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In the late 1960s, a series of low-budget TV cartoons were produced based on the Marvel comic books of the day: Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, and Sub-Mariner. These cartoons were produced with an ultra-low budget style of animation that consisted of literally cutting out frames and images from actual comic books, and moving them across the screen in a style that captured (perhaps unintentionally) the look and feel of the comics, complete with leaving in the sound-effects captions. What saved these cartoons from the refuse bin of animation history was the fact that the comic book stories they told happened to take place during the legendary Marvel Comics era of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko. The animation used to make these cartoons was more than compensated by the fantastic, wonderfully campy, over-the-top stories being woven by the Mighty Marvel Bull Pen of the period. Even today, animation fans and comic book fans know about the 1960s Marvel Super Heroes cartoons, and treat them with equal amounts of derision and awe – both of which are well deserved. (Upon viewing these cartoons for the first time, Rev. Ivan Stang commented, "It's Jack Kirby art – half-assed animated!!!")
The Marvel Super Heroes cartoons are worth remembering when one views the newly-released DVD from Warner Bros., Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic. In an obvious attempt to cash in its own hype as it waged a media blitz promotional campaign for the movie adaptation of Watchmen, someone at Warner Bros. decided to make a quick buck for the studio by taking the actual 12-chapter comic book series Watchmen and adapting it into a video format, using the actual frames and drawings from the book. The result? While the finished product is actually entertaining in its own right, Watchmen fanatics may take issue with this DVD as much as they're criticizing the movie. In some ways, that criticism may be justified; but the DVD isn't worthless and it does tell an entertaining story.
As soon as the opening credits begin, one huge glaring omission all but screams in our faces that this is the result of a marketing decision and not someone's idea of a new form of art. That omission, of course, is the name "Alan Moore." Not once does his name appear at all, anywhere on this DVD – obviously due to his insisting that his name be removed from the credits of Zack Snyder's Watchmen movie. But I doubt there is much in the way of behind-the-scenes politics or personal vendettas involved with this production and who gets the credit for it. Warner Bros. is undoubtedly giving him his contracted share of royalties for this DVD, so we can swallow our anger and live with it. Likewise, I hardly see any reason to be upset with Dave Gibbons for being given top billing for this DVD – it was hardly his idea either, I have little doubt. I can picture each of them getting letters or calls from their agents saying, "Warner Bros. is doing this DVD of the book to cash in on the movie – and you're getting paid for it." Their responses would no doubt be, "Okay, whatever," and be done with it.
All right, enough with the yammering about Warner Bros. and the Watchmen movie – what about the DVD? When taken on its own, it's actually not bad at all, largely due to the superb story and artwork that we know from the comic book series itself. A style of limited animation is used to just barely give the drawings the illusion of movement, and a musical soundtrack and background soundtracks add to the picture. The animation itself is bare-bones, as it includes the word balloons from the comics and doesn't animate moving lips. Only one voice actor (Tom Stechschulte) narrates the entire series, and he's given top billing next to Dave Gibbons for this. He does a decent job portraying the many different characters, though it does seem somewhat jarring to have him do the female roles as well as male. (One Amazon.com reviewer noted that this is a standard for audio books as well.) I might quibble with his pronunciation of Rorschach as "Ror-shack." And despite the promotion of this DVD as The Complete Motion Comic, a number of pieces of dialogue between characters are excised completely, in favor of providing a more visual experience: Dan (Nite Owl) explaining the operation of his ship to Laurie (Silk Spectre) as they're taking off for the first time in the middle of the night; some of the dialogue between the newsstand vendor and his customers; and yes, even some of the things Dan and Laurie say to one another as they're having sex for the first time.
