Menu Close

Interplay Amidst the Strangeness and the Charm: Under-language and the Attenuation of Meaning in the Film Adaptation of Watchmen

By Vyshali Manivannan

Overlooking its famously nonlinear structure, incorporation of multiple genres and unremitting examination of comics culture, print media and television, Alan Moore’s Watchmen is superficially conducive to Hollywood with regards to spectacle. In that respect, Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation of the same name doesn’t disappoint. Perhaps the most lauded aspect of his version is its overly faithful frame-by-frame recreation of Moore’s graphic novel, often directly reproducing whole chapters or panel sequences image for image, and sometimes word for word. While this literalistic translation succeeded in staving off criticism from most of Moore’s fan-base, Snyder’s Watchmen fails to account for the juxtapositions and evolutions of multiple meanings in comic art, where the arrangement and combined effect of image and text operate through a design idiom Moore terms “under-language”: the interplay between words and pictures that gives rise to a language “that is neither the ‘visuals’ nor the ‘verbals’ but a unique effect caused by a combination of the two” (Moulthrop 2). It is the omission of this under-language in Snyder’s Watchmen that leads to the film’s attenuation of fundamental signifiers and semiotics in the original material, and this absence is only underscored by his obsessive devotion to the visual components of Moore’s graphic novel. In a sense, it is precisely because of Snyder’s assumption that the comic and film genres can be interchanged without loss of meaning that the full emotional import of the narrative is inevitably compromised.

A psycholinguistics approach ultimately allows us to correlate the shortcomings of Snyder’s Watchmen with its simplification or omission of Moore’s extensive under-language and interplay. Because the film medium cannot position text visually, and because Snyder uses very few recurring images and discourse or dialogue-image juxtapositions to affect lexical semantics, meaning is often abridged or disregarded rather than enriched. Moore, for instance, repeatedly expands on and reexamines reflexive imagery through shifting text-image and image-image juxtapositions, such as the Hiroshima lovers, present at Rorschach’s trashcan mail-drop with the text “New York opened its heart to me” (Moore 11; Ch.5) and later, at Rorschach’s arrest. Snyder omits the latter image entirely, and presents others without reflexive context.

From a pragmatics standpoint, the semiotics system established in Moore’s novel is further undercut by Snyder’s juxtapositions of visual signifiers and verbal utterances that do not serve to deepen our comprehension of either or both, acting merely as transitions from one scene to another. Not only does he not observe intentional overlapping in the graphic novel, but in an attempt to pay homage to Moore’s under-language, Snyder overlaps almost identical dialogue from the novel with almost identical visual frames from the novel but in a way that is merely superficial: used almost as a time-saving device rather than an attempt at true interplay. We see this clearly during the Dr. Manhattan interview, where overlapping dialogue is used simply to segue into Dan and Laurie’s alley skirmish. In order to understand what is lost in Snyder’s adaptation, which largely ignores formal analysis of Moore’s comic, it is necessary to examine written discourse processing to determine how text-image and image-image juxtapositions and arrangements in dual-format media may either restrict or free viewer inferences concerning encoded information and emotions in a given scene.

The way we process information is highly contingent on the format in which we receive it, and dual-format media presents us with a subconscious conundrum that impinges on our comprehension of the text: what are we supposed to consider first? In both comics and film we are presented with both a visual and a verbal component, though the two are imparted very differently. In comics, the verbal component appears solely as the written word, but visual elements constitute both image and text since written discourse takes a visible form; as a result, both elements compete for our attention as our eyes track over the page. In film, our eyes track over a series of moving visual images in which information is encoded, while verbal narration or dialogue contributes to that information without guiding our eyes (Baggett and Ehrenfeucht 1). Pragmatics and Malinowski’s contention that meaning is reliant on “context of situation,” and that an utterance must be situated in its total environment to be adequately comprehended, recognize the necessity of setting to lexical meaning (Halliday and Hasan 6-8). These concepts are fundamental in examining meaning in dual-format media as comics and film are clearly affected by the juxtaposition of the verbal and the visual. However, the primary difference between comics and film is what our eyes are drawn to first, and how this initial eye-tracking dictates the level of our engagement with the rest of a given panel or frame, thereby affecting our inferences as well. It is in this difference that the success of the comic and failure of the film emerge. Moore activates the whole page from top-left to bottom-right through the interplay of text-image and image-image juxtapositions, while Snyder’s images are predominantly centered, encoding the most information in one location and leaving visual holes where semantic and semiotic meaning elude us.

In our capacities both as readers and viewers, our sight is episodic; it moves systematically to the most “interesting” places on the page or screen, typically where the most information has been encoded. Beginning with these sites, our eyes continuously oscillate, tracking across the display and fixating on various points with seeming randomness in order to fully process the incoming image and the information it contains (Smith 56-60). Eye-tracking studies conducted by Underwood et al. suggest that the gist of a scene can be identified in the first few eye fixations, during which a certain degree of perceptual processing must transpire in order for viewers to determine which areas of the image are informative and therefore necessary to reexamine; this processing enables viewers “to calculate the most efficient scan-path for their eyes to follow” (120) before revisiting portions of the display to gather informative details. By providing the viewer with a general sense of meaning, the initial eye fixation may then be used to control subsequent eye movements, suggesting “that the early processing is concerned with assessing the spatial layout of the whole scene, rather than processing details” (120). Once the viewer establishes the general substance of the image at the global level, further eye fixations occur at the local level to expand on and refine initial inferences (120-1). For instance, Moore deposits readers into the world of Watchmen immediately:

Figure 1: chapter 1 page 1

In Panel 1, initial global-level eye-tracking allows the reader to infer that the smiley-face pin is lying in blood; successive eye fixations at the local level affirm this inference through the text “dog carcass” and “burst stomach,” a violent, bloody image even if the blood in the image does not belong to the dog (Moore 1; Ch.1). In Panels 2 and 3, because the general idea of the image remains the same while gradually zooming out, the eyes fixate on new details, such as the emerging shoes, the storm drain, the sidewalk cleaner and the preacher of doom along with his sign, “The End is Nigh” (1; Ch.1). In short, eye-tracking takes a macro-to-micro approach in order to complete the viewer’s understanding of the entire image, including both the visual and the verbal (Underwood 120-1).

