Watchmen is commonly thought of as one of the greatest graphic novels of our time, but it’s actually a reprint collection. The work originally came out as 12 separate issues, although they were all planned from the start. Still, a large contributor to the success of the story was writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ mastery of the serial publication format.
Each issue of Watchmen not only feels like a meaningful part of a larger whole, but both engages and satisfies the reader as a self-contained story unto itself. Upon finishing a chapter of the book, there is a sense of completion, while at the same time a nagging interest as to what will happen next in the story.
There’s been a great deal written about how most of today’s monthly issues lack these two important qualities – satisfaction and continued interest. And it’s certainly true, as far too many of today’s books (and really, comic books from any time period) are paper-thin in terms of content.
But the next step is to ask is why this is so. What causes it? And more importantly, what could creators of today take from Watchmen in order remedy their flaws?
1. The Rules of the Game
Let’s begin with the first question. Why do so many comics lack satisfying content and a sense of continuing interest? Simply enough, it’s because they utilize their space poorly. Space is the most important commodity in creating comics, because one only has so much of it, and any bit of story placed on the page takes up a given amount of that space. With a limited page number, what to put in and what to leave out is a very important choice.
Of course, Moore and Gibbons know how to use their space in Watchmen to keep the reader engaged. That’s one of the book’s biggest strengths. But how do they do this? What specifically keeps the audience turning page after page, eager for more?
The answer is proper pacing. Pacing is a narrative term, and in a nutshell, it means how much room any given portion of the story occupies compared to any other given portion. It’s a game of ratios. One would not spend 10 pages of Action Comics devoted to Superman’s morning routine – how dull would that be? The reader wants to get to the good part, where Superman ousts the villain from his seat of power and saves the day. More page space is given to such a main story conflict than the introductory portion of the story with Clark Kent brushing his teeth. The action of Superman and the villain is more important to the story, and deserves more space – that’s pacing.
Now, to understand how to use pacing, we’ll need to break it down into its constituent parts. Fortunately, in comics, there are only two main components to pacing, both playing a very important role. These are the elements of rhythm and tempo. Let’s tackle each in turn.
Rhythm refers to how much new information is given to the reader at any point in the story. For example, a nine-panel page obviously contains a great deal more information on it than a four-panel page. Therefore, reading that nine-panel page is more of a quick, staccato experience than a four-panel page – the information given is measured out at a faster rate. To demonstrate, try reading the two pages below, both from Watchmen:
The visual experience of each page is fundamentally different – the left page feels much more quick and skippy, and there is simply more information on it. By contrast, the page on the right seems to breathe more, the large panel slowing the intake of information dramatically. This is how rhythm affects the reading experience.
Looking at the definition, however, rhythm is not just how much information is conveyed, but how much new information is conveyed. This is important when thinking of page layouts – any time a story changes its setting, usually called a scene change, this increases the rhythm because a lot of new visual information is being conveyed to the reader. For example, take another look at the page on the right above – the scene is changing in a flashback, conveying a lot of new visual information to the reader. The setting, the characters, the costumes, the events, etc. So while the four panels on the page are definitely slower than the page on the left, the scene change actually tweaks the rhythm back upwards. Without such a shift in locale, that four-panel page would be even slower.
Now for tempo. Thankfully, it’s much simpler than rhythm. Tempo refers to the degree of activity within a panel. The more intense the activity, the higher the tempo. For example, a fight scene would be of higher tempo than a dance scene, which would likewise be of higher tempo than a scene of inner contemplation, such as a monologue.
It is the combination of rhythm and tempo that creates pacing.
Briefly, I must make an aside to give both credit and thanks to Mr. Mark Kneece, comics writer and professor at Savannah College of Art and Design, for introducing me to these concepts about how to conceptualize pacing.
2. Putting Rules into Context
Now, these terms are all well and good, but they’re somewhat abstract. If rhythm and tempo are the components of pacing, how do we use them? Well, there are two main principles governing the use of rhythm and tempo.
