This article originally appeared in the November 27, 1987 issue of The Boston PhoenixAlan Moore sports the shoulder-length hair of an unreconstructed hippie and an affable British air. The winner of several "Best Comics Writer" awards on both sides of the Atlantic, he's best known in America as the author of the DC Comics series Swamp Thing and, of course, Watchmen. We met in New York to discuss the Warner Books edition of Watchmen, a volume clearly intended to put Warner in the forefront of the "graphic novel" business. (DC has published its own softcover version, which is identical in content and price but has a different cover.) We began by talking about just where the series fits into categories of comic books and "art."
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Let's explore how you and Dave Gibbons came up with the concept for Watchmen, and how you realized it.
I'd like to say that we had it all planned from the very beginning, but that isn't strictly true. I think what we had originally planned was a quite complex and advanced superhero story. Nothing more. And I think it was around about issue number three that we started to get an inkling of what we actually had. We started to realize that there were things that were becoming apparent in the way we were telling the story, in the way we were using motifs to create an almost abstract level of narrative – a semiotic level, if you want, where everything is down to symbols and you have images recurring and echoing through the novel with different shades of meaning to them. And we began to realize that what we could perhaps do with Watchmen would be to actually establish some territory that was unique to comics alone.
Now, we were talking about the cinematic effects in Watchmen. I think there's a danger in making that obvious comparison, because, at the end of the day, if you concentrate on the similarities between comics and cinema, what you're left with is films that don't move. You're left with something that is always doomed to be a poor relation to the cinema. What we wanted to establish with Watchmen, once we got into the swing of it, was territory that was unique to comics – the things that comics can do which no other medium can. For example, with comics you can give a density and complexity that films cannot aspire to. Purely because with a film you're locked into a two-hour running time. You're sitting there in the cinema. You're dragged through the film at the viewing time that's established by the people who produce it. You haven't got the freedom to, say, check back four or five pages to see if this line of dialogue really does echo that line of dialogue. You can do that with a novel, you can get that sort of density and complexity into a novel, but it doesn't translate well to film.
With comics, I think you get the best of both worlds. [Discussing Watchmen in these terms] is all very clumsy because we are trying to formulate a language. There has been a certain amount of work done by the pioneers of the comics industry, but at this juncture we're still trying to come up with a narrative language of comic books, to try to establish some reference points of what comics are capable of. To give them a reason for being, quite simply.
In a comic, you can cram panels with all sorts of graffiti and references, little things like that Gordian Knot lock company and the Promethean cab company – information that doesn't relate directly to the action in the panel. You'd spend millions of dollars on set design trying to translate that to film.
Absolutely. And unlike in novels, you don't have to call attention to any of this stuff. There's no way you can do that in a novel without having descriptions of the background. A novel is all up in the foreground. The reader is made painfully aware of every detail. Because the author has to call attention to it or the reader is not aware of it. In comics, we can slip in this subliminal layer in the background. We don't have to mention it, but the reader will be slowly picking up the fact that the smily face is recurring in different incarnations throughout the book and the links between the Gordian Knot lock company, the Nodus Gordii Mountains on Mars – all these little links.