Notably, the eye tracks differently along differently calculated scan-paths depending on the presence and location of accompanying text. According to Underwood et al., textual elements in dual-format displays direct reader attention to one or more particular aspects of pictorial elements, yielding a more precise analysis of the image as a whole. The way in which this dictates our reading process is directly subject to the positioning of the text. Underwood’s study utilized dual-format displays with discrete visual and verbal components and determined that, if discrete text appears after an image, initial eye fixations are various and sweeping, indicative of the viewer’s unguided attempt to comprehend the essence of the whole image and its intended meaning. However, when discrete text precedes an image, eye fixations become very selective and restricted to the subject—the “search terms,” so to speak—encoded in the text. In various linguistic studies, when viewers examined images with a goal predefined by separate text, their eyes were drawn to pictorial elements that would specifically help them better understand the text, as opposed to the general, wide-ranging eye fixations that result from unguided examination (Underwood 125-6).

Since comics consist of text-image juxtapositions, as opposed to discrete image and text, Underwood’s findings apply somewhat differently. We read and process comics according to text-image juxtaposition within each panel and image-image juxtaposition across a page: that is, the order in which we encounter these elements in any given panel determines both our initial scan-paths and our specific eye fixations. Given that text may be juxtaposed anywhere over a given image, its presence alone does not guarantee that our eyes fixate on it first. However, when reading single-format print publications in English—the language in which Alan Moore’s Watchmen is written—we read left to right, top to bottom; correspondingly, it can be assumed that when we read dual-format print publications, such as comics, the elements we encounter first are those at the leftmost and uppermost side of the page, just as the ones we encounter last are rightmost and lowermost. Therefore, if text appears at the upper-left corner of a panel, we encounter it first; if it is located at top-center or elsewhere in the panel, we encounter it after viewing the image. In the latter case, when the visual is encountered first, we can assume that the eyes would initially track each panel as they would across a single-format image display, such as a painting or photograph, fixating broadly across the entire image to discern the essence of the scene before revisiting the “busiest” or most information-rich portions of the image. However, if the first element encountered is text, the eyes are likely to fixate as they would when reading a single-format text display; in this case, reader inferences are guided by the parameters given in the text.

To illustrate this, in Figure 1, Panel 1, the first element we encounter is textual, aligned almost flush with the leftmost, uppermost corner. As such, we read the text first, and our subsequent reading of the image becomes informed by our understanding of the text. The primary search terms provided by the text that predefine and guide our eye-tracking across the image are “Rorschach’s journal,” “dog carcass,” “burst stomach,” and “true face”: from this we can infer that someone named Rorschach is observing the blood on the sidewalk; we wonder if the blood belongs to the dog; and we correlate the city’s “true face” with the bloodstained smiley-face, a juxtaposition that transforms it into a signifier (Moore 1; Ch.1). In this way, interplay and under-language speak not only to the relationship between text and image but also to ideas neither propose explicitly.

A similar effect can be achieved in film, although somewhat modified as the interplay between text and image in comics is analogous to the juxtaposition of dialogue or narration within a given scene. Unlike comics, in which “pictures and the intervals between them create the illusion of time through closure, [and] words introduce time by representing that which can only exist in time—sound” (McCloud 95) and which remain stationary and available for us to revisit as many times as we need, in film we experience action and sound in real-time motion. Since images and spoken material are constantly moving, distributed over a length of time, we cannot revisit either the visual or auditory-verbal components, and our perceptual processing is absorbed by simply following along. Our eye fixations are likely to be multiple and broad since image usually precedes narration, and restrictive parameters provided by narration are typically contingent on our ability to hear and comprehend it as well as on how it is juxtaposed with the image (Goolkasian 452). As a result, we process auditory material such as dialogue, narration, and film score as supplementary to the background images, while our perceptual processing focuses primarily on the visual in order to follow the information. Thus, comics allow us to better integrate visual and verbal elements, due to the fact that we can frequently reaccess the material as needed.

Although Moore’s Watchmen lacks an equivalent sequence, the historical montage near the opening of Snyder’s film best illustrates how we prioritize the auditory and the visual, as well as how the two may be combined to produce meaningful interplay and under-language, and may thereby aid my dissection of the film’s shortcomings. Set against Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which provides the only auditory supplement to the visual sequence, the sequence cross-fades from one mostly-still image to another, interspersed with a few slow-motion actions such as a flashbulb going off, or smoke puffing around the mouth of a fired gun (Watchmen). The cross-fades recall the gutter between panels in comics and, like comics, require that we use the process of closure to fill in the gaps between scenes (McCloud 65-8). The images depict figures at the center of the frame, where our eyes initially fixate, and figures and events around them. Because the camera lingers on mostly-still images, and the few actions that do occur are slowed to resemble sound-effects in comics, viewers have time to perceptually process the sequence as they would a scene in a graphic novel, as seen in the image below:

Figure 2: Snyder – The Silhouette

Here, we are shown an image that is still, except for the gradual zooming-out of the camera, enabling us to process it as we would a comic panel. Set to the song lyric, “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand,” the scene slowly pulls back from blood-soaked sheets to the corpses of The Silhouette and her lover, to the visible text on the wall, “Lesbian Whores” (Watchmen). The juxtaposition of all three elements implies a correlation between them. Although the use of narration and dialogue is certainly different from the use of soundtrack, Snyder’s use of Dylan here comes closest to successfully evoking under-language through the combination of the visual and the verbal. It is significant that the most successful aspect of the film is the one that least resembles moving image, demonstrating the importance of using formal analysis as the basis of comic adaptation and forewarning us of the shortcomings of an action-heavy, spectacle-reliant approach to the material. Unfortunately, this approach characterizes the rest of Snyder’s Watchmen, as his text-image and image-image juxtapositions create little to no under-language, and the novelty of spectacle absorbs our perceptual processing to the point of obscuring semantic and semiotic meaning.

