If you go by some fairly strict definitions, Trajan’s Column, which still stands proudly in the centre of Rome, is one of the first comics ever created. The story carved into its surface is a simple one of war and triumph, snaking around the column, with panel breaks and forced perspectives familiar to contemporary readers.
There is also a small section that summarises the entire saga in a few tiny images, and the eminently charming Doctor Nigel Spivey has argued that this section comprises the world’s first movie trailer, a taste of a greater saga to come.
But what if this short section is the story itself, with all the good bits highlighted? Everything else is annotation, enriching the smaller narrative. That’s certainly something that is happening more often in modern storytelling.
After decades of kerfuffle, the Watchmen film is about to be unleashed on us all. The comic community has quickly split into two main camps, with some burning up with anticipation, while others have already written it off based on short glimpses and past prejudices.
There is certainly an attraction in seeing well-crafted characters leap off the comic page and onto the movie screen, taking one step closer to real life. But based on the source material and the apparent intentions of the film-makers, there is another good reason that could make the film worth seeing, as it offers the possibility of a new kind of storytelling.
When Terry Gilliam walked away from the project back in the nineties, he made the reasonable observation that it would take a mini series to do the concept justice. The complexity of the storytelling meant that vast amounts of the comic’s narrative were absolutely essential if the story was going to have any effect on the reader, or even make sense.
But judging by the material already seen of the new film and the accompanying hype machine, there is comparatively little that has been cut out. The pirate comic sections were always going to be the first to go, and have been stripped out to create a tie-in product. After that, the most controversial omission is the dead mutant squid materialising in New York.
There has been a lot of discussion about this cut, enough to sow some doubt that it has been removed at all. Movie publicists are more devious than ever before, and the sudden appearance of an alien creature in the middle of New York can not be ruled out, even at this late stage.
This creative decision has a knock-on effect of getting rid of that entire minor sub-plot that spawned it in the comic, saving some more time. But almost every other part of the story seems to be intact, in one form or another. Any reader familiar with the comic will recognise every tiny shot from the first trailers and be able to place them securely in the narrative. (Unfortunately, the one shot that can’t be placed gives a major indication of what is replacing the giant squid.)
But to get all this information into the movie, scenes will have to be cut down to the bare minimum, with all the fat stripped away. Vast amounts of data need to come through, and it’s impossible to do that if the film is full of ten minute scenes with oceans of mood and feeling.
The filmmakers have used the background details to get some of these plot points and clues across to the audience, and the contents of the Comedian’s apartment seen in the trailers have already been examined with all the zeal of a television forensic scientist.
But it still comes down to the scenes, which will need to buzz along at top speed.
Zach Snyder has made no secret of the fact that there were sections in the comic, including Doc Manhattan’s Martian vacation and the Comedian’s funeral, which the studio would have been only too happy to remove. But he fought to keep them in. If he really is as passionate about the story as he appears to be, many other scenes like these will be making the transition from comic to movie.
There has always been a solid economic argument against filming in dozens of different locations, as sets need to be built and sites located. If a movie company is going to sink millions of dollars into a vast and impressive set, you can guarantee a large amount of the film’s action is going to take place in that location.
In a way, movie technology has finally caught up with Watchmen. The virtual set has changed the formula for location shooting, allowing filmmakers to produce massive sets that don’t really exist, for a fraction of the price an actual brick-and-mortar creation would cost. So Snyder, who has shown how comfortable he is with shooting against green screen with 300, can now go out and shoot short scenes in new locations, and fit in more and more of that glorious information.
Again, it comes down to a shorter scene as more are squeezed into the story. It remains to be seen whether this will have a detrimental effect on characterisation, and there is certainly a large chance that this will happen in some form. But the results should be interesting.
Another option open to Snyder and his crew include leaving outs big patches of information, and relying on the viewer to discover this for themselves. The Tales of the Black Freighter cartoon feature is the most obvious example, allowing fans to walk out of the cinema and see something that ties into the main text. This project does not provide material vital to the main movie, but does offer the opportunity to expand on its themes, and give the entire enterprise some depth.
Alan Moore has a lot to legitimately complain about when it comes to movie adaptations of his work, but he can’t complain about this kind of storytelling. Especially when he is doing basically the same thing with his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books. The Black Dossier, now available in a variety of forms, is a fine, witty and oddly moving work, smart enough to drop hints about characters and events without resorting to clumsy exposition.
But while the basic story of this recent comic is built around a very basic chase scenario, there is so much going on in the background, material that enriches the tale for those willing to go that extra mile for that extra information. This is not strictly necessary, but the annotations produced by the likes of the extraordinarily useful Jess Nevins give the tale extra impact.
So is it that hard to imagine a point where this is the norm? Where any tale will come with a vast background of further detail, jettisoned to keep the tale moving along as quickly as possible? With attention spans falling to record levels, shorter works can only find a more appreciative audience, particularly if there is further information to be found with a little digging around.
It’s already happening, even if some would rather it didn’t. There are those that are convinced that the recently wrapped Final Crisis was a complete failure because it relied on events outside the main text, mainly the Superman Beyond side-project, to flesh out the tale. But there are also many readers who were only too happy for the main tale to be stripped of its fat, readers who sucked up Morrison’s shorthand and asked for seconds.
Both sides have their points, and a common ground could almost certainly be found, if only everybody involved stopped shouting at each other.
The art of crafting a decent narrative has never been set in stone. From Trajan’s Column to the latest comic blockbuster, there have always been new ways of telling stories, and there always will be. This will inevitably result in the odd mis-step, and the art may head off in the wrong direction altogether. But when the results are this fascinating, the ride has got to be worth it.