Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Drawing the Graphic Novel Watchmen into Martian Science Fiction History

With die-hard fans of Watchmen (1986-1987), the groundbreaking graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, rabid over the forthcoming Warner Bros. film adaptation set for release in 2009, it’s worth noting that part of the novel is set on Mars.

In this lengthy passage from Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World (2002), science journalist Oliver Morton draws Watchmen into the history of Martian science fiction:
Perhaps the first truly successful use of the planet to this end was in Watchmen, an ambitious and accomplished graphic novel written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, and published ...
in the mid-1980s. One of the principal characters in Watchmen is Jon [Doctor Manhattan], a once human superhero whose vast powers over time, space, and the structure of matter have made relating to humanity hard for him; reasonably early on in the action he removes himself from the Earth. Gibbons, looking for inspiration, came across The Traveler’s Guide [by William K. Hartmann and Ron Miller, 1981] in a library and was captivated by its chapter on Mars. He loved the realistic treatment it offered of an alien, inhuman world; he was also struck by some strange synchronicities. Most extraordinary was seeing a picture of the smiley face in Galle crater; extraordinary because a smiley face (with a splash of blood across it) was a key part of the graphic novel’s reoccurring imagery. He enthused to Moore about the possibilities these Martian landscapes offered. As a result the novel’s ninth installment sees Jon and his one-time lover, Laurie, floating over the planet’s best-known landmarks as they talk about the most intimate details of Laurie’s past and the nuclear apocalypse threatening the Earth. Godlike Jon appreciates the vast scale and age of the landscape below them in ways that no human could -- and attaches little significance to Laurie’s memories or to the end of life on Earth.

The failure to find any trace of life on Mars in the 1970s was as harsh a blow to science fiction as it was to science. It had almost always been the Martians, rather than their planet, on which the fiction had focused. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s there was remarkably little new science fiction about Mars. Inspired by The Traveler’s Guide, Moore found a way to reclaim what had been lost by giving significance to the planet itself, rather than its inhabitants. Mars offered him a contrast to the pettiness of Earth as sharp as the divide between one panel and the next. It provided a place of timelessness to frame the sharp cuts between different events in Laurie’s memory. It provided a way to talk about the absence of life as something other than death. Life, Jon tells Laurie, “is a highly overrated phenomenon. Mars gets along perfectly well without so much as a microorganism. See: There’s the South Pole beneath us now. No life. No life at all, but giant steps, ninety feet high, scoured by dust and wind into a constantly changing topographical map, flowing and shifting round the pole in ripples ten thousand years wide. Tell me -- would it be greatly improved by an oil pipeline?”

Moore made memorable use of Mars, and Gibbons got the opportunity to create his own renditions of the landscapes he had discovered in Hartmann’s and Miller’s book. But he also found himself having to try things Hartmann and Miller had wisely avoided. Moore devoted a page of the script from which Gibbons worked to building up Olympus Mons, “A sizeable mountain, very far away ... The sizeable mountain is now quite a large mountain, still very far away ... The mountain is now a bloody enormous mountain, and it’s still a long way away ... Olympus Mons, now completely filling the background. It is still some distance away. We are starting to understand how incredibly huge it really is.” Gibbons took his best shot at turning these instructions into images for the readers, but it defeated him, as it had to. Comic books are drawn at Laurie’s scale, not Jon’s.
Watchmen illustrator Dave Gibbons is the author of Watching the Watchmen: the Definitive Companion to the Ultimate Graphic Novel (2008), a new book that traces the graphic novel’s evolution from idea to finished product.

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