When information is presented across modality, “participants do not rely on spoken material for processing the background material” (Goolkasian 452); instead, participants rely on the pictures, where information is encoded most directly. Therefore, viewers’ attention in film is more emphatically focused on the moving image, since the pictures contain the most information and, like dialogue or narration, are distributed over a length of time and aren’t accessible for later reference. As such, while interplay and under-language may exist between the visual and the verbal, our comprehension of it may be eroded. Lexical semantics, a key feature of Moore’s graphic novel, particularly suffer in Snyder’s appropriation as the meanings Moore generates through under-language and repetition rarely recur, appear in meaningless juxtapositions, or are absent altogether in the film. Moore, for instance, positions the Pagliacci joke with an image of the Comedian, masked and armed, standing amidst rubble and smoke below the line, “he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain” (Moore 27; Ch.2), an unexpected text-image juxtaposition that challenges our perception of what it means to feel alone. By contrast, Snyder places the same line with the Comedian’s crying face, underscoring its expected meaning (Watchmen).

Moore himself asserts that “comics afford unmatched opportunities both for ‘interplay’ and other sorts of play, especially puns, doublings, echoes, and other strategies for overloading the signifier” (Moulthrop 2). In the graphic novel Watchmen, interplay is most effective when the visual and the verbal are arranged to encourage multiple forms of eye-tracking: first with specific eye fixation on text that supplies search terms to modify our inferences, and then to broad eye-tracking across the image as a whole to determine the essence of the scene, followed by specific eye fixation with regards to the search terms the text provides. In this way, the placement of one or more text boxes initially guides our interpretation and is then reshaped by the meaning we extract from the image, which in turn is modified when we revisit the text and apply additional meaning to existing lexical semantics. We extract the most encoded information from signifiers, semiotics, and semantics when our eyes track back and forth between the visual and the visual-verbal.

While the comics format of Moore’s Watchmen allows readers to continually revisit both elements to parse the interplay and under-language between them, Snyder’s film adaptation is paced too quickly for thorough psycholinguistic processing, thus constraining viewers’ attention to where the most information appears to be encoded: usually characters’ facial expressions or gestures, centered in the frame, or the spectacle of colossal, technically expert visual effects, such as the glass construct Jon creates on Mars or the destruction of New York. This is not to say that film cannot replicate aspects integral to the way we process comics; in fact, Moore employs techniques that seem to be the print equivalent of camera angle, zooming, match cuts—such as the flashbacks during the Comedian’s funeral, which cut from a character in one context to a new scene or perspective containing that same character, position and posture unchanged—cross-fades, intercutting, and so on. However, Snyder’s use of these same techniques fails to achieve the same effect, since he juxtaposes material to emphasize spectacle or to no seeming purpose, such as positioning the line “buried alive with them in sand-flooded chambers” to a close-up shot of Adrian Veidt’s black cloak, after which the camera pan reveals the dead bodies of his scientific team, whereas Moore positions the same line with the recurring image of a motionless servant, so that only slowly do we realize, at the moment of this line, that he has poisoned his servants (Moore 11; Ch.11). Snyder also misappropriates these techniques to emphasize spectacle, as when his Dr. Manhattan brands his forehead without any accompanying indication of why or what the emblem signifies, the camera focusing on the sparks and steam under his finger. The only verbal component is, “They explain the name [Dr. Manhattan] has been chosen for the ominous associations it will raise in America’s enemies” (Watchmen), whereas Moore’s character explains that the symbol is a “hydrogen atom,” the only symbol he respects (12; Ch.4). This juxtaposition reminds us that, despite his transformation, Jon retains emotional complexity, which Snyder removes from the character in favor of showcasing him instead as spectacle. In these ways, Snyder’s attempt to reproduce formal elements at work in comics only serves to undermine character development and detract from semantic and semiotic meaning.

In contrast to the graphic novel, character dialogue and narration in Snyder’s Watchmen are often juxtaposed with actions or images in a way that precludes interplay, as these combinations neither augment nor subvert existing semantic and semiotic meaning. Even though Snyder retains much of Moore’s original text, his arrangement lacks the purposefulness of Moore’s, which is evident as early as the film’s opening: even though Snyder visually reproduces the first six panels with minute precision, his sequence excludes the excerpt from Rorschach’s journal that conjoins the city’s “true face” (Moore 1; Ch.1) with the bloodstained smiley-face pin, in itself an incongruous image. Without the accompanying phrase, the viewer loses the full import of the semiotic meaning. Although the lines are relocated to the image of Rorschach picking up the pin and examining it, Rorschach’s mask—completely shadowed and indistinct—is centered in the frame and therefore draws the viewer’s attention, while the pin is invisible in darkness at the bottom of the screen (Watchmen). “Its true face,” then, is reduced to its most obvious meaning, as it appears to apply to Rorschach, whose face has not yet been revealed.

The convergence of images with incongruous text, or vice-versa, can be treated in much the same way as McCloud treats non-sequitur relationships between panels, where images that are seemingly unrelated are placed side by side:

No matter how dissimilar one image may be to another, there is a kind of alchemy at work in the space between panels which can help us find meaning or resonance even in the most jarring of combinations. Such transitions may not make “sense” in any traditional way, but still a relationship of some sort will inevitably develop. (73)

To make “sense” of these combinations, it is imperative that the reader examine not just a single isolated panel, but neighboring panels as well. The evolution of lexical semantics in Moore’s story arises out of unexpected juxtapositions and non-sequitur transitions, and so our eye fixations sweep not only within but also between panels as we attempt to resolve the relationship between the various elements being used. Through this constant, recursive eye-tracking, we become active participants in the story, parsing plot and under-language simultaneously in order to progress with the narrative. Although frequent non-sequitur cuts are scarce in commercial film, Snyder refrains even from unexpected juxtapositions, instead relying on obvious lexical semantics, such as the use of words like “alone” or “dark,” in an attempt to mimic the under-language in Moore’s work.

This tactic speaks to the deterioration of one of Watchmen‘s primary “semiotic signatures,” as Moulthrop puts it: its “principle of similarity-in-difference which is the logical underpinning of irony” (3). Incongruity in Moore’s novel, whether within or between panels, is one of Watchmen‘s chief conveyances of under-language, as juxtaposing this kind of difference compels reader participation through cognitive problem-solving to establish the relationship between the panels in question. McCloud terms this the non-sequitur transition, elaborating that “[b]y creating a sequence with two or more images, we are endowing them with a single overriding identity, and forcing the viewer to consider them as a whole” (73). While Moore’s novel continually insists upon this type of perceptual processing, Snyder’s film cinematically “spoon-feeds us” (Boucher), to quote Moore himself, using dialogue-image juxtapositions to, reductively, establish a character’s personality, or dramatize the visual spectacle taking place.

