Watchmen and its relationship to film techniques

special to Comichron by Neil Dorsett
Originally published in Comics Buyer's Guide

It's been years since the first issue of Watchmen hit the stands, but the series' profound influence on the comic-book medium is still being felt. The main reasons are its plot and characters, of course, but Watchmen, as scripted by Alan Moore and rendered by Dave Gibbons, displays a subtle touch far above and beyond the call of duty; attention to transitions.

The subtle transition from shot to shot confounds many in comic books; the irregularly shaped panels do not always lend themselves to linear, focused storytelling. Watchmen's story required such even pacing that it shouldn't surprise us to see techniques of cinematographers and film editors, for whom shot transition is so vital, added to the creators' bag of comics tricks. And Moore and Gibbons were even able to achieve new techniques which, while clearly inspired by approaches from film, could not exist in any form other than the sequential panel and page.

"Compositional poetry"

While not every page of Watchmen is a grid of nine panels, virtually all of them are at least based upon it. This put Gibbons in the position of a cinematographer, working continually within the same shape. To further the filmic analogy, the larger panels scattered throughout the story could be equated with the momentary enlargement of the emotional context as generate, say, by a movie's soundtrack and score.
More interesting, though, are the transitions from panel to panel and page to page. The page in Watchmen is much like the paragraph of prose, completing a thought while still propelling the reader forward into something new but related. And the subtle turns between panels and pages run the gamut of punctuation.

The ironic voiceover. The pattern of images juxtaposed with dialogue from a different but concurrent scene is a device used throughout Watchmen and is an example of a single type of transition used to amazing dramatic effect. There are several sequences in the story which rely on this technique, used in nearly identical ways. From the story's opening scene with the two detectives to the fight in the alley during Dr. Manhattan's TV interview, to Dan and Laurie's first unsuccessful tryst, the pattern of juxtaposing dialogue or narration with a relatively unrelated scene continues throughout. From "Tales of the Black Freighter" all the way to the climactic revelation of Laurie's father's identity, the technique mixes time and space to produce a dramatic edge which may well be the exclusive province of word-and-picture storytelling. There is usually a panel-to-panel transitive effect or two somewhere within these juxtaposed scenes, but the cues are more verbal.

The flickering panel. The more interesting and subtle forms of transition in Watchmen, however, are those which are purely visual -- and more or less exclusive to the comics form. As Moloch describes the Comedian's drunken rant, the neon sign outside his window flicks on and off, turning the two-page spread into a checkerboard. The scene parallels Blake's anguish at a world where good and evil are just on and off like the sign, on and off like the binary blots with which Rorschach shows such identification. The checkerboard motif is repeated during the jailbreak of issue #7.
The broken zoom. Some scenes in comics require transitions that they would not on film. In film, a zoom isn't a transition at all but a type of single shot, where in comics the same shot must be broken across several panels.  Panels 4-7 of page 20 of #12 illustrate this, as the point of view moves within the group of former Crimebusters to settle upon Rorschach's face. Other "substitutive" transitions are found in what would be, in film, merely still shots or horizontal pans. Actually, if Watchmen had been a movie, the number of still shots would seem extremely low, and for good reason: They're the ones which stretch dialogue to impossible lengths, which we don't notice as much in comics storytelling. Observe #8's page 11, where artist Hira Manish is able to complete a large, detailed sketch of the "alien" while holding a lively and short conversation with Shea, the missing writer. At the other extreme, pages 22 and 23 of #10 are linked with a "jump cut" spanning at least a few hours.

Persistence of visuals. Most interesting, though, are the transitions in which the panel's basic composition is retained while the subjects rendered become different, usually indicating a change of scene. Many of these are quite clear, such as the gull-to-chicken of #5, pages and 10. Others are wonderfully hidden: Notice how little Bernie's cigarette becomes the blinking phone light, completing the transition between pages 21 and 22 of #5 along with the other compositional similarities.
The number of these transitions and flourishes decreases as Watchmen progresses. It's a necessary function of its novelic nature: The plot, after all, kicks into high gear, and this type of parallel transition isn't as functional during, say, a jailbreak. But as Watchmen edges toward its conclusion, the device reappears, as Rorschach and Dreiberg veer in on the South Pole, and we are treated to a final use of the technique on pages 22 and 23 of issue #12, as the Hiroshima lovers take their bow.

The compositional poetry achieved by Moore and Gibbons in Watchmen remains, in may ways, unmatched by later comics creators. Some of the transitional effects have been absorbed into the mainstream of comic books, and the dialogue juxtaposition has actually become fairly common. The nine-panel grid--which had been around forever, anyway--has occasionally been pressed back into service for good use, lending its cinematic and page-to-page-punctuative effect.

