Monday, January 30, 2012

A Note on the Back-Matter in Watchmen

Most people today have probably read Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen in a collected edition.  This is something we, as readers, have become accustomed to.  And within many of these collections we are used to getting “extras,” whether that be an introduction or sketchbook pages or bits of script, similar to the DVD extras that come packaged with today’s movies.  It’s a bonus for picking up the collection, and, for me, it can be a major selling point for a trade paperback. 

What some people may not realize is that all of the prose back-matter in Watchmen – at least those portions that follow each of the first eleven chapters in the collection – is original to the story.  These pages filled out the remainder of each individual issue, providing 32 pages of story with no ads – something rare in 1986 and even rarer (if not unheard of) today, at least from DC and Marvel.  Moore and Gibbons, from the outset, wanted to do something different and, as part of that, chose to utilize the entirety of the comic book to tell this story, and they managed to convince the powers-that-be at DC at the time this was a good idea.

Comics, as a medium, is often criticized for its literary limitations (for lack of a better term).  The medium’s reliance on the artists’ renditions – restricting the amount of words comfortably included on any given page – is one major reason for this.  It is difficult to create a dense, fully-realized narrative within these strictures.  Which does not mean it is impossible. Taking the pages allotted for ads and using them for these prose pieces is one way Moore and Gibbons managed to add that depth to Watchmen that is so often missing from comic stories.  

Characters and situations only touched upon in the main narrative get elaborated upon in these prose pieces.  But Moore doesn’t wish to shift the exposition from the comic pages to these prose pieces; he is artful in the connections between the main narrative and these extra bits.  One must pay attention to items in the background of the images of the comic pages and then make the links to details dropped in the prose in order to get the entirety of the story.  Warren Ellis modified this approach with the Image series he created with Ben Templesmith, Fell, acknowledging a debt to Moore in the inclusion of back-matter with every issue as a way to justify the cost of the comic to readers and to provide those readers with a fulfilling “slab” of entertainment. 

I know there are people who prefer to ignore these text pieces, and they are still able to get a full story from the comic pages.  But if one dives in and reads these varied pieces (the next couple of chapters include more excerpts from Mason’s Under the Hood, but subsequent chapters will have a variety of items, including psychological profiles and celebrity interviews), one finds that these “extras” enhance and enrich the overall story. 

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