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Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic

Warner Bros. // Unrated // March 3, 2009
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 10, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Snyder's live-action adaptation of Watchmen has carved its way across more than 7,000 screens, and this $120 million tentpole is flanked by even more merchandising and direct-to-video tie-ins than usual. While some of the planned DTV releases further flesh out the world envisioned in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal miniseries about the dark, sticky underbelly of superheroics, the first to bow is this twelve volume motion comic. Originally issued piecemeal via iTunes and now making its debut on Blu-ray, this motion comic tears Gibbons' artwork off the printed page and splashes it across a high definition display in pristine 1080p.

I kept my dog-eared copy of the Watchmen trade paperback in hand as I watched this motion comic, and I can certainly say that this is an extremely faithful presentation of the original miniseries. All of the dialogue -- down to incidental grunts -- is lifted directly from the book, there isn't any revisionist tampering with the artwork minus the light animation, and even its unconventional palette is carried over flawlessly. Even with narrator Tom Stechschulte fielding all of the voicework, Watchmen's dialogue bubbles, intertitles, captions, and closing quotes remain intact.

The motion comic does take some liberties with Moore and Gibbons' creation, though. The extensive supplemental material from the comics -- the advertisements from this alternate world, press clippings, and book excerpts -- has been shrugged off here, although at least some of it will appear on a future direct-to-video release. None of the music referenced throughout the comics is offered here either, from whatever it is that's blaring on the ghetto blaster as Daniel trudges back from a visit with a fellow retired mask to a clever appearance by Billie Holiday. Dialogue isn't reworded but is frequently truncated, and sometimes it'll skip past entire panels. I'd guess that somewhere in the neighborhood of 15%-20% of Alan Moore's writing is tossed aside. Much of this is additional color and not essential for following the story, but with as meticulously and deliberately crafted every last aspect of Watchmen is, this sort of modification is still disappointing. Among the omissions are the newsstand owner prattling on about why superhero comics are deader than disco, the witty banter between Rorschach and Nite Owl as they prepare to give an old friend another visit, much of the chatter between Laurie and Dan about hanging up their cowls, and a surprising amount of the revelatory monologue in Watchmen's penultimate chapter. All of the racial-tinged dialogue has been cut out along with a few cultural references, including the book's nods to Devo. None of these trims ravage the storytelling, but considering that the motion comic's runtime clocks in at a daunting five and a half hours as it is, why not go all the way?

Also, much like a book on tape, all of the voicework is fielded by a single narrator, and this does mean that a man is delivering dialogue written for female characters. I don't have a fundamental problem with this, although there are a couple of moments where a woman's voice would be heard before she'd appear on-screen, and I wouldn't even have realized the gender -- let alone if it's an established character -- of the speaker beforehand. There's a certain amount of homogeneity in the voices of the key characters, and without visual cues, I'm not sure I'd be able to consistently tell who's speaking at any given time. This is part of the reason I prefer reading the book myself. The voice that Moore's writing sparks in my mind for Dr. Manhattan is cold and inhuman; the voicework here makes him sound like most any normal guy. I picture Rorschach as being gruff and more jagged. There's some element of that here, but it's muted, and Rorschach's choppy, stoccato manner of speaking isn't altogether convincing. Characters with any sort of ethnicity suffer the worst, especially the "Mistah Eddie's Father" Vietnamese stereotype, the Asian servants running Veidt's Antarctic lair, the kid thumbing through copies of Tales of the Black Freighter, and the soulcrushing stab at a Southern drawl for a prison psychologist.

I'm mixed
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about the animation. On one hand, there's much more motion on-screen than I ever would've expected. Standing out as particularly impressive is the fluidity of Rorschach's ever-changing mask. Characters sometimes still breathe, and certain emotional beats are punctuated by eye movements. They have somewhat of a tendency to go too far over the top, particularly when Jon Osterman finds himself trapped in an Intrinsic Field Separator; the reactions of the scientists around him are so cartoonishly exaggerated that they're more likely to score a snicker than inspire that same sort of abject horror. There's something intriguing to me that Dr. Manhattan has more animated facial expressions than any other character glimpsed throughout. The overwhelming majority of the animation is limited and stiff, but this is to be expected; it is being touted as a motion comic and not an animated series, after all.