But the crazy checkerboard layouts; the multiple layers of bookends for chapter, page, and scene; the not-quite-linear subject-to-subject transitions with similar composition? Well, it's years later, and you still can't get that anywhere else.

Examples of transitions in Watchmen

Here's just a sampling of some of the transitional tricks in the series:

  • #2, page 9, top row. A zoom into Ozymandias's face is completed along with a change to a younger version of himself. On film this would be moderately difficult and a little expensive; the camera's speed in both zooms would have to be identical, and a dissolve would be necessary to complete the motion uninterrupted.

  • #2, page 15, panels 3-4. Flowers become fireworks as Dr. Manhattan also fades into the past.

  • #2, pages 22-23. The "checkerboarding" is demonstrated as The Comedian rails at Moloch about something troubling.

  • #3, page 6, panel 2 and page 7, panel 6. A page-to-page mirroring effect as Laurie storms out on Dr. Manhattan... and into a reverse of the same shot in an entirely different direction.

  • #3, page 9, panel 9 and #4, page 5, panel 6. Compositional similarities give us a taste of Dr. Manhattan's perspective. Dan and Laurie's hands meet just as Jon and Janey's did, or will.

  • #3, page 16, panel 1 and paege 17, panel 9. Another bookended spread as Dr. Manhattan banishes some folks from a television studio. His childlike, tortured face becomes on the following page (page, 18, panel 1) a photo of Manhattan at his most dignified.

  • #3, page 18, panel 9, and page 19, panel 1. Yellow, black and rectangular, the radioactivity sign allows for smooth transition between locations.

  • #5, page 7, panel 9 and page 8, panel 1. In both shots, the splash mars a triangle.

  • #5, page 9, panel 9 and page 10, panel 1. Something in the sauce? A raw seagull is transformed into a tasty chicken leg while someone in each scene talks of losing a home. In both panels, the background is empty.

  • #5, page 10, panel 9, and page 11, panel 9. Not a true transition, but a punctuating effect, nonetheless: as Dan and Laurie are replaced by the Hiroshima lovers on facing pages' final panels.

  • #5, page 12, panel 9 and page 13, panel 1. A verbal cue, as "every damned link" becomes Adrian donning his cufflinks.

  • #5, page 16, panel 9, and page 17, panel 1. The X created by the reflected V in the floor of one panel becomes the crossbones in the next.

  • #5, page 18, panel 9. It's that smiley face again!

  • #5, page 19, panel 9, and page 20, panel 1. Dreiberg's outstretched arm is reflected in the posture of the corpse on the following page.

  • #5, page 21, panel 9 and page 22, panel 1. The poster-hanging, the posture of the figure in the foreground, and positioning of the light on the lower left all contribute to this page-to-page and scene-to-scene transition.

  • #6, page 4, panels 8-9 and page 5, panel 1. The shadowed figures become the blot, which, in turn, becomes Rorschach's intensely gazing face. All are hidden below the waistline, which becomes the mouth-line of Rorschach's face.

  • #6, page 8, panel 9 and page 9, panel 1. File and journal become patient and doctor.

  • #8, page 1, panels 1 and 2. Two forms of nostalgia occupy the foreground in these shots. The whole scene is another study in the checkerboarding juxtaposition.

  • #8, page 3, panels 7-8. The newsvendor's parasitical attitude is reflected in the pirate from the Black Freighter comic book.

  • #8, page 11, panels 2-3. Faster than Aragones? Artist Hira Manish demonstrates the difficulties of continuous action with simultaneous dialogue in an uninterrupted still shot.

  • #9, page 10, final two panels. Laurie's "hourglass" full of beverage becomes her long-ago training dumbbell.

  • #10, page 6, panel 9 and page 7, panel 1. The landlady's children, flanking her, lead into a shot of Bubastis flanked by Ozymandias's courtiers.

  • #11, page 6, panel 9 and page 7, panel 1. The jungle poster on the newsstand becomes the interior of Ozymandias's polar vivarium.

  • #11, page 12, panel 9 and page 13, panel 1. Tales of the Black Freighter mirrors reality once more, as the courtier's snowbound head becomes that of the strangled moneylender.

  • #12, page 8, panel 7 and 9. The Hiroshima lovers materialize once more behind Laurie and one of her men.

  • #12, page 20, panel 4-7. An uninterrupted four-panel zoom in to Rorschach's face. Again, in film this would be a single shot with no transitions; in Watchmen it has three and covers an incredible amount of dialogue.

  • #12, page 22, last panel, and page 23, panel 1. Some characters and images take their final bow in this, the last such transition in the story.

—Updated Oct. 18, 2017