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Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 28: Watchmen

Writing Excuses Season Two Episode 28: Watchmen


Key points: Consider critical reading. Start by looking at plot, setting, and character -- how does the work do at each of these? What did it do well, and how did it do that? Where does it have an emotional or intellectual impact, and why? How can I use that?

[The session started out with difficulty, as Brandon choked on doughnuts]

[Brandon] I got my mouth full of doughnut... and we have doughnut in our mouth.
[Howard] Brandon bought me donuts for my Hugo nomination.
[Brandon] Howard's nominated for a Hugo, yeah!

[Brandon] Last week we talked about reading critically. This week we wanted to actually see if we can show how to do this. We're not sure if we'll be able to or not, but we want to give a stab at it. We picked Watchmen, the graphic novel. A few caveats here. Number one, we are talking about the graphic novel only. We are looking at it as writers, so we are going to try and take the conversation towards how we as writers can learn things from what Watchmen does well or what it did poorly. This will have spoilers.
[Dan] Spoilerific. We're going to tell you how it ends.
[Howard] This is your last chance to...
[Dan] Turn it off in five, four, three...
[Brandon] If you're listening out there, have a doughnut for Howard.
[Howard] Thank you so much.

[Brandon] Watchmen. We'll split it down into the three groupings of plot, setting, character. Which one was Watchmen best at in your opinion?
[Dan, Howard] Character.
[Brandon] I think we're all agreed there. Number two? I'm going to say something, personally.
[Dan] I'll agree with that.
[Howard] The setting was amazing. The alternate 1986 87 that they created was great.
[Brandon] There were some good plot elements too, but my personal feeling is that plot is the weakest.
[Dan] I will agree.

[Brandon] Let's start then with character. What can we learn from character by looking at Watchmen? What did it do well, and how did it do it well?
[Dan] I was really impressed a couple of weeks ago when we had Tracy Hickman on any list talking about how every character in your story is part of a larger conversation and that they each fill a different role in that. And what I loved about Watchmen is that each of the main characters is reacting to the same situation in a very different way. They're all... they have different perspectives, different backgrounds, they form different plans when they figure out what's going on.
[Brandon] Alan Moore actually said in an interview once that he was looking at trying to approach the same projects from multiple different perspectives. I love it when the book does this, because inevitably I can find several characters who see things like I do and several characters who don't. Or most of them, I see a little bit like them and a little bit not like them. What it meant was, is there didn't feel like a single strawman in the entire story. Instead of having one person set up to be the one who is always an idiot, doesn't get it, or voices the opinion that's different from the author and is just knocked down for doing it...
[Howard] And we found noble traits...
[Brandon] In everybody
[Howard] In all the characters. The part that was strongest for me was when we started finding noble traits in the Comedian. Who at the very first, we think, "Oh no, this poor old man got thrown out of a window." And then suddenly, we were, "Oh gosh, he was a horrible, horrible person."
[Brandon] He was a rapist.
[Howard] He is a rapist and a murderer. And he's... but for all that, there is this tarnished golden heart under there, and he weeps for humanity. And that moment where...
[Brandon] The moment where what's-her-name -- the Silk Spectre 2 -- discovers that he's her father and we see that Silk Spectre 1 is still in love with him was a wonderful moment.
[Howard] For me, it was looking back at the moment where he was in Moloch's bedroom and is crying over the list.
[Dan] Yes. Absolutely. Crying over the list.
[Howard] Crying over the list because he's discovered that the world is even more horrible than he thought.

[Brandon] So what we're saying here is the characters work well because they are well rounded.
[Dan] And because the plot managed to give every single character really great moments like that. It gave them time to shine.
[Brandon] It gave them motivations. It set up everybody's motivations and it explained multiple motivations inside of a lot of the characters, contrasting them. Can we dig deeper? The characters are just brilliant in this. How? What is the foundation? What was Alan Moore doing that made this work so well?
[Howard] He was breaking superheroes. That's what he was doing. He was taking the concept of a superhero, he was taking the concept of a super villain, and he was wrapping it through some of the darkest periods in our nation... our world's history. The Vietnam War, World War II...
[Brandon] Cold War.
[Howard] The Cold War, all of that. He was saying there is no room in these types of times for a Boy Scout Superman. Evil, horrible things are going to happen and the most powerful people on earth are going to happen them.
[Brandon] I think part of it was juxtaposition. The juxtaposition is what often times will round a character for me. Looking at Watchmen, he will give you one aspect of this character and juxtapose with that, within that same character, an opposite, and yet give motivation for both of them so that when they come together, you see a person, and not a caricature.
[Dan] One point that we have made in a couple of different episodes is that a way to avoid cliche is simply to try to treat your characters and such very plausibly. Don't let them be a formula but let them be real people. That's what he does here. These are superheroes who are not just out punching crooks and saving banks. They are questioning their own role in society, more so than we usually see.
[Brandon] What type of person puts on a mask and goes out and punches crooks and saves banks?
[Dan] It sounds so simple when you just say... just say it he took them as realistically as he could. He treated them like real people instead of like caricatures.
[Howard] What's so interesting about this is that... let's talk about juxtaposition again for a moment. The artwork in the Watchmen is classic DC comics, Marvel comics, superhero artwork.
[Dan] Very Stan Lee kind of stuff.
[Howard] I'm not knocking the art. I'm just saying it was not gritty pencils, it was not stark Frank Miller black and white stuff. It was very mainstream art. That's what we were accustomed to seeing our superheroes portrayed in. So in that context, Alan Moore's writing is even starker.
[Dan] Because it really stands out.