The first is variety. As anyone who has ever done almost anything can tell you, doing the same thing over and over again becomes very tiresome in short order. A major consideration of pacing is that it needs to change. If an entire book is filled with a terrific fight scene that has 11 panels on every page, it’s going to be a slog. High rhythm and high tempo are not virtues in and of themselves – pacing is about change. The rhythm and tempo must change to keep the reader interested. But what, then, governs this change?
Content appropriateness. It may seem obvious, but the pacing of any given part of the narrative ought to match the content being shown. It would be very odd to portray a tense climax in a long series of two-panel pages, and then rush through the resolution of the story in two quick nine-panel grids. A nine-panel grid is very high rhythm – use it for tense sequences.
So, we are armed! With our terms defined and our principles laid out, let us now proceed to the story at hand – Watchmen, Chapter 2.
3. Analyzing the Issue
I have chosen Chapter 2, which from here on will be referred to simply as Watchmen #2, primarily because Chapter 1 is actually rather dull in terms of pacing. But Moore and Gibbons turned it around with Chapter 2! Even the best improve with experience.
Watchmen #2 is really the story of the Comedian, or Edward Blake. Most of the issue takes place at his funeral, with flashbacks interspersed throughout. The storyline follows the recollections and opinions of the Comedian given by all of the various characters. In short, Watchmen #2 is a portrait of Edward Blake’s life.
So let’s start at the top – the page breakdown.
Watchmen #2 has seven separate scenes, or seven different places in which it the story plays out. There are 28 pages in the issue as a whole, and they are divided as follows:
- Scene 1: 4 pages
- Scene 2: 4 pages
- Scene 3: 3 pages
- Scene 4: 4 pages
- Scene 5: 4 pages
- Scene 6: 5 pages
- Scene 7: 4 pages
Even at this large scale stage, the story maintains a coherent rhythm. A baseline four-page scene puts the story at a certain pace (a rather brisk one!), and it then deviates from this in very strategic places, in order to break up the monotony and keep the reader interested. Reading from the beginning, the reader gets two four-page scenes to start, and just as that trend might be getting dull, Moore and Gibbons stick in a three-pager to shake things up! Then it’s back to the consistent beat, and after another two scenes, a five-page scene marks the climax. One final five-page scene closes the story’s rhythm.
This rhythmic aspect of page layout is very important, and it is often overlooked. This kind of rhythm often goes unnoticed by the average reader in his conscious mind, and unfortunately often by the average author as well. But whether it is noticed or not, overall page rhythm has a direct and profound effect on the reading experience of a book.
Now to the nitty gritty – the scene breakdown.
4. Page by Page
The first scene spans the first four pages of the book, but there is something special about this scene. It’s actually two scenes in one. All of the dialogue exchange here occurs between Laurie Juspeczyk and her mother Sally, but only about half the panels show where that conversation takes place – a retirement home in California. The other half show the Comedian’s funeral, where the other principal characters of the story are in attendance: Dr. Manhattan, Daniel Dreiberg, and Adrian Veidt.
The panels alternate on the page: one panel at the California Resort, one panel at the funeral, and so forth. This technique of rapidly switching between locations is called cross cutting, a cinematic technique. It is generally used to build tension, and it greatly increases the rhythm of whatever scene it is used in. Remember, a new location means more new visual information for the reader. Having the audience keep track of two locations simultaneously is a significant jump to rhythm.
Now let’s look page by page. The first two pages of scene 1 are both nine-panel grids. Combined with the cross cutting technique, this means that the issue opens on a very high rhythm. However, the tempo in these panels is very low – people walking, standing, and smoking cigarettes. But the quick rhythm is enough to grab the audience and pull them into the story, as well as set up two major locations for the narrative to unfold in.
Page three of scene 1 deviates from the nine-panel grid with a sprawling four-panel page – a large establishing shot of the Comedian’s funeral, and all the men attending it. This is a significant change in rhythm – four panels is very few, and it gives the audience a nice breathing space after the hectic opening.
The next page picks the rhythm right back up, not giving the reader any time to dawdle, as Sally and Laurie discuss the death of Edward Blake. It’s an eight-panel page, so the rhythm is not as high as the beginning, but still much higher than before. Also unlike the beginning, there is no cross cutting occurring, lowering the rhythm significantly. This is perfect because at the bottom of page four is a transition into the next scene, in which Sally Jupiter remembers what happened between her and the Comedian.