The relocation of the opening lines falls into the former category. In Panel 3,Figure 1, the text appears at both top and bottom, framing the central figures of the sidewalk cleaner and the preacher of doom: the upper text box reads, “…and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’…” which then continues in the lower text box, reading, “…and I’ll look down and whisper ‘No'” (Moore 1; Ch.1). The presence of two text boxes, placed within a multifaceted scene with an overhead vantage point, inducing an examination of the characters and the mingling water and blood, suggests that readers may revisit the image multiple times, with both broad and specific eye fixations (Underwood 125-6). Perceptual processing, then, focuses on inferring the relationship between seemingly disassociated image and text—at the very least a subtle indication that the preacher of doom is Rorschach’s unmasked identity. The demands on our perceptual processing, however, are greatly decreased in the film, where the first text box is narrated by Rorschach as he uses his grappling hook to climb up to the Comedian’s apartment—drawing on the obvious meaning of “look up.” The subsequent cut is a close-up revealing Rorschach’s mask, as he slowly lifts his head and stares us down (Watchmen). Here the juxtaposition seems intended solely to introduce Rorschach as unforgiving, and lacking in compassion and empathy. Moore reveals the mask from a distance, without juxtaposed text, playing on our curiosity and asking for our investigation of each introduced element to comprehend this new character. Again, this points to the notion that the dramatic, fast-paced inflation of the film reduces and simplifies meaning.

Similarly, Snyder overlooks the function of lexical semantics during Rorschach’s origin story: the kidnapping case that transformed him from Walter Kovacs to Rorschach. Snyder takes us from a pitch-black scene, which cuts to a door slamming open as an armed man enters the building, centered in the frame, pistol aimed vaguely towards the audience; Rorschach narrates, “It was dark when the murderer got back. As dark as it gets” (Watchmen). Due to the darkness of the scene, the place where the most information is encoded is at the center, in the form of the murderer, and our eyes fixate specifically here as he begins down the hall. Thus, our perceptual processing is likely to conclude that the dialogue-image interplay here refers to the obvious lexical semantics of “dark”: literally, that it’s nighttime, and figuratively, with regards to the murderer’s nature, “as dark as it gets,” (Watchmen) since he butchered a young girl and fed her to his dogs. Moore, however, complicates our perceptual processing by offering us two images that initially seem only tangentially related:

Figure 3: chapter 6 page 21

It is evident at a glance that these panels use the same basic image, the butterfly inkblot that to Rorschach resembles a “dog with head split in half” (Moore 16; Ch.6). Both panels appear with speech bubbles aligned at top center, and the similarity of the images draws our initial eye fixations to them. From broad eye-tracking, the primary difference is that in the first panel the inkblot card is cast in yellow, while in the second it is cast in red as well as being more zoomed-in (21). The color-casts alone are reminiscent of the bloodstained smiley-face and the lexical semantics of the “true face.” Together, all of these considerations give rise to complex under-language concerning Rorschach’s identity, the unrelenting horror of the New York City he inhabits, and the conflation of the Rorschach inkblot with the dog’s split head, which substitutes for the depiction of the act itself (21). After revisiting each with specific eye fixations, by the time we reach the narration in the second panel, where our specific search terms are predefined by, “Dark by then. Dark as it gets,” (21) both lexical semantics and the semiotic meaning of the Rorschach inkblot have been compounded. “Dark” now applies to the changing tone of the story, loss of light, Rorschach’s transformation, the dog’s split head, and the blood-red cast of the inkblot card. The inkblot itself faces us in intimate close-up, as though the test were being administered to us, insisting that we perceive it as Rorschach does, suggesting that we have transformed as well. We are gazing into the titular abyss, complicit with Rorschach’s experience, as the inkblot—the dog’s split head—gazes back at us, questioning if Rorschach’s origin can be faulted. Snyder, however, does not intercut between Rorschach’s flashback and the inkblot card, thus omitting this evolution of semantic meaning.

In this way, unexpected image-image or text-image juxtapositions in Moore’s novel, and the under-language encoded in them, complicate our perception of the material. Snyder, on the other hand, removes the necessity of complex perceptual processing by realigning juxtapositions into more expected, or seemingly purposeless arrangements. This is glaringly obvious in his adaptation of Chapter 3, which in both media functions like a series of intercuts between the Dr. Manhattan interview and Dan and Laurie fending off thugs in a dismal alleyway. Moore purposely juxtaposes text from the interview scenes with panels depicting the latter, resulting in interplay and the doubling of lexical meaning:

Figure 4: chapter 3 page 11

In this sequence, the text begins at the top left of each panel, thereby attracting our initial eye-tracking and guiding our specific eye fixations (Underwood 120). In Panel 2, Moore offers a foreshadowing nod to the psychic squid by overlapping “monsters from outta space,” which describes Jon in the previous panel, with the cinema marquee depicting an alien and the title “This Island Earth,” which recalls Moloch’s retelling of the Comedian’s mention of an island in his cryptic visit (Moore 11; Ch.3). Additional meaning lies in the fact that Laurie is with Dan, foreshadowing her leaving Jon. Because the text offers specific search terms that predefine our goal and therefore our eye fixations on the image, we are invited to question what a “monster” truly is through the conflation of the stereotypical inhuman, big-brained movie alien and Dr. Manhattan, in his increasing detachment to human life. Similarly, in Panel 4, when an army aide advises Jon, “And try not to get into tight corners” (11), meaning political no-go areas, the text informs our reading of Dan and Laurie entering a foreboding alley, thugs beginning to assemble behind them; here, the conflation of political “tight corners” and physically life-threatening ones suggests that information revelation is as severe—a nod to the novel’s conclusion, where Rorschach, the man who knew too much, is killed and the discovery of his journal may prove just as shattering. The effect is the same in Panel 6, where “dark” recurs as both a superficial cosmetic effect and the threat Dan and Laurie are about to confront. Unexpected juxtapositions occur on the following pages to reinforce their inner conflict over having to draw on their superhero training to defend themselves. As they are surrounded by thugs in a panel captioned with TV studio laughter, they come to the unwilling realization that they must fight in another panel captioned by the interview question, “Will you be prepared to enter hostilities?” (12), followed by applause. Both laughter and applause appear at the bottom of their respective panels, and so when we again fixate on the images, we operate on those semantics to double their meanings (Underwood 120). The incongruity of the juxtapositions only emphasizes the surreality of the decision they are confronted with. The skirmish itself doubles the meaning of words such as “snappy,” which refers both to rapid-fire questioning and the implication of a broken arm, or “super people,” which refers to Dr. Manhattan but is juxtaposed on a long melee shot of Dan and Laurie beating up their attackers, implying that this is all they “do,” both in and out of costume (Moore 13; Ch.3).