[Brandon] I just wrote down here... the difference... first [garbled] the list of why people became superheroes. It comes down to motivation. I think motivation is so important for characters, and people skip it. Why are these different characters motivated to be superheroes? One is a psychopath.
[Howard] I love Rorschach. You have to love Rorschach.
[Brandon] He's my favorite character.
[Dan] Probably the best character in that.
[Brandon] He's a psychopath. One is a mercenary.
[Howard] He's a sociopath.
[Dan] sociopathy is a kind of psychopathy.
[Brandon] He wants to punish the wicked in an exaggerated, overbearing way. There is a mercenary. Comedian's a mercenary, he's doing it for the glory and the money. One is a fanboy. He made a fanboy of superheroes who wanted to go out and put on a costume and be a fanboy.
[Dan] Who I think is the other strongest character.
[Brandon] He's awesome.
[Dan] Nite Owl is...
[Brandon] One is just an arrogant egotist. I love him, but Adrian is arrogant. He wants to do it because he wants to save the world.
[Dan] There is an element of sociopathy in Adrian as well. He really does see himself as superior to everyone else.
[Howard] When he starts describing the fact that he has been orphaned, Moore is contrasting Adrian Veidt with Rorschach. Because we are seeing broken homes in both of them, which is supposed to twig us to the fact that hey, Adrian Veidt, he's a sociopath.
[Dan] He's messed up, too.
[Brandon] One character's mother made her.
[Dan] That was my favorite motivation in there.
[Brandon] How many things do we do because family expects us?
[Dan] Living up to the legacy.
[Howard] Mom made me do it.
[Brandon] And then there's Dr. Manhattan, who just does it because it's what he's been doing. It's like that's what you do, and he's never questioned it.
[Howard] He is as close to the Boy Scout superhero as any of them are, and yet, he is increasingly detached from the human condition. Again, coming to the artwork, this is why Dr. Manhattan is, in the later issues, always naked. Because whatever social mores or cultural constraints, that has nothing to do with what he's about.
[Dan] We're talking about motivation. In Dr. Manhattan's character arc, it's about motivation. He doesn't really get his motivation until the end of the series.
[Brandon] He can't figure out his motivation.
[Howard] There were two lines in the book that really stuck out for me. Early on, there's Rorschach climbing into the Comedian's apartment, who's saying, "they will cry out and say save us, and I will say no." And then there's Dr. Manhattan saying, "Why should I save a world I have no stake in?" So here we have our psychotic character and our Boy Scout character both arriving at the same conclusion, I'm not going to save the world.

[Brandon] How can you use this? How can our writers use this?
[Howard] That's an example of a parallelism. You look at that. You take a character and you do something really interesting with a character that is tied to a unique character flaw or a unique character strength. Then you go to another character who has a different set of flaws and strengths, and you arrive at the same conclusion. That sort of parallism is strong.
[Dan] And it makes them feel very real.
[Brandon] Also tying it together.
[Howard] Closing the loop.
[Brandon] People's motivations are tied to their pasts, which is tied to the other characters, so it all gets networked. We spoke 10 minutes on character.
[Howard] But the book did that.
[Brandon] The book did that.

[Brandon] Let's talk about setting. What did it do well with setting, what did it do poorly with setting?
[Dan] My favorite part about it was that the technology and the politics had been impacted by the existence of superheroes. They really treated that plausibly, that if these beings actually exist, then the world is not going to go the same direction that our's is going.
[Brandon] I thought it was intriguing.
[Howard] The idea of what would happen if the US won in Vietnam. Alan Moore's conclusion is if we had won in Vietnam, instead of being humbled, we would have become a fascist superpower.
[Brandon] I liked it because it was subtle. I think this is what people can learn. I think the more subtle your world building is, the more subtle your setting is as it is introduced, generally, the better it is going to be.
[Dan] One of the coolest things they did in there was that they filled the world with zeppelins and airships and they never matter. They are there all the time, but they are never important to the story. No one ever rides in one. It's just a very subtle element to clue you in about how this world is different.
[Brandon] Nixon running for whatever... his fifth term?
[Howard] Fourth term.
[Brandon] I think it's mentioned once or twice. Barely even. It's there... it takes a little bit of time to figure out that it's even alternate world. Which is... it's just done wonderfully. One thing, if I'm going to offer a criticism. We are here to offer criticism. When we criticize something, it doesn't mean, "Oh, look how much better we are than them." We are trying to learn as a writer and say what did this person perhaps not do as well or what would I change? One thing that itched at me with the setting throughout all of this -- the premise was what if superheroes were real, and yet all of the characters except Dr. Manhattan have no powers. It has... I have trouble believing that they are capable...
[Howard] Of doing the things that they did? All of them except Dr. Manhattan have no powers? Veidt and Nite Owl were backed up by technology.
[Dan] Adrian sort of does.
[Brandon] They were. But Veidt doing the stuff that he does? When they're fighting...
[Dan] Catching bullets and stuff.
[Brandon] He catches a bullet. That's it exactly. That... I could not quite reconcile that. It's as if the text was trying to tell me we're looking at this real and yet the superheroes all have super speed and superstrength. It feels like...
[Dan] I will agree there.

