I’ve decided to go back and re-read some graphic novels and trade paperbacks that I own. I own a slew of them, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found how my tastes have changed.
Right now, I want to talk about Watchmen.
I didn’t read it when it first came out. I didn’t read it when it was first collected. I tried reading it about 10 years ago, before I got into editing, and found the story to be okay, if a bit tedious.
It wasn’t until I got deep into editing and recently re-read the tale that I’ve come to notice just how nearly impossible the book is, and just how perfect the storytelling is, and how most of today’s writers and artists can’t even come close to what Moore and Gibbons did.
Taken as a whole, Watchmen is perfect.
First, understand that in comics, everything is dependent upon everything else. There really isn’t one without the other. They can be spoken of separately, but it’s the whole of the piece that makes comics a very unique artform. (While it may be a “duh” moment, sometimes the obvious needs to be stated, because people forget the obvious.)
The story is told in a 9-panel grid. This is an achievement in itself, because there’s a lot of information to be gotten across in each panel. That isn’t to say that every page has 9 panels on it, but every page takes up the space of 9 panels. There are no irregularly shaped panels for “dynamic” action. Lots of today’s comics waste tons of space with unusually shaped panels. Not Watchmen. All of the space is used extremely thoughtfully. There isn’t a wasted panel. Everything shown has something to do with the story.
There are also a lot of words per panel. This is a very dense read. Moore loaded up on the words, and again, none of them are wasted. Everything either reveals character or moves the plot along. Everything. And there are three basic modes of storytelling here: Rorschach’s journal entries, dialogue, or the text pieces at the end of the chapters. Everything relates back to the story.
The art is something to behold. There are no panels where there it’s just talking heads. Each panel has a setting, and the characters have generally about half their bodies shown, if not more. Not only do they say a lot per panel, but they also move around the environment. I would love to see today’s artists do something similar. And by similar, I mean draw an entire issue in a 9-panel grid, and have actual backgrounds and locations for every panel. Most can’t do it, and we’re all poorer for it.
Now, the panels have to be looked at very carefully, because there’s a lot of information in the art. It isn’t just pretty pictures. It becomes a richer experience by slowing down and actually looking at all the information Gibbons is giving us. Intricate detail, very akin to George Perez putting a billion characters in a single panel and they are all recognizable.
Here’s something else: Dave Gibbons did all the pencils, inks, and letters. This meant he got to lay out everything exactly the way he wanted, and he got to lead the eye the way he wanted to.
Watchmen is a masterclass of storytelling in every sense of the word, and it should be required reading and studied very deeply by everyone who says they want to make comics. Say whatever you want about Moore—this is a seminal work. Go study it now.