In Snyder’s version, most of this doubling has been omitted or replaced with more explicit references to the narrative action, thereby compounding spectacle rather than semantic meaning. The dialogue, “Yeah, that’s dark enough,” is spoken as the camera jump-cuts to Dan and Laurie walking down a populated street at night, so that “dark” again is given its most obvious meaning (Watchmen). The Dr. Manhattan interview is still intercut with the alley skirmish, but the juxtapositions are expected and reinforce the visual spectacle of the fight. For instance, Jon states, “Even in a world without nuclear weapons, there would still be danger,” just prior to Dan snapping a man’s arm, blood bursting out toward the viewer; here, we apply “danger” to the spectacle of violence we have just witnessed, and lexical semantics remain unmodified. Jon’s following answer, “I can only see my own past. My own future” (Watchmen), is placed against a seemingly random shot of the melee, while his concluding statement, “I am not omniscient” (Watchmen), is juxtaposed with Laurie repeatedly punching a thug in the face, the thug facing us with blood laced in his teeth. While Nova Express reporter Doug Roth’s questions, as in the graphic novel, are superimposed on the alley skirmish, in the film they do not add to lexical meanings. Rather, the lines tend to end just before a brutal act of violence, such as Laurie thrusting a knife into the side of a thug’s neck, then whipping his body around to block gunshots, in slow-motion frames that highlight the blood trickling out of his wounds (Watchmen). This suggests that Snyder interwove these two narrative threads not to reproduce Moore’s interplay and under-language, but to punctuate the visual spectacle of violence, which he is known for in his other films. As such, the role of under-language in his Watchmen becomes a proverbial exclamation mark, bracketing blood and gore.

Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that, due to the way we process spoken discourse, it is even more essential to present dialogue and narration in meaningful juxtapositions so as not to overload viewers’ working memory (Underwood 120-1). In a 1981 study of discourse processing in film, Baggett and Ehrenfeucht determined that “there is no competition for [perceptual] resources when related information is presented in two media (visual and verbal/auditory)” (13) but acknowledged that “information from visual and verbal sources is encoded and retained differently. Lots of linguistic information is encoded, but only half of it is retained over a week. Far less visual information is encoded, but it all lasts over a week” (14). This finding indicates that the brain privileges spectacle over spoken narration, while print media, which allows the reader to revisit and reexamine text-image and image-image relationships as many times as needed, does not perceptually foster one component over the other. Therefore, despite the inclusion of dialogue and narration that may hint at interplay, it is the spectacle that commands our perceptual processing at the expense of semantic and semiotic meaning.

Interplay is further eroded during the exchange between Jon and Laurie on Mars, as they sail over the South Pole and Jon asks, in a tiny speech bubble at the top-center of a page-wide panel: “Would it [the landscape] be greatly improved by an oil pipe-line?” (Moore 13; Ch.9). Here, the spectacle is not of the strange, elaborate glass construct the two are riding, but of the Martian landscape, a vast, clay-red plain, streaked with rills of water. Reading left to right, our eyes first track generally over the landscape, then over the text at the top of the page, and then on the landscape again in a more specific, information-gathering way (Underwood 120). The glass construct is a dime-sized speck over the Martian plateau and therefore barely holds our attention. In the film, Snyder juxtaposes the narration with a medium shot of the glass construct. The landscape appears only as a few rolling mountain peaks in a sunny haze that glints on the revolving construct. As such, the under-language surrounding the phrase, “all of this,” seems to attach to the construct as opposed to the landscape, changing its semantic meaning inherently.

But perhaps the most significant instance of the devolution of meaning through purposeless juxtapositions is the depiction of Dr. Manhattan’s accident. Lent primacy in the film due to the character’s central role in Snyder’s plot, the sequence is an elaborate, technically skilled build-up to the image of Jon Ostermann being stripped of skin, blood, flesh, and bone (Watchmen), reproducing panels from Moore’s novel but ignoring the crucial recursion they demand.

In this chapter more so than anywhere else, panels themselves become signifiers as they are introduced and reused throughout the chapter, changed only in that they are juxtaposed with different text. Recurrent images include the photograph falling from Jon’s hand, watch cogs separated on black velvet, fingers brushing on a cold glass of beer, Jon kissing sixteen-year-old Laurie and his hands encircling her face (Moore 2-25; Ch.4). The repetition of these images, often in unexpected conjunctions, mimics the process of memory and the necessary perceptual recursion that allows us to make sense of our lives. Along with recurring lines of text, such as, “The photograph is in my hand” (1), “The photograph is falling” (2), and “The photograph lies in the sand at my feet” (5), these images act as checkpoints in our exploration of simultaneous time, reminders that these moments are experienced all at once and yet at different times. The resulting effect of all this is continual déjà vu, presumably the foundation of Jon’s experience, where semantic and semiotic meaning are constantly compounded rather than attenuated.

For instance, Jon and Janey first brush fingers on the beer glass to an obvious description of the action: “She buys me a beer, the first time a woman has ever done this for me. As she passes me the cold, perspiring glass, our fingers touch” (5). It next recurs after Jon is locked in the intrinsic field chamber and is framed by two text boxes, the first narrating, “All the atoms in the test chamber are screaming at once,” and the second, “The light…” (8). Here, the beer glass is immediately followed by the image of Jon’s death. Because we first see the beer glass in a romantic context, its repetition here is all the more poignant and painful. In addition, the fact that it is the last image Jon thinks of before his death points to her importance to him, and to his humanity both as Jon Ostermann and as Dr. Manhattan, mediating the flashback sequence for us.