[Brandon] Plot. We identified plot as the worst point. Let's ask this question...
[Howard] When people complain about the plot in Watchmen, the first thing they point at is the giant squid at the end. It's never called the giant squid in the book, but they look at that and they say, "Wow, that just came out of nowhere. It wasn't properly foreshadowed, it wasn't properly set up, it seemed so silly. It just wasn't done well." For me, yeah, I didn't like the giant squid much, but the part I had a problem with was the unfolding of the mystery did not seem convoluted enough. It was a very, very simple mystery.
[Brandon] At the same time, I felt it was a stretch. Adrian when he explains his back story -- this is issue 11 -- it should have been the high point, and yet that was a low point to me because he got up and essentially monologued for the entire issue. I have to give you my back story and I have to explain what I have just done. Smartly, they hung a lantern on it or whatever you call it in the screen.
[Howard] I wouldn't be telling you all this if there was any possibility you could stop me.
[Brandon] Which zips it back up into coolness, a little bit. But...
[Howard] The other thing about that issue that was problematic -- and I don't know if I've got my facts entirely straight on this -- but my understanding is that there was so much script in there that Gibbons wasn't able to illustrate the combat scenes the way he wanted to be able to. They had to fit it in a 24 page comic book. So there were compromises made. That's one of the problems of working within that form. They had a deadline, they had a page count limit they were working to, they had an overall volume limit they were working to...
[Dan] And it was a collaborative work, as well.
[Howard] It was a collaborative work. They made compromises in that issue which I think is why it fell flat for you. If it had been done differently, we could've had Adrianne monologuing, we could have had them fighting, and it could have been more climactic.
[Brandon] I think this may come into what I said last time which I had trouble explaining. Which is, at this point I don't know if it could have been done better, under the restrictions that they were under.
[Howard] Under those restrictions?
[Brandon] Under those restrictions. It's hard to point and say, "Wow, you should have done a better job." You know what, I have the luxury...
[Howard] Luxury!
[Brandon] I can write a whole book, sometimes an entire series. And then go back and foreshadow and revise and make it work. They were releasing issues every couple of months and working on the next one.

[Dan] On that same note -- what's the pirate story? The black whatever?
[Howard] The Black Frigate.
[Dan] The Black Frigate. I loved that story, but I think that the core story was better off without it. Yet the needs of the medium forced them into including that. They originally were going to have those pages used for letters and such. The editors said, "No, we're not going to put the letters from the fans and that kind of stuff into these books." So they filled that space with this Black Frigate side story. Which is excellent, but I do think makes the narrative more wacky than it needs to be.
[Howard] The Black Frigate parts were difficult to read and that is an aspect of the form. I have to confess, I'm not very good at reading comic books. I like reading fast, and with a comic book, you should be spending as much time looking at the picture and the panel at least as you spend reading the dialogue in the panel and interpreting the panel. In the Black Frigate pages, there's... as you look at that, you realize I'm being told two stories in parallel. I'm watching the kid reading the comic, there's a conversation with the newsman, and I'm reading the Black Frigate. That's hard to do.
[Brandon] I actually loved it.
[Howard] It's fun.
[Brandon] Some of my favorite parts... I'm going to disagree. I think it adds wonderfully to the entire story.
[Howard] I'm not saying it detracts. I'm saying it is difficult for the reader. It is a challenge to read.
[Brandon] This is a mind blowing work. You do not get what you're expecting when you sit down to read it. I did not. I've been told this is the best graphic novel ever. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know... it's going to be. I sat down and I just could not... it was just mind numbing.
[Dan] You really don't expect it to be as good as it is.

[Brandon] We're out of time. Hopefully, that showed you readers a little bit how we analyze... I analyzed Watchmen a lot when I was reading it, saying why is this having an emotional impact on me, why is it having an intellectual impact on me, how can I use it, and what parts of it are brilliant but I can't use because they don't work for the type of thing I'm trying to do. Anyone got any final words?
[Dan] Go read it.
[Howard] Writing prompt?
[Brandon] Go read it. Writing prompt? Howard, you're the graphic guy, so give us a writing prompt.

[Howard] Let's take something from the setting that we talked about. Using some of the ideas from the Watchmen, write yourself a setting for an alternate 2009 in which...
[Brandon] Some major dramatic... a different president won?
[Howard] In which a different president won.
[Dan] Whatever branch off point you want.
[Brandon] Alternate 2009. Go for it. This has been Writing Excuses.
Tags: critical reading, writing excuses
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