I caught up with the Watchmen series on HBO last night, episode three. Easter eggs and character references aside, it remains very much a Damon Lindelof creation, which is to say, like Lost and The Leftovers, it’s very much in the early-stage process of flooding the screen with mysteries that will, over time, be sorted out, presumably.
I’m old enough that I read the original Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, when it first came out. That 12-issue series was, combined contemporaneously with The Dark Knight Returns (written by Frank Miller), the comic that got me back into reading comics during college, after I took a break from them toward then end of high school. What really captured my imagination in Watchmen the comic wasn’t just the story, or the critique of superheroes, or the meta-narrative, but the structure on the page. Its famously rigid grid and the use of visual motifs, most notably the blood-specked smiley face, gave it a formal self-consciousness unlike any comic I recall having read before. By the time I read Watchmen, I had ditched computer science as my college major and focused on English, which is to say literature. Watchmen was a playground for a mind currently being trained to observe how texts function.
I came to the Lindelof sequel (extrapolation? spin-off? fork?) wondering how that formal quality would carry over. The HBO series has story, and critique, and meta in spades. The structural features, however, haven’t been anywhere near as present as they were in the comic. Sure, the first episode had lots of circles (reminiscent of the smiley-face pin), and the third episode connected the shape of a certain Dr. Manhattan device with the shape of vestibules that people enter so as to send messages to Dr. Manhattan (in other words, insertion goes both ways). But the show is, ultimately, a TV show. It hasn’t in any way reduced or simplified its storytelling devices the way the original comic did. If anything, it draws fully from the peak-TV toolkit: big name casts, movie-grade camerawork, an utter dismissal anything episodic.
All this was on my mind last night as the episode (“She Was Killed by Space Junk”) played. The world outside my window got darker, and the street quieter, and thus the show louder. I lowered its volume, and eventually turned on the captions. Which is when quite suddenly, Watchmen, for the first time, really reminded me of a comic book:
I was already a bit soured on the extent to which the series is, in any way, wrestling with the formal qualities of the original comic (credit shared by Dave Gibbons, its illustrator). Now I wonder how the show might, creatively, engage with captioning, not merely as a point of connection with comic-book techniques, but as a relatively untapped element of TV narratives. I feel like if Alan Moore (long story, yeah, never happening), or Denis Potter (well, dead), or Terence Davies (OK, it’d be a little slow for the intended audience, but I’d love it), or Jane Campion (aside: just imagine the Michael Nyman score), or Peter Greenaway (ditto) were tasked with adapting Watchmen for TV, captions would have been embraced before the first meeting of the writers room broke for lunch.