Last week, you were probably ranting and/or raving about the photos of the Watchmen cast in costume. Well, I was too — and, lucky me, I’d just unpacked my copy of the Watchmen Portfolio and its six super-size reproductions of DC’s 1986 house ads. Unlike the relatively plain photos, these ads actually conveyed a lot of information about the characters and their world. A couple even kinda-sorta contained spoilers, if you knew where to look.
Although DC had an ad for each main character, it never used Nite Owl’s or Silk Spectre’s. If memory serves, the others appeared mostly on and around the back covers of DC’s direct-market-only titles (New Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes, Vigilante, Outsiders, etc.). Each is black-and-white (with red for the logo and trim), each uses the phrase “Who Watches The Watchmen?” somewhere in the artwork, and each includes a character’s quote — although, as we’ll see, not all the quotes were drawn from the series. I remember seeing the Dr. Manhattan ad most often, but I don’t know the details of the ads’ distribution. As far as I can tell, the ads debuted in the August 1986 direct-only issues along with a “Meanwhile…” column written by original series editor Len Wein.
(By the way, I apologize for the iffy condition of these images. My scanner fu is not the best, and the Rorschach and Nite Owl posters spent some time on the wall of my 1987-88 dorm room.)
First up is the Comedian’s ad, depicting what looks like his assassination of a foreign leader. Coincidentally, the photo from the movie has the character in a very similar pose. However, the surroundings make a big difference.
I originally saw this artwork on the front page of DC’s old four-page, black-and-white “Direct Currents” newsletter. That month the newsletter was printed on yellow paper, which added further to the scene’s sun-baked feel. The probable target appears in a portrait on an outdoor banner (titled “VIVA ES___”) across the street from Eddie’s room. A half-empty liquor bottle sits on the open window, and a lit cigar smolders in an ashtray (“DOS AG___”) on a nearby chest of drawers. An oilcan (presumably for the weapons), a half-empty box of bullets, a New York Gazette (with a “WWTW?” headline), and a New Frontiersman (with a saluting figure and an American flag on the cover) lie in the foreground. The ad’s quote is adapted from Watchmen #2, when Nite Owl asks “Whatever happened to the American dream?” That quote, coupled with the Comedian’s starred shoulder pad and the American magazines, doesn’t seem to leave much doubt about the Comedian’s government-sponsored duties. In the movie photo, though, he’s just a guy with a gun, and if you squint you can see the smiley-face.
The Dr. Manhattan ad finds him sitting cross-legged and naked in mid-air, presumably having disassembled the complex piece of machinery (also seen in issue #1) floating in front of him. This ad requires a bit more attention to get the full effect: look closely at Dr. M’s right leg and you’ll see that it appears to be intersecting the block with the “WWTW?” graffiti. Also, I get the impression that Dr. Manhattan has super-sized himself, but I can’t quite figure out the perspective. Judging by the size and placement of the door, either he’s pretty high in the air, he’s fairly big, or both. In any event, the “living in the shadow of Manhattan” quote helps establish Dr. Manhattan as a pretty impressive dude.
Speaking of impressive dudes, the Ozymandias ad shows him in costume and watching the Wall of TV with Bubastis. His chair is decorated with Egyptian icons, there are hieroglyphs on his walls, and a sliver of (what we’ll learn is) his Gordian Knot painting is visible to his right. Since I always thought that Veidt’s Egyptian fascination was a key plot point, and one not fully revealed until issue #5, I’m a bit surprised that I didn’t pick up on it earlier from this ad. The movie photo makes the connection much more emphatically, although when I see that huge head behind Veidt my first impulse is to think “Darth Vader.”
In any event, we’re in the Antarctic retreat, and can see snow outside the windows. Prominent TV images include a suspiciously Clark-Kent-esque newsman, missiles in flight, the Comedian rescuing (the Iranian?) hostages, troops and a tank in battle, the Benny Anger show, and the top of Dr. Manhattan’s head. Coupled with the “smartest man in the world” quote, they paint a bleak picture.
What better way, then, to segue into the Rorschach ad. There’s a wealth of Easter eggs in this one. The New York skyline includes the Chrysler Building and the Astrodome, and a blimp glides overhead. A “Nostalgia By Veidt” billboard looms over the Gunga Diner. An electric car drives past a recharging station. Pale Horse flyers are posted next to a ragged Nixon poster, and Anarchy graffiti is barely visible (and has been cropped entirely out of the comics’ version of the ad).
Obviously, though, the focal points of the piece are Rorschach and the Knot-Top he’s just beaten up — a guy who, I have to note, wears the same shirt as a Knot-Top beaten up by Dan and/or Laurie in issue #3. He’s also lying amidst a pile of “The End Is Nigh” flyers and Gunga Diner cartons. (Not everything is fictional, though — Coke and Miller cans also appear in the alley.) The implication is that Rorschach’s unfortunate foe has been handing out the flyers, but of course readers of the book might well think that Rorschach himself put the flyers there.
The Nite Owl ad shows him in a characteristically heroic pose, with the emphasis on the word “pose.” (Unlike the movie photo, however, Gibbons’ work is much more ironic.) Since the ad’s quote asks “who needs all this hardware to catch hookers and purse-snatchers,” the point of the ad is to show off the hardware. Like the character himself, the whole piece pokes fun at the toyetic aspect of a “real-life Batman,” from the derivative costume to the Owlship and the helicopter hanging in the background. We also see the ill-fated armor and one of Archie’s scooters.
This ad differs from the others in a few significant respects. First, it’s the only one to feature a look at the front of the character. Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach are facing away, and Ozymandias and the Comedian are seen from the side. While Nite Owl isn’t quite posing for a portrait, we see more of him (pun about flab not intended) than we do the others. Furthermore, not only does Nite Owl’s quote not appear in the book, it’s dated 1986, although the book ends in 1985.
Finally, the Silk Spectre ad also shows most of the character’s face, albeit in a mirror. In hindsight, though, the quote doesn’t seem to match the art. Laurie’s ambivalent expression notwithstanding, she’s still getting ready for action in a way that looks a lot like she’s going on a date. In the context of the book, both could equally have been true, but the quote (“… what else would she have done? Been a housewife?”) and the art seem to speak to different periods in the character’s life.
There are actually more Easter eggs in the scene than might appear on first glance. Sally’s costume is visible in the mirror, and there are blimps over the Chrysler building and images of Nostalgia, same as in the Rorschach ad. However, look closely at the photos and clippings. A couple of them clearly show Sally and Hooded Justice, another is headlined “Silk Spectre,” and one shows Sally and little Laurie holding what look like frozen treats. I don’t pretend that that last one has anything to do with the story, but I did want to point out the level of detail Gibbons put into these pieces.
And really, to me that remains a big part of these ads’ collective appeal. Last week’s photos offer only the most superficial amount of information about the characters. To be fair, a comparable ad campaign would probably involve short commercials focusing on each character, but even those wouldn’t be as visually dense as these ads were.
Clearly, even at the beginning of the series, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had already invested enough in the world of Watchmen that they could pick out “snapshots” from that world as rich and inviting as a page from the book itself. Accordingly, these ads previewed that world as much as, if not more than, the characters themselves. In this respect the Dave Gibbons movie poster given out at last year’s Comic-Con is naturally closer in spirit to the book than the recent photos. These ads speak to the power and versatility of art, as opposed to the blunt reality of photography. It’s the familiar comics-vs.-movie tension on a smaller scale.
Still, would it have killed Zack Snyder to include an unconscious Knot-Top in Rorschach’s alley…?