More significant is the recurrence of the panel depicting watch cogs on velvet. After its initial two appearances, it later recurs with the lines, “Her mother still isn’t answering. We decide to call again from my hotel. We both know what’s going to happen. Events mesh together with soft precision” (6); the words alter our understanding of the image. Not only do the cogs signify the precision needed by a watchmaker, or Jon’s fascination with it, but also signify fate, the idea of separate events converging, as the seemingly disparate images do (6). When we see the watch cogs again, it is directly after Jon’s initial attempts to reconstruct himself, first as a nervous system, then as a circulation and musculoskeletal system; the panel text now reads, “Really, it’s just a question of reassembling the components in the correct sequence” (9), imbuing the image with new meaning: that perhaps even before he became Dr. Manhattan, Jon was preparing himself for this moment, that nothing is coincidental, inconsequential, or unplanned.

The film medium constrains the kinds of frequent match cuts and non-sequitur intercuts used in the novel, but Snyder does attempt to replicate its effect, as seen in his inclusion of the images described above. The images of the cold beer glass and the watch cogs precede the accident, juxtaposed with narration that hardly diverges from Moore’s. However, the beer glass is no longer Jon’s final thought, replaced by the image of the watch cogs, as though Janey is less significant to him. Just like the watch cogs, the nature of meaning is, “a question of reassembling the components in the correct sequence” (Watchmen). Unfortunately for the film, there is no recurring narration and all of the images presented in this sequence appear once and only once; our sense of déjà vu, and of unraveling simultaneous time, is neatly eliminated.

Instead, the flashback mounts to a detailed, second-by-second sequence of the accident itself, emphasizing visual spectacle in spite of meaningful narration. We are given the watch cogs and the notion of reassembly as the camera pans slowly over the glinting parts, commanding our eye fixations. The narration’s meaning is undercut not only by the primacy of the image, but also because we lack a referent to indicate why reassembly is important, as Jon has not yet been disassembled. Snyder juxtaposes the line, “I feel fear…” with a close-up of tweezers grasping a cog, finishing as the camera cuts to a close-up of Jon’s eyes closing, “…for the last time” (Watchmen). Here it seems that he may have attempted to produce dialogue-image interplay, but the under-language is quickly forgotten in the slow-motion, 14-second sequence of the intrinsic field taking Jon apart. Our eye-tracking is immediately drawn to the center of the screen, where the most information is encoded in the form of Jon being taken to pieces by snapping electricity, disintegrating his clothing, his skin, revealing blood-dark bones and organs that also dissolve into dark, bloodlike strings, and then into whiteness (Watchmen). Since our perceptual processing privileges spectacle over spoken discourse, this image and others like it, such as the materializing circulatory system, the partially muscled skeleton, and Jon’s full reassembly in the cafeteria, all overshadow the interplay and under-language Snyder attempts to impose on the scene.

Semantic meaning is again attenuated in Moloch’s underground vice-den, where Jon explodes a man’s head in a cloud of smoke:

Figure 5: chapter 4 page 14
Figure 6: Snyder – Ceiling Gore

In Figure 5, the two text boxes appear at the left and are the first elements we encounter. The first, a description of the action in the panel, predefines our specific eye fixations, while the second guides our revisiting of the text, ascribing Jon’s misunderstanding of morality to the moral ambiguity of the situation: that is, killing a man, a criminal, in an underworld criminal haunt, a place where morality does not exist (Moore 14; Ch.4). Figure 6 represents Snyder’s version of the same scene. Before the criminal bursts apart into slow-motion showers of blood, Jon narrates, “He [Hollis Mason] calls my arrival the dawn of the superhero” (Watchmen). After the criminal is killed, the camera cuts to the gory remnants on the ceiling and then to Jon in the foreground as people flee behind him; Jon adds, “I am not sure if I know what that means” (Watchmen). Under-language may have arose if Snyder chose to place the entire line against the image in Figure 6, as the referent of “that” would then be unclear, referring either to “the dawn of the superhero,” to the ramifications of killing, or to the importance of human life when it is so easily reduced to meat. However, Snyder’s decision to split the narration between the gory remains and Jon’s face empties any semantic significance the line may have had, as by the line’s end we are no longer looking at the gore, and therefore ascribe the line’s meaning to the image of Jon’s face, which as an image adds nothing to lexical meaning.

Moore uses under-language and recursion similarly when revealing that Laurie’s biological father is the Comedian. Here, reflexive imagery and visual and verbal elements combine to create a sense of mounting frenzy, frustration, and ultimately realization:

Figure 7: chapter 9 page 23

Several of these images appear earlier in the chapter, as Laurie recalls formative experiences surrounding her identity, such as the snow globe that held her attention during her parents’ argument, or the close-up of the Comedian’s scarred face at the banquet (Moore 23; Ch.9). When we first encounter these images, they are told in sequences that make sense with regards to narrative action, delineated by minimal text that nevertheless predefines our search for meaning. When we first see the Comedian through the rear windshield, Laurie narrates, “We drove away in silence. I looked back and he just stood there, watching us go. He looked sad. I felt sorry for him” (16). The image is followed by text at the bottom of the panel, so that we revisit it after reading, “Of course, then I didn’t know what the bastard had done” (16). This single panel encapsulates the extreme emotions Laurie has felt toward the Comedian, and the presence of conflicting emotions in the same panel indicates her mental struggle over it. By Figure 7, these repetitive images are transformed into a revelatory whirlwind, appearing in non-sequitur juxtapositions conjoined with text that is also being repeated, albeit juxtaposed on images different from the ones where they first appeared.

This confusion of semantic and semiotic meanings highlights Laurie’s struggle with these memories as she fumbles toward the reason for human significance. As her reasoning progresses, the text boxes begin to crowd the page, furthering the reader’s sense of frenzy and claustrophobia as we are asked to view each convergence of elements as a whole, as “however different they had been, they now belong to a single organism” (McCloud 73). The most prominently repeated line is the Comedian’s, “What do you think I am? Can’t a guy talk to his, y’know, his old friend’s daughter?” (Moore 23; Ch.9), dialogue that Laurie takes apart, rephrases, and recycles until she is left with, “What do you think I am?” and, “Friend’s daughter?” and, “His, y’know, his…” (23), while her mental protests slant across the panels, “No. No not him not…no” (24). This culminates in her stuttering on the revelation, desperate to discount it and unable to do so, “You’re not my fuh, my fuh, fuh…” (24) as she realizes the actual line: “Christ, we were just talking. Can’t a guy talk to his, y’know, his…daughter?” (24). The text boxes abruptly become sparse, and our eyes fixate broadly and freely on the open space in the panels, the most information encoded in the images of Jon’s glass construct shattering and Laurie falling to her knees, having arrived at the devastating truth. And it is devastating. The unexpected recurrences and juxtapositions of visual and verbal elements, which force us to parse the experience along with Laurie, ensure that.

