That title is annoyingly simple, right? You should be able to answer it if you saw Watchmen in theaters in 2009, or got it on home video. But if you’ve ever wanted to watch Blade Runner only to find a whole Wikipedia article devoted to the different versions of the movie, you know that it’s not always that clear. For Blade Runner, it’s not too tricky; director Ridley Scott’s definitive version is the Final Cut, released in the Ultimate Collector’s Cut. And given the last release of Watchmen, the Collector’s Edition, features an Ultimate Cut, you’d think that’s Snyder’s preferred version. And yet…
In summary, Snyder says the Ultimate Cut is for “pure comic book freak-out,” but the Director’s Cut is his preferred version. Interestingly, the Collector’s Edition has the Ultimate Cut, a disc of the special features, a copy of the Theatrical Cut, Watchmen: The Motion Comic, and a hardcover of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ original comic. That is to say, it contains nearly everything except the director’s “preferred version” of the film. Perhaps worth noting is that Snyder never says the Director’s Cut is “official,” just that it’s one of two different experiences for viewers with different interests. His Watchmen, then, isn’t so much a movie but a collection of official media that can be combined in different ways to produce different experiences. This idea is, at face value, intriguing. Moreover, it seems to echo one of the biggest ways Watchmen changed comics, one that’s as important as what it did to the superhero genre but more often forgotten: the material change to the medium over the following decade. By this, I refer to the changes in production, distribution, and consumption.
Nowadays, after a comic series has finished or run around 5±1 issues, the publisher will collect it/them in a trade paperback, or TPB. If the book is successful, a hardcover collection and special edition might follow, like DC Comics’ Absolute line. Watchmen and its fraternal twin, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, are part of this publishing standard’s origin. Before 1986, the “final” version of a comic was the stapled booklet, the comic book issue. But during Watchmen‘s 12-issue run from 1986 to ’87, DC noticed how the industry was changing in terms of both production and consumption. Pantheon Books had recently capitalized on a New York Times review of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a series that had been released in chapters through the author’s underground comix magazine, Raw. They took the chapters and released them as a single paperback, which was convenient for curious readers and didn’t carry the stigma of reading something as “unsophisticated” as a comic book. Suddenly, the audience could be expanded.
DC replicated Pantheon’s success by collecting Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in paperback form, calling them “graphic novels.” This terminology emphasizes the similarities to the novel, in particular the new, physical similarity of the trade paperback. After all, even if DC and its readers knew comic book stories had grown up, how could they convince the larger reading public? When most people hear “comic book,” they think of those little booklets, viewed as disposable and juvenile because of their physical form. The covers are plasticy, they’re held together with staples, and they’re less durable than a paperback. Obviously this view misses out on countless economic, historical, and even narrative reasons for the comic booklet, but DC realized that to convince people that the pages contained material for grown-ups, the binding needed to remind them of the other fiction books that grown-ups read. It’s hard to imagine Watchmen ending up on TIME’s list of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923 if it hadn’t been released as a paperback and marketed as a graphic novel.
Regardless of intent, though, the trade paperback was a welcome addition for readers. Above almost everything else, it’s convenient. You get all of the text in one place; it looks better on a bookshelf; for Watchmen, the book takes up about a quarter-inch less space; and it’ll probably last longer. You choose a reading pace, either monthly as it comes out or over a relatively short period of time. Oh, and equally (if not more) important: it’s cheaper. If you bought each issue of Watchmen as it came out at $1.50 a pop, that’d cost you $18 over about one year. If you got the TPB, it was only $14.95. So the new publishing format gave people options in terms of space, time, and cost. It opened up the medium for people that were put off or annoyed by its unfamiliar material nature.
So, there is precedent for what Snyder’s doing with Watchmen at the distributive level, and it can be found in the very book he’s adapting. But he only seems to understand that Watchmen changed this aspect of the medium, rather than why or how. On the one hand, Snyder’s Watchmen offers several different experiences based on fundamentally different narratives, whether through re-ordering or removing content. This is a massive difference to the comic’s multiplicity, which contained a consistent narrative in terms of what’s on the page and what order the pages go in, but changed the experience in terms of how it was consumed. The movie’s approach shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand given its potential and relationship to comic history, but it’s ultimately of little purpose. The narrative(s) of Snyder’s Watchmen are, no matter the ordering, merely poor scans of the comic to the film screen, replicating the source and failing to do much else.
But that’s moving away from this material-oriented discussion, so it’ll have to wait until the next Tuesday Zone. What’s relevant here is that there’s a fundamental difference between experiencing a comic book and experiencing a movie, in particular during their initial releases, and this is where the material innovations of Moore and Gibbons’ book are poorly captured by the movie(s). Namely, when you pay for a comic book on its release date, or even borrow it from a friend, you control your viewing experience. You can stop, jump back and forth, or come back to it later. When you pay to see a movie when it comes out, it’s a passive, uncontrollable experience. But moreover, you don’t have continued access to a copy. And for Watchmen, the theatrical experience was incomplete by design, such that the double feature containing Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood came out in the same month.
So, if you’ve purchased the comic book as issues, you can also buy the TPB for its conveniences, but don’t need to in order to have access to the text. Further, if you want the TPB but not the issues, you could probably get at least $5 for all the issues to go toward the bigger book. For a movie, on the other hand, you can either pay to watch it again via a rental and still not own a copy, or obtain a version to own at a far greater price than the theater ticket. Or, if you saw it in theaters but want to see the more definitive version, the Director’s Cut, you’ll have to pay now to watch that version. Although rentals can alleviate this, to actually obtain the related official materials that make up Watchmen, you don’t have options; you just have expenses. Based on Blu-ray.com’s price information (hover over the line graph next to the “List price”), the Director’s Cut was around $30 when it was first released and the Collector’s Edition was around $60 (a bit harder to tell from the site’s data). The video game (an official prequel written by the comic’s original editor, Len Wein, and advised by Gibbons) was $30. So, to have all of that, you’re coughing up $120. Not quite the 17% price decrease from the comic book issues to the TPB, is it?
But what if you only wanted one experience, and had the means to rent it, or money wasn’t an option? Well, first of all, I want to note that the need to make such an assumption alone demonstrates the issues with this material change that the film attempts. But second, this just shows once more that Snyder doesn’t understand the utility that Watchmen‘s material change offered. One of the biggest barriers to entry for comic books is how hard it can be just to start somewhere, even if you know what character or series you want to read. Want to check out some Spider-Man? Well, which series? Which run of that series? Which edition of that run of that series?
With Watchmen, those questions become, “Which version? Which official media? In what order? In what collections? Do I have access to the video game?” It’s all complicated in a way very familiar to anyone who’s been confused in a comic shop. Arguably, Edition Madness in comics can be tracked back to Watchmen‘s role in the rise of TPBs, and the publisher exploitation that followed. In this sense, Snyder not only misses out on the benefits of space, time, and cost that allowed the TPB to flourish, but manages to evoke only the most frustrating changes that followed. This kind of dissonance that stems from Snyder too closely following the material begins before the viewer even watches the movie. Unfortunately, at that point, the problematic relationship of the film to the book has only begun to develop.
Sorry to format this is a cheap cliffhanger, but next time (UPDATE: here’s a link) I’m going to go into the narrative(s) of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, and continue this overview of the film’s problematic relationship to the book.