"So Many Games To Play": The Worlds of Watchmen

Curator's Note


The main interface of the “Watchmen” iPhone application offers a horizontally-scrolling representation of the retired superhero Ozymandias and his genetically-engineered lynx Bubastis, watching a wall of TV screens. The screens move in parallax behind Ozymandias, but the figures of the man and his pet are flat, digital paintings rather than 3D models. The image of Ozymandias is based on the portrayal of actor Matthew Goode, and a scene in Zach Snyder’s movie Watchmen. This in turn is closely based on the original comic book of Watchmen, and on sequences written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, during which Ozymandias immerses himself in the world’s information through a bank of monitors.
My submission for this In Media Res involves multiple levels of mediation. It begins with a comic book drawing of a man watching a wall of television screens, with a reel-to-reel analogue recording device at his side. This image was then adapted faithfully into a live action image of Matthew Goode watching television screens, within a blockbuster movie. This image, in turn, was appropriated by the iPhone application, which presents a digital version of Matthew Goode (and his reel to reel tape recorder), watching a series of simulated “television screens”, which themselves, when scrolled over and tapped, offer clips from the film, behind-the-scenes movies, enlargements of publicity material and extracts from the “motion comic”, which animates and gives a voiceover to Moore and Gibbons’ original. You are watching a YouTube clip of all this, shot (shakily) with a handheld camera. Phone, PC, comic, film, television, CGI, tape-to-tape... this single image of Ozymandias straddles almost every conceivable media platform.
Snyder’s Watchmen was faithful to the original not just in its close adaptation of visual images and dialogue, but in its attempt to transfer the intertextual background documents of Moore’s comic book (pages from an autobiography, an academic journal, a magazine interview, a psychiatric report) into an equivalent, appropriate form. My clip includes snatches from this virally-released material, including pastiches of news reports and propaganda films; and finally, a fan work that cleverly enters into this alternate media universe, asking (entirely in the spirit of the original) “what if”: what if the Watchmen characters had been adapted into a Saturday morning cartoon serial?
We have become so used to the extension of texts through pastiche websites, fake news shows and fan-made parodies – the barriers between real/fake, parody/straight and fan/producer increasingly hard to identify – that Watchmen’s transmedia content may well seem impressive, interesting, but unsurprising. This level of cross-platform sophistication is now unremarkable. Overflow, worthy of academic articles at the start of the century, has become the industry standard.
Yet one aspect of Watchmen’s promotion still has the power to provoke. By transferring Ozymandias’ wall of screens onto the iPhone, the producers of this application neatly and wittily echo the standard iPhone layout, with its array of icons, and remind us that many of us regularly survey several channels at once, swooping between media and clicking instinctively between screens in what Ozymandias calls a modern version of Burroughs’ cut-up technique: “this jigsaw-fragment model of tomorrow” which allows “subliminal hints of the future to leak through.” Watching Watchmen on iPhone reminds us that we are now in a position –  in possession of a powerful gaze over the mediated world – that was once the privilege of superhuman millionaires and criminal masterminds.


Watchmen's adaptation for the iPhone certainly seems to be more complex than my experiences with the licensed game for the PlayStation 3. Although only a demo, the game essentially breaks the narrative down to a multi-player running fight, moving between different historical stages of the graphic novel to construct a series of themed platforms. The reduction of narrative complexity to action was also a widely commented on problem with the theatrical film itself, whereby Snyder's stylized fight sequences marked perhaps the strongest departure from the source material. I'd still contend though that the jigsaw approach of Moore's original takes some of its effect from the uniquely print juxtaposition of static images and the approximation of Dr. Manhattan's unique perception of past, present and future, resisting some of the more aggressively postmodern pastiche that the filmed version has moved into.

Thanks for this provocative start to the theme week, Will. It is certainly clear that the multiple interfaces and interactive components that the Watchmen offers suggests the “mainstreaming” of media overflow within our current creative industrial environment, but I am also struck by your suggestion that perhaps the concept has lost its critical currency now that these practices have become routinized (I am inferring this from your statement, “Overflow, worthy of academic articles at the start of the century, has become the industry standard”). The concept of overflow always evokes images of messy spillage for me, where textual meanings erupt in multiple directions, facilitated by multi-platform linkages and DIY authoring tools, some guided by industry orchestration, others beyond its control. As these practices become industry standards, and as the lines between professional and amateur creations become increasingly blurred, it seems necessary to differentiate all the more between managed/guided cross-platform trans-mediation and the types of textual overflow that emerge through user –generated cartographies.


I am assuming that the Watchmen i-phone application does not offer a link to the Saturday Morning cartoon parody, but rather, that this was added by the video’s creator (is that your shaky camera work, Professor Brooker?). Moreover, certainly not included are links to the recent Warner Bros. vs 20th Century Fox legal battle over licensed rights to the film property or interviews with Alan Moore about the adaptation process of his works to film (or his tense relationship with DC Comics, for that matter), which he is none too keen on. Both are easily found online, and both certainly add to the overflowing meaning-making processes available to users. Even if these nodes were included in the package, we need to ask how such sanctioned interfacing shapes textual meaning making processes? 


