All the panels are at right angles, there are no diagonal panels and no panel interruption – all those fads that characterize modern comics.
I don't think "fad" is a bad word to describe that. What happened in the '60's is that a lot of comics people discovered Art Deco and drugs. It was all wonderfully exhilarating stuff at the time: the exploding panels, things launching out of the panels, tiny little panels showing close-ups of people's eyes. Great, at the time. But. when we started on Watchmen, we thought about it and decided that the best way to tell this story is through these very conventional, tiny little boxes that form a regular nine-panel grid on the page. It gives a sort of metronomic beat to the storytelling. I think that with something as complex as Watchmen we needed a very plain skeleton, something very solid to anchor it.

You said earlier that you didn't really know what Watchmen was going to be until around issue number three. How detailed did you get before you embarked on the project?
Well, that's really one big difference between writing a novel and writing a comic: you can't revise. When we started we had some idea of the things that we'd be playing with. Like when we put the smily badge in the very first panel, I did know that it would be in the very last panel. The structure of the thing didn't become crystal clear until number three, when we began to realize all the possibilities when we brought in the parallel narrative of the pirate story. Because of the way I've always done comics, get it right the first time, I didn't have a problem working that way on Watchmen. There were things that we didn't know. I didn't know Rorschach was going to die when I started. It was only when I got to issue number four, and I knew what the resolution was going to be and I knew Rorschach's character to a much greater degree than when I started, and I thought, "He's not going to buy it [the moral compromise that climaxes issue number 11]. This is a character whose essence is that he doesn't compromise on anything. They'll have to kill him."

Over the course of writing 12 episodes, did any of the characters surprise you?
Certainly. Characters like Rorschach and the Comedian, who politically are 180 degrees from my own position, I started out writing as villains, almost. After a while I began to feel a certain sympathy for them, which I found quite interesting. Particularly the Comedian, who I portrayed as a complete bastard in every sense of the word – someone with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I didn't admire the guy, or like him, but by the end of issue number two, I felt quite sorry for him. Rorschach started out as a kind of right-wing-fanatic stereotype and became a very sympathetic character for me. Not his way of working or his moral standpoint, but I admired his integrity.

The characters do grow, and you realize that what seemed to be a very two-dimensional character has a lot going on behind there. The traditional approach to comic-book characterization was that the best characters are the ones that can be described in 35 words. The thing that I liked best about Watchmen was as the thing progressed we were very involved with the characters. Even the mundane human ones on the streetcorner.

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  •   BIG PICTURES  |  March 04, 2009
    Watchmen is that too rare work of popular entertainment, one that succeeds on many levels and that rewards your attention to every level it employs.
    The winner of several "Best Comics Writer" awards on both sides of the Atlantic, he's best known in America as the author of the DC Comics series Swamp Thing and, of course, Watchmen.

 See all articles by: M. HOWELL