I can't say I'm especially fond of how the panel structure of Watchmen has been reformatted for the screen, though. While Gibbons' artwork is translated directly, the camera often pulls in tight and slowly zooms out, and it frequently pans across the frame. This devastates some of the compositions, and the horrific imagery of the splash pages that open Watchmen's final volume are sapped of much of their sprawling scale and potency. A page from a comic book obviously has very different dimensions than an HDTV, so clearly some sort of reformatting would have to take place, but that just seems to further cement in my mind that I'd be better off reading a trade paperback in the first place. One of the defining aspects of Watchmen is its use of juxtaposition: the way a stray line of dialogue will appear over a thematically related but entirely different image or the heightened impact two specific panels will have when paired next to one another. This is dulled somewhat in the motion comic, not giving certain images enough time to linger to achieve the desired effect and occasionally overlaying dialogue with different panels than the source. The motion comic also fails to intercut between different scenes as deftly as Moore and Gibbons' do in print, and there's a stretch near the end where this Blu-ray disc doesn't even bother trying, opting instead to reshuffle entire pages around.

I respect and admire the effort that went into shaping this remarkably faithful motion comic of Watchmen, but I'll admit to not seeing the point. As enthralling as I've found Watchmen to be in print -- and it's a miniseries I've devoured time and again for quite a number of years now -- I just didn't find that the experience translated particularly well to the screen. The motion comic lacks the adrenaline rush and kinetic energy of the live-action film currently making the rounds in theaters, and its reformatted artwork and uneven narration leave me preferring to explore the trade paperback again, this time at my own pace and fleshed out by my own imagination. This motion comic of Watchmen is precisely what it's billed as being, but its appeal seems limited to completist fans of Moore and Gibbons' original work as well as neophytes too lazy to read. There's some level of novelty value that goes along with a motion comic, but really, I'd recommend saving your money and picking up a copy of Watchmen in trade paperback instead. Rent It.

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All twelve volumes of this Watchmen motion comic are presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and encoded with VC-1, and the collection fits comfortably on one dual-layer Blu-ray disc. Dave Gibbons' artwork looks terrific splashed across a 1080p screen; the linework is clean and crisply defined, and the palette -- heavy on purples, oranges, pinks, and greens -- is exceptionally faithful to the original comics. This Blu-ray disc doesn't embellish the printed artwork from decades past, and this does mean that the image isn't dazzlingly detailed; especially when this motion comic zooms in tightly on a figure who's barely an inch high on the printed page, it ought to go without saying that fine detail can be limited. Despite some five and a half hours of material being piled onto a single Blu-ray disc, I couldn't spot any hiccups in the authoring at all; the clean image and limited motion appear to compress with ease. Although I have mixed feelings about the animation and reframing, Gibbons' artwork is technically reproduced as flawlessly on Blu-ray as I could ever hope to see.

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This motion comic doesn't make for a particularly demanding 16-bit Dolby TrueHD track. Its emphasis is placed squarely on the narration, and it's rendered cleanly and clearly throughout. Watchmen is disinterested in the usual sort of four-color superheroics, so the sound design tends to be fairly tame. The low-end is extremely modest, and although there is a fair amount of separation across the front channels, the surrounds are reserved primarily for light ambiance and atmospherics. Continuing with the audiobook analogy, though, this is to be expected, and the forgettable score and scattered sound effects are really only there to add in some additional color. This is a low-key effort but suits the dialogue-centric approach of the motion comic well enough.

Also included are a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and English (SDH) subtitles.

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  • Movie Money: The only particularly noteworthy extra is $7.50 in Movie Money to catch the live action Watchmen movie theatrically.

  • Watchmen Production Diaries #4 (3 min.; HD): None of the extras on this set have anything at all to do with the animated comic itself, including this chat with artist/co-creator Dave Gibbons. It's aimed squarely at the movie currently making the rounds in theaters, praising its meticulous attention to detail as well as Zack Snyder's slavish devotion to Gibbons' original artwork.

  • Wonder Woman Preview (10 min.): A plug for Warner's animated Wonder Woman movie has also been included, although for whatever reason, it's in standard definition only.

  • BD Live: Watchmen includes at least one online extra -- a preview of a scene from the live-action version -- but it requires the hassle of registering to be able to give it a look. Pointless.

  • Digital Copy: A second disc in the set includes a digital copy, although it's apparently in WMV only.
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The Final Word
There's certainly some novelty value in seeing Dave Gibbons' breathtaking, iconic artwork lightly animated and splashed across a 60" high definition screen, but the experience of this motion comic falls far short of tearing through the original Watchmen comics or a trade paperback collection. Think the visual equivalent of a book on tape without the portability or convenience. Although this motion comic is technically executed well enough, I'm not sure who it'd appeal to aside from Watchmen completists and fans of the live-action version too lazy to read. I don't picture myself giving this Blu-ray disc a second look, and I'd recommend that the uninitiated put their money towards a trade paperback instead. Rent It.
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