Scene 2 takes place at a photo op, back in time. The first page begins with only seven panels, continuing the slowdown from the previous page and establishing a smooth transition into a new scene. But pages two and three of scene 2 depict the Comedian’s rape of Sally, and the rhythm spikes back up to nine-panel grids. For the first time since the beginning of the story, the tempo rises dramatically as Blake beats Sally viciously and forces himself on her.
Hooded Justice, a compatriot of both vigilantes, interrupts Blake’s horrific assault and gives him a beating of his own, before telling him to leave. The Comedian laughs on his way out, making a threat on Hooded Justice’s life as he saunters away.
With the crisis over, the next page calms down a little to eight panels. The tempo drops as well, the scene reverting back to Sally and Laurie in California. The audience is allowed to smoothly slide down from the tense sequence preceding, while Sally chides her daughter for her sexual relationship with Dr. Manhattan. At the end of the page, we see another scene transition – back to the funeral.
Now we enter the third scene, which is the shortest of the book at only three pages! It begins with a nice and slow five-panel page. This lets the reader fully move into the new locale – the drawing room of Captain Metropolis – established by the large panel at the bottom. It’s worthy of note that while this page allows for a necessary downturn in tension since the hectic scene of Sally’s rape, it’s still of a higher rhythm than the opening of the book. Remember that four-panel page back in scene 1? Comparatively, this has one extra panel. While things have certainly calmed down since the Comedian assaulted Ms. Jupiter, the story as a whole is still at a more heightened state of tension than when it began. In essence, this is a subtle way of telling the reader “it’s not over yet.”
Now, remember that variety is one of the two primary principles of pacing. As such, scene 3 contains no bombastic fight scenes, no high tempo action, and a remarkably low rhythm by comparison to its preceding scenes. Pages two and three of the scene have only seven and eight panels, respectively, evidencing a overall slow build of tension from five to seven, and then from seven to eight.
This fits perfectly with the content being shown – scene 3 is about the Comedian crashing Captain Metropolis’s plan for the Crime Busters, a new syndicate of superheroes. Blake crushes the aspirations of his naïve compatriots with scathing remarks about how they cannot possibly solve the world’s problems. There’s more to what’s going on in the world than civil unrest and petty gang crime – there’s something deeply wrong, he says, and none of you are big enough to stop it. He burns Metropolis’s agenda for crime fighting, and walks out.
At the close of page three, Adrian Veidt, the character from whose point of view the scene plays, fingers the charred remains of Captain Metropolis’s world map, deeply struck by the Comedian’s words. The final panel transitions back to Edward Blake’s funeral, and scene 3 comes to a close.
Scene 4 opens with another large five-panel page, again keeping the audience embroiled in the plot. Page two builds the rhythm up slowly by moving to six panels, as Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian converse on the day the U.S.A. won the Vietnam War.
But just as the reader thinks that this scene might be the same type of slow build as its predecessor, Moore and Gibbons upend the audience’s expectations. The next page is a high rhythm, high tempo nine-panel grid, depicting Edward Blake being wounded by a pregnant woman with a broken bottle, before he pulls out his semi-automatic to dispatch her.
The fourth and final page of the scene calms slightly, an eight-panel grid, showing Blake gunning the woman down. He then poignantly accuses Dr. Manhattan of not caring about humanity, and Manhattan doesn’t reply. The rhythm and tempo shift back down. Once again, the last panel of the page transitions back to the Comedian’s funeral.
And onward the story goes, into scene 5! Page one opens with a four-panel grid, just like the one at the beginning of the story. In this context, not only does it fulfill the principle of variety, but it also denotes importance. The reader knows, subconsciously, that what he’s about to see is going to be very important. This page is a great example of how using low rhythm at the right time does not at all make a sequence less engaging, in fact just the opposite.
Scene 5 sees Daniel Dreiberg, as Nite Owl, and the Comedian out on the streets, responding to the anti-vigilante riots. Page two is a relatively slow six-panel grid, but it has moderately high tempo. Protestors throw cans and stones and Daniel and Edward, and in response Blake unleashes a gas grenade.