For me, the two moments in the story where the animation and sound effects successfully complemented the story occurred during chapter 8 and 12, respectively. In chapter 8, during the prison riot and jailbreak, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are chatting as Rorschach takes a bathroom break – in order to do something unspeakable to the Big Figure, who had just tried to kill him. While Dan and Laurie are talking, we do hear something happening behind them in the bathroom – something that the comics page wasn't able to tell, but the video demonstrates handily. And the opening sequence of chapter 12 is a superb, slow-paced sequence where the "camera" pans across the devastated streets of New York, observing death and destruction at every moment. The city is eerily silent, except for a lonely wind blowing newspapers through the ruined streets. The animation is just right here, and it provides a wonderfully shocking, moving experience.
However, the success of this sequence also demonstrates the difference between the media of comics versus video. While the sound effects and animation certainly enhance the effect of the opening sequence of chapter 12, this differs markedly from the way it was presented in the comic book: a series of full-page images, in which we had the freedom to closely examine any part of the page at a time and focus on individual moments and pastiches. The video doesn't have this freedom, so instead the camera pans back and forth across the scene, in a manner not unlike the difference between pan and scan video and letterboxed full-frame widescreen video – with the DVD being pan-and-scan and the comic book as widescreen. The sequence works on video, but aesthetically it's different from the comic book. What's more, there aren't enough of these successful, cinematic moments on the video – largely because the dialogue is as important as the image, and the video has difficulty giving equal amounts of attention to both images and words.
In addition, Moore's artistic and intentional placement of comic panels is lost in many parts of the video. Because we have time to closely examine the frames of any particular page of the comic, we see the similarities in the images between the opening panel and closing panel of each chapter of the comic. This bit of symbolism is largely lost on the DVD – especially in chapter 11, which opens with an image of white surrounding a blotch of color, and ends with a completely different image of white surrounding a blotch of color. We don't have time to examine this on the video, and it is lost. Moore himself said in an interview that he was proud of the placement of the panels of chapter 5, "Fearful Symmetry," so that the panels of the entire chapter revealed a pattern like that of the left and right mirror sides of a Rorschach blot. Because we can only see one frame at a time in the video, this symmetry is not there.
Perhaps the most glaring omission of all in The Complete Motion Comic – and more proof that this is a marketing tie-in rather than a stand-alone work in its own right – is the complete absence of the fictional supplemental appendices Moore added to each chapter of the comic series. The excerpts from Under The Hood, the New Frontiersman, even the toy marketing materials for Veidt's Ozymandias toy line are gone. These vital pieces to the story could easily have been added, even as simple scans of the actual pages in the book; the person viewing the DVD could have just watched them with a frame-by-frame scan on the DVD player. But they're not there at all. For that matter, what would have stopped them from making a mini-comic of Tales of the Black Freighter and putting it in one section for the viewer to watch? One would think that a "making-of" bonus feature for this DVD would be a given. But none of these are here, and in fact there are no DVD bonuses at all…except for a preview for Warner Bros. upcoming animation DVD of Wonder Woman – and a commercial for the Tales of the Black Freighter supplemental DVD for the Watchmen movie. What could have been a cornucopia of Watchmen-related errata and trivia has been lost…unless, perhaps, some of it appears in the upcoming DVD of the Watchmen movie, which will most likely be out before the end of the summer (because the movie has turned out to be less than a monster Dark Knight-sized blockbuster).
So Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic is less than a perfect DVD viewing experience, and it has its flaws – but, like the Marvel Super Heroes cartoons, the strength of the storytelling mostly makes up for the lack of a quality animated production. Of course, it's been forty years since the Marvel cartoons, and the field of TV and video animation has grown exponentially since then. These days, anyone with a decent PC and Flash video production software could make a video adaptation of a comic in the style that we see on this DVD, though at least this DVD is officially approved by Warner Bros. instead of existing as a fans-only production. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that anyone other than hard-core fans would want this DVD at all. If you want to introduce someone to Watchmen either before or after seeing the movie, the first thing you should do would be to get them a copy of the book. However, if you're a drooling Alan Moore fanboy – and you can forgive Warner Bros. for excising his name completely from the DVD – then Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic still makes for an entertaining few hours.