most trivial objects with superb clarity. The original line art of characters, background items, and text within speech bubbles are resolute and distinct. The few moments of softness during camera movement are intentional and provide the image with a breathtaking depth of field. What looks like chroma noise on Dr. Manhattan is also deliberate to better reflect his living in a quantum universe constructed of neutrinos, as well as other elementary particles. Contrast and brightness levels are precise, exhibiting sharp, clean whites and intensely rich blacks that give the overall image a wonderful spatial reality. What will surely be one of the most surprising video presentations of the year, Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic is a daring experiment that pays off emphatically on Blu-ray, for both diehard and casual fans alike.
As with the video, little would be expected from an animated feature that aims to imitate its source exactly, particularly one where dialogue and character interaction is paramount. But Warner Bros. surprises again with a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that enhances the on-screen action and adds appreciable ambiance. A generally front-heavy presentation, random noises spread and fill the front soundstage with marvelous clarity and definition, feeling lively and robust.
Considering the fact that vocals are of the greatest importance here, Tom Stechschulte's narration is well prioritized within the center of the screen and consistently intelligible, demonstrating wonderful tonal differences between characters. The original musical score by Lennie Moore is equally impressive, as individual instruments within the orchestration are clearly distinguishable and delivered with great fidelity and a smooth dynamic range. Wavering between the fantastical and the heroic, the music also bleeds into the rear speakers, however light and subtle, generating a more involving experience. Although atmospheric effects are used sparingly, the design mix can be brilliant and engaging at times, with fantastic imaging and separation between channels, and supported by an adequate low-bass response for some added weight. This lossless track efficiently complements the already excellent picture quality of Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic.
Unfortunately for fans of the Watchmen universe, the supplement package provided by Warner Bros. is rather lackluster, with not a single feature related to the production of the series. But after five and a half hours of being submerged in the world of costumed crime-fighters, there is little room to complain, especially with three of the features being exclusive to the Blu-ray.
For anyone growing up in the 80s, Watchmen changed the way people perceived comics and the superheroes contained within, and was widely read by adults as well as kids. Twenty years later, and timed with Zack Snyder's film adaptation, Warner Bros. releases Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic which aims to maintain the original look and feel of the illustrated novel, while providing a sense of mobility to this alternate universe. With superb picture quality, an admirable lossless soundtrack, and a couple of exclusive goodies, this Blu-ray presentation is clearly the one to own. For anyone with a mild curiosity to see a classic novel come to life, give this series a spin before watching Snyder's version. For fans, Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic makes a great addition to the collection and is worth the purchase.