The next page ups the rhythm with a nine-panel grid, but the tempo actually drops! Although the Comedian fires on some civilians spraying graffiti in one panel, all of the others are just Daniel and Blake talking about what they’re doing, and what’s happened to all the superheroes. With Daniel in shock at the state of the world, the scene transitions back to the graveyard at the end of the page.
In the fourth and final page of scene 5, the nine-panel grid continues, and the tempo dips to a halt. Men shake hands and pay their last respects to Edward Blake. The rhythm is still high, but not much is happening.
Now, one might think that such a scene would be a good time to also slow the rhythm down, but Moore and Gibbons make the smart choice not to do so. The story is not so much about the Comedian’s death as it is about his life, and as such there’s no use lingering on the final formalities of the funeral. Moore and Gibbons wisely keep a brisk pace through this portion of the story, and at the end of the page, we see that one man who attended is being followed. This wraps up the scene, and gives an excellent setup for the next one.
The choice to keep the funeral in high rhythm is not only a good one in terms of story content, but in terms of variety as well. Looking back, all four scenes that we’ve looked at end on an eight-panel page. By choosing not to stick to that precedent in scene 5, Moore and Gibbons have clued the reader in once again – the story’s not over yet. There is more to be revealed!
The next page, the first page of scene 6, is where the rhythm drops. It has seven panels, depicting an old man, Moloch, entering his house and being ambushed by Rorschach. Seven panels is about in the middle in terms of rhythm, and the tempo is low with the exception of the last panel.
Having unveiled the intruder, the next page wastes no time, ramping up to a nine-panel grid as Rorschach mercilessly interrogates Moloch. In the ninth panel, the locale changes as the flashback begins, Moloch recounting the final words of Edward Blake…
The next two pages, both of the Comedian speaking with Moloch, are also nine-panel grids, keeping the breakneck rhythm constant. They are actually relatively low in tempo, as the Comedian is performing only small, if emotionally charged, actions. He sputters pathetically to Moloch about what he’s seen, even threatening the man’s life at one point. On the fifth and final page of scene 6, Rorschach accepts Moloch’s story. However, despite a seeming downturn in tension, the page still remains on a nine-panel grid. This is because Rorschach is still onto Moloch, having discovered illegal drugs. He lets it slide after Moloch explains he has cancer, and he leaves, much to the old man’s relief. Curtains on scene 6.
Now comes the last scene – scene 7. It begins with a moderate seven-panel page, letting out the high tension of the previous scene, as Rorschach contemplates his findings in his journal. In fact, all four pages of scene 7 are seven panels! This not only reflects the slow, thoughtful pace of Rorschach’s writings, it also gives the reader a calming wind-down period to close out the story.
Picking the lock to enter an empty cemetery, Rorschach pays his final respects to Edward Blake and resolves to find out who killed him. Thus ends Watchmen #2.
So what can we draw from all this? When all’s said and done, there are two major points to address. The first is so enlightening that, upon discovering it during my research, I felt like I’d solved a riddle. You know, those riddles that take you weeks to figure out, and upon receiving the answer, you feel thoroughly stupid? That kind of riddle.
Out of all the panels larger than the usual size in Watchmen, only two of them depict any amount of fighting or conflict. One is the panel where Rorschach ambushes Moloch, and the other is the flashback panel of the Comedian being thrown from the window of his apartment.
Every other larger than normal panel in Watchmen is used for establishing new visual information or for relieving tension. The answer to the riddle is, this is the exact opposite of how most comics today are spatially oriented. Action shots, or “money shots,” are given an inordinate amount of page space in most issues on the shelves today. It’s not uncommon to read a fight scene in a new issue that lasts four pages, all with three or four panels per page, upon which bombastically rendered figures slug it out endlessly with one another.
As we can all attest, these fight scenes are some of the most boring sequences one could possibly read. With the information gathered from Watchmen, we now see that is because such scenes break a primary rule of pacing: form must match content.