It seems to me that while the i-phone image of Ozymandias gazing at his wall of screens might be interpreted as a democratization of access, it might just as easily be read conversely, as a statement about limited engagement (not with the text, but with mapping its multi-directionality). “Here are all the screens you need. No need to fuss with the labor of stretching textual connections. We’ve done it for you…”. After all, Ozymandias uses these screens to follow the repercussions of his larger work, reshaping the world according to his own ideological perspective (by faking an alien invasion that kills millions of people and brings about a truce between the US and the USSR – sorry for spoiling it for anybody – the movie goes in a different direction), but the i-phone app seems to do this kind of meaning-making mapping for users.


Your comment Will about overflow as an "industry standard" recalled a conversation I had just last night with a friend and documentary filmmaker. She is in town for the Boston Independent Film Festival and was remarking to me how completely exhausting it is to shop her "little film" around because, as I interpreted her comments, the expectation from distributors today is that you deliver a film plus an audience that has been already been cultivated since PRE-production via the types of overflow mechanisms to which audiences have become accustom. For well-leveraged media conglomerates, this is easier to do, but I am wondering what audience and industry expectations of engagement are doing to "small" media producers? She is holding on tightly to a precious grant-based budget in order to secure rights for footage, re-mix sound, re-cut the project for potential TV distribution, and to pay for trips to film festivals. She sees very little room in her finances and even less TIME in her life to explore overflow texts.


As we parted yesterday, in a wary voice my filmmaker friend ultimately wondered if it was even worth the time and money, assuming she had both or either. It is an important question to include in our discussion of overflow this week: Do these interfacing opportunities even payoff for the producer in terms of what really counts, especially if you are small and independent - a film distribution deal and subsequent box-office/ DVD sales?

Like Avi, I was struck by the suggestion (perhaps not intended) that articles on overflow are made less worthy or necessary by overflow being an industry standard. I'd say, though, that critical engagements with overflow may be more numerous, but they are far from our field's own industrial standard. So, yes, we all know the word convergence, but it's still so often presented as an "oh yeah, and there's all this other stuff too. End of story," when it could and should form so much more of the story, and when overflow and paratextuality need to be studied much more closely and seriously.

After all, and to play with the metaphor, rather than assuming (and to be clear, Will, you're not the one I'm insinuating to be doing such assuming) that overflow is merely a text in its entirety overflowed, what we'll likely find is that very specific meanings, resonances, and aspects of a text overflow, and it's therefore in studying those that we get a better idea of how a text is being positioned in society. Overflow may well be an industry standard, but it comes in all different types, and thus invites a whole future of overflow studies.

Unlike Rorschach, I am very happy to modify my original position.


"This level of cross-platform sophistication is now unremarkable. Overflow, worthy of academic articles at the start of the century, has become the industry standard."

I didn't mean to imply that when something becomes "industry standard" (and Nina is absolutely right to question who the "industry" is here, and who that standard excludes, and what pressures it places on those outside the mainstream) it is no longer worthy of consideration. What I meant was that it is no longer remarkable per se. I believe it was an article of mine from 2001 that coined the specific term overflow (I don't know if anyone else would want to claim such a messy word), and in that piece -- and a related follow-up a couple of years later -- the very fact of cross-platform spillage seemed worthy of comment. The fact that it was happening, at the time (as I recall) was interesting enough.

So, this piece was inevitably a reflection for me on my own earlier work, and a form of dialogue with it, and perhaps in remembering the enthusiasm of my "look, this TV show has a website that continues the fiction" from 2001, I have swung too far the other way into a blasé pose.

Nevertheless, I would suggest that the phenomenon itself is no longer a novelty (within a certain mainstream media sphere, as Nina reminds me); the way it is used, the structures of power it implies, the variations in its form, and the limitations of the term "overflow" itself, are certainly worthy of further study. I have, for the most part, taken the term to imply industry-guided convergence (that is, I wouldn't personally have labelled a fan text like Saturday Morning Watchmen as overflow) but Avi's post alone suggests that this should be interrogated. Perhaps by including it with the official spin-offs here, I was unconsciously questioning my own definitions. I appreciate the questions and challenges to what was meant as a slightly provocative opener -- and yes, apologies for the shoddy camerawork! Should have used a tripod.




I think that Jonathan's subject line raises an interesting point that hasn't been grappled with enough yet--we've been talking about industry standards, but what about standards of consumer engagement and practice?  "Who Watches the Watchmen Overflow?"  

One of the most important points that I thought you made, Will, way back in that article dealing with overflow and Dawson's Creek, was to distinguish between the textual structure of overflow, and the degree to which any significant portion of the audience actually participates and consumes all the product offerings available.  Tons of Dawson stuff was available via overflow, but your empirical audience research suggested that it was only a very small segment of the audience with any awareness of this stuff.  There were many different ways of engaging (or not) with that networked content.  The industry might be building these kinds of textual structures more and more--and Nina, I find it absolutely fascinating that this isn't a practice reserved just for blockbuster franchises any more--but do we know that much at all about how they're actually being interfaced with (thinking in terms of more casual non-fans as well as fans)?  Even if we're only talking about the industry's version of overflow, and not the fan-generated iterations described by Avi, it seems we still have to do the kind of audience research Will did back then to really understand how commonplace overflow has become at a cultural level. 

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