In Snyder’s sequence, he incorporates two images we have already been presented with in the film: first, Laurie’s parents arguing in the bedroom, a scene that more or less tells us that Sally is romantically attached to the Comedian when her husband says, “Call your friend Eddie, maybe he can give you a better life”; and the scene of Sally holding the 1940 Minutemen photograph, saying, “Even the grimy parts keep on getting brighter” (Watchmen). The sequence ends with two images we haven’t yet seen: the shot of the Comedian through the rear windshield, and the continuation of her parents’ argument, her father saying, “Guy tries to rape you, and years later you let him finish the job?” (Watchmen), spoon-feeding us information that is already obvious through recursion and perceptual processing, namely that the Comedian is Laurie’s biological father. Because there is a lack of recurring images involving the Comedian, we have no reason to believe that she is conflicted about him, or even that she hates him; thus, her emotional reaction to the revelation feels contrived to say the least. Additionally, the scene transpires very quickly in real-time, while in the graphic novel the crowded, cyclical, claustrophobic nature of the panels requires exhaustive perceptual processing in order to comprehend them as one identity. Several text boxes within each panel operate like a series of panels, stretching time over a period rather than a single moment and giving us the illusion that time is progressing more slowly, and that Laurie’s struggle is much more meaningful (McCloud 103).

Along those lines, discourse and speech processing are also of particular significance with regards to the adaptation of comics, as the verbal component in comics assumes the form of visually presented words, making it visual-verbal, while in film this component is verbal-auditory (Baggett and Ehrenfeucht 1). In Moore’s Watchmen, the visual-verbal is utilized not only to create a sense of frenzy or dictate the scan-paths of our eye fixations—such as the mounting threats when Rorschach is being walked to his prison cell (Moore 6; Ch.6)—but also to differentiate between reading experience and auditory experience. We see Moore draw on this especially with regards to Rorschach, whose lines take the form of journal entries, dialogue with the mask on, and dialogue without it. The journal entries, drawn to resemble yellow, ragged-edged scraps of notebook paper, always begin at the upper left corner of a given panel and for the most part remain at the top. From a psycholinguistic standpoint, because we already possess non-visual information about what a journal is, we process it as we would private, intimate discourse, one that may not be meant for our eyes at all; by contrast, the effect of Rorschach’s narration of his journal in the film situates the journal’s content in the realm of the public. Even though we are expressly told that this is a journal entry, Rorschach’s narration is identical to his regular dialogue with and without the mask, and therefore we process each as spoken, public discourse. As such, overdramatic lines that are acceptable in journal entries as a result of private-discourse writing, such as “Beneath me, this awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children” (Moore 14; Ch.1), become contrived and unconvincing when spoken aloud in the film.

Under-language is promoted through visual-verbal elements, as well, to facilitate reader inferences about a given character or to emphasize the significance of dialogue over spectacle, or vice-versa. Rorschach’s spoken dialogue is presented in white, ragged speech bubbles, the text written in slanted, spidery print; unmasked, he is given speech bubbles and print similar to Dan’s or Laurie’s. It is easy to assume that this is because the mask muffles Rorschach’s speech, but even when his mouth is uncovered, such as when he is at Dan’s apartment eating beans, his speech bubbles don’t change (Moore 11; Ch.1). Only when he is imprisoned and bereft of his mask does he speak with standard speech bubbles, signaling that the mask is Rorschach’s identity and cannot be removed without removing the persona itself, an effect that is lost in film.

The presentation of the visual-verbal is also key in emphasizing the elements we are meant to fixate on during eye-tracking. As mentioned before, in Chapter 9 when Jon mentions the oil pipe-line, his speech bubble is minuscule compared to the Martian landscape, so that our initial eye-tracking sweeps across the image rather than the text. Conversely, the scale and placement of text when Laurie and Dan first have dinner together reminds us of the significance of the Comedian’s death. The sequence of panels begins with an overhead view of Dan’s hand holding the smiley-face badge, Laurie’s hand close to his, and zooms out to an aerial shot of the building, the street, and finally the city. As the view pulls back, Dan and Laurie shrink and the text appears to expand at the top of the panels, guiding our eye fixations so that the element of primary importance becomes the dialogue. At first the conversation is private and intimate, as indicated by the extreme close-up shot of their hands, but by the end the text is large, embedded in a view of the city and narrated by invisible speakers, reminding us of the magnitude of the fact that, “The Comedian is dead” (Moore 26; Ch.1). This is in contrast to the film, where the conversation transpires outside in the rain and the camera stays on Dan’s face as he speaks the line, removing emphasis entirely (Watchmen).

It’s difficult not to agree with comics artist Adam Cadre’s assertion that, “for all the visual genius of the film, its messages are thrown serially across a giant screen, not deployed in an elegant, convoluted sign-system that demands artful discovery” (qtd. in Moulthrop 6). This is not to say that Snyder excludes semiotic systems from his film. In fact, he makes sure to include and expand on signifiers from the novel, most notably the smiley-face, watches, and Rorschach inkblots. However, Snyder incorporates signifiers in a way that ascribes little meaning to them, whereas Moore does not solely rely on the fact that the signifiers recur to imbue them with meaning. Rather, Moore sets up a system in which his signifiers enter into relationships with various text-image and image-image juxtapositions to acquire and develop meaning.