Violence in any narrative always serves to heighten tension. Two human beings in physical conflict is powerful imagery, and it always means something serious is happening. So why would any creator want to downplay the tension of the violent scenes? By placing high tension conflicts on four-panel pages, the violence loses most of its impact!
If tension is the goal, then it makes much more sense to show violent conflict in high panel count pages, establishing a high rhythm to match the high tempo. In doing so, the scene instantly becomes more engaging to the reader, and he is sucked into the book.
But what about those two panels from above? Those are action shots in large panels. Are they exceptions to the rule? Actually, no. Both panels, in fact, serve a second function also, a function more important than just being an action shot.
The first one, the Rorschach panel, is a reveal shot as well as an action shot. It is the first time we see Rorschach in that scene, and indeed in the entire issue! As he is the protagonist, we are proverbially on his side, and therefore a large introductory shot is warranted. Additionally, the tension of the smaller panels in which Moloch does a series of very small actions is released by this shot – since the beginning of the page, the reader has been anticipating for something to happen. Seeing something happen is actually a release of tension in this case, even if that something is a violent act.
The second panel, that of the Comedian being tossed from the window, is also a way of relieving tension. It represents the pivotal moment in the Comedian’s life. The previous panels on the page are an amalgam of the many pivotal choices Edward Blake has made, this large panel serving as the climax of those choices, the crescendo of his life, as he understands who his killer is and what it all means, just before his death. That’s what this panel is about, not the violence.
In summation, large money shots of heroes in action poses don’t just hog valuable story space, they also negatively impact the pacing of the story. These shots, so beloved by collectors, are actually counter intuitive to keeping a reader of the comic engaged! That’s the first major point.
So what’s the second? Well, the second point is larger in scale. As a complete issue, Watchmen#2 represents a chunk of story that is both entertaining as a complete narrative, and yet it is also part of a larger whole. Its ending tantalizes the reader to learn what happens next.
This remarkable combination of qualities is due to its narrative structure. Let’s have another look at the scene layout, but this time including what happens in each scene:
- Scene 1: 4 pages – Establishes the Funeral. Establishes Sally and Laurie’s conversation.
- Scene 2: 4 pages – Sally’s flashback. The Comedian rapes Sally Jupiter.
- Scene 3: 3 pages – Veidt’s flashback. The Comedian crashes Metropolis’s plans.
- Scene 4: 4 pages – Manhattan’s flashback. The Comedian guns down the Vietnamese woman.
- Scene 5: 4 pages – Daniel’s flashback. The Comedian breaks up a riot with violence.
- Scene 6: 5 pages – Rorschach follows Moloch to his home, interrogating him about the Comedian’s last words.
- Scene 7: 4 pages – Rorschach pays his respects to Edward Blake.
Notice how the entire issue is constructed around the Comedian’s life – not only is every major character in the issue introduced in context with the Comedian, but all the flashbacks are actually chronological in terms of the Comedian’s lifetime. Each one occurs after the next. Very literally, Watchmen#2 summates the life of the Comedian, from his first sins to his final fall, crying in the face of his enemy, asking for someone to explain the world.
That’s a complete story! Over the course of the whole issue, through varying eyes, the audience comes to understand who Edward Blake was. Not only that, but they come to understand the protagonist, Rorschach, as well. While everyone else is mourning the Comedian and reminiscing about their experiences with the man, Rorschach investigates his murder. Although he pays his respects at the end of the issue, his thoughts are not towards how he knew the man, but wondering how he died, and more importantly, who killed him.
For all his brutality, Rorschach is the only man looking ahead, and he is also the only man who did not find the Comedian contemptible. How ironic, then, that the closest thing the Comedian might have had to a friend has not a thought to spare for times shared. No, Rorschach is indomitable – he needs to know what will happen next. He needs to know who killed Edward Blake.
And as allies to the protagonist, we readers also feel that need, leaving Watchmen #2 satisfied with a complete story, and yet burning to find out what Rorschach will uncover in issue #3.
That’s something every monthly comic could aspire to. But more importantly, it’s something every monthly comic could achieve. Moore and Gibbons certainly show very well – it’s not at all impossible.