The meaning in the conjunction of “true face” and the smiley-face signifier is compounded when the signifier recurs as a crater on Mars. Each panel pulls back gradually, so that our eyes track over new elements first: text boxes, the shrinking figures of Jon and Laurie, a boulder that in the next panel is revealed to be one of two eyes. The revelation of the smiley-face begins as Jon refutes his earlier statement that life is meaningless; we glimpse the right eye of the smiley-face and the wreckage of the glass construct as Jon explains how each human coupling is like a thermodynamic miracle; and finally, we see the whole smiley-face like the unfolding of some inimitable grand scheme. This initial glimpse is juxtaposed with the text, “Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union […] it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold…that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle” (Moore 27; Ch.9). The smiley-face sprawls across the center of the panel, attracting our initial broad eye-tracking before we focus on the text, which is spread around the perimeter of the smiley-face. In a general sense, we see that the smiley-face again is being set against a contradiction, this time of love and hate, but the text also provides search terms such as “miracles,” and “unlikelihood,” so that we impose those added meanings on previous context we have seen, thereby further developing its semiotic meaning.

In the film, Snyder reuses the smiley-face as Moore does in the novel, in the form of the Comedian’s badge, the Argyre Planitia on Mars, and Seymour’s shirt in the final frame, a mirror reflection of the smiley-face pin at the opening. However, aside from these recurrences, the signifier does not enter into a relationship with other images or text around it. On Mars, the conversation remains much the same but transpires before the camera zooms out to reveal the smiley-face; we are not forced to view text and image as a single identity, and so the signifier is stripped of this additional meaning. Likewise, the movie ends with a text-image juxtaposition meant to be self-reflexive: Seymour, a ketchup-stained smiley-face on his shirt, reaching for Rorschach’s journal to the narration of a journal excerpt, “Tonight a comedian died in New York” (Watchmen). The novel, however, provides us with more under-language, as the text juxtaposed onto the image is, “I leave it entirely in your hands” (Moore 32; Ch.12). The text in the upper-left corner of the panel informs our specific eye-fixations, so that we track the hand, the journal, and the smiley-face, which has accumulated meanings of disaster, irony, and, strangely, hope; here, at the end, almost a mirror image of the opening, it seems to spell disaster again in a throwback to Jon’s final words that, “nothing ever ends” (27).

Snyder also sets up the Rorschach inkblot as a semiotic system in his film, though the signifier tends to appear without juxtaposed dialogue or narration. Aside from the psychiatrist interview, where the cards are used in their obvious function to diagnose Rorschach’s disorder, the inkblots appear as Rorschach’s signature in written messages, in the psychiatrist’s suitcase when New York is destroyed, and in the shape of his blood on the snow when Jon kills him. Due to the lack of interaction with other elements, the film gives us no predefined search terms and the signifier fails to acquire meaning beyond symbolizing Rorschach and what the character himself stands for: in short, the signifier falls more into the realm of spectacle than semiotics.

Finally, it is the ending where the book and film diverge in content with the film’s absence of the psychic squid. This instantly polarizing question has been emblematic of the dissension over the success of Snyder’s adaptation. Perhaps framing Dr. Manhattan for nuclear warfare is more concise and easily digestible, but it ultimately transforms Moore’s ending. As Moulthrop explains, framing Jon creates a peace that is more stable and likely to last. At the film’s conclusion, the discovery of Rorschach’s journal and its indictment of Adrian Veidt bear little threat to Veidt’s new world order. Even if The New Frontiersman publishes evidence of Veidt’s attempt at utopia, and even if Veidt is punished for it, the threat—Dr. Manhattan himself—still remains at large, and the world is likely to remain fearful of his powers and his possible return. Consequently, nations are unlikely to war with each other and will probably remain united in case Dr. Manhattan is hostile and returns to destroy the Earth (Moulthrop 4).

By contrast, Moore’s ending does not promise lasting stability. The final image of Rorschach’s journal, pending discovery, does constitute a real threat in that its publication will likely catalyze an investigation that could uncover Veidt’s practical joke: “[o]nce the phony alien in New York is debunked, there will be no threat from beyond the stars to constrain nuclear brinkmanship. Rorschach’s journal thus represents a terrible presence: quite possibly a truly ultimate weapon, or Doomsday Book” (Moulthrop 4). Thus, the predominant difference is that Moore seems to controvert the possibility of a utopia, while Snyder finds it plausible, though through a regime of fear. Moulthrop believes this indicates the post-Millennium, post-9/11 social and political climate of America, and that perhaps this is where its success can be found (5), though encoding this into a Nixon presidency and the social climate of a world where we won Vietnam, rather than a George W. Bush character and a climate of terrorism and uncertainty, seems at odds with the message itself.

However, in considering the value of Snyder’s adaptation, it is important to note more than the absence of the psychic squid, contentious as that absence is; rather, we should look beyond narrative fidelity and consider the pitfalls of translating comics to the big screen without using formal analysis as a basis for adaptation. The comics medium, after all, is one that affords unparalleled opportunities to create meaning through various juxtapositions of text and image, giving rise to interplay and under-language that demand we actively participate as readers, reading recursively, discovering meaning on our own. It is unfortunate that, though Hollywood film is capable of reproducing some aspects of interplay and under-language, it fails to do so, resorting instead to expected juxtapositions and spectacles that, to paraphrase Moore, do little more than spoon-feed us regurgitated worms.


Baggett, Patricia and Andrzej Ehrenfeucht. “Encoding and Retaining Information in the Visuals and Verbals of an Educational Movie: Technical Report No.108.” Institute of Cognitive Science. Boulder, University of Colorado: 1981. Print.

Boucher, Geoff. “Alan Moore on Watchmen movie: ‘I will be spitting venom all over it.'” Los Angeles Times 18 Sept. 2008. Web.

Goolkasian, Paula. “Pictures, Words, and Sounds: From Which Format Are We Best Able to Reason?” The Journal of Psychology 127:4 (2000): 439-459. Web.

Halliday, M. A. K. and Ruqaiya Hasan. Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Victoria: Deakin University, 1985: 3-17. Web.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1993. Print.

Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1987.

Moulthrop, Stuart. “Watchmen Meets The Aristocrats.” Postmodern Culture 19.1 (2008): n.pag. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

Smith, Frank. Understanding Reading, 6th Ed. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc., Publishers, 2004. Print.

Underwood, Geoffrey and Anna Green. “Processing the gist of natural scenes: sentence verification with intrinsic and extrinsic configurations of objects.” Cognitive Processing: International Quarterly of Cognitive Science 4 (2003): 119-136. Web. 25 Mar. 2010.

Watchmen. Dir. Zack Snyder. Perf. Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson. Paramount Pictures, 2009. DVD.

Related Articles