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'Watchmen' motion comic whets the appetite

The motion comic is a great way to introduce the uninitiated to the world of Watchmen.

Rorschach examines a button stained with bean juice. Warner Bros.

What a difference a day makes. The day I'm referring to is 7/18/08, when the Watchmen trailer debuted in front of The Dark Knight, which so far has grossed more than $400 million dollars in the U.S. alone.

In one day, people who'd never even heard of Watchmen were suddenly intrigued, and in some cases even eagerly anticipating the movie. My CNET colleague Bonnie Cha told me the trailer gave her "chills." This sort of reaction from Watchmen noobs was just the kind Warner Bros. and director Zack Snyder were going for, I'm sure. As a longtime fan of the Watchmen comic, I'd already watched the trailer a good 20 times before sitting down to see The Dark Knight. And I'm sure I wasn't the only veteran who was giddy as a schoolboy when watching it on the big screen.

DC comics has also surely appreciated the interest the trailer sparked in the original collected 12-issue series of the comic. Today, it's No. 9 on the overall best-selling books list and No. 2 in fiction.

Over the next few months, until the movie's March 2009 release, anticipation will only grow, and Warner Bros. is capitalizing already. It recently released the first episode of the Watchmen motion comic, and already its popularity is impressive. It's currently listed as No. 2 on the best-selling TV shows on iTunes. The first episode costs $1.99, or you can buy the whole season for $19.99 and save four bucks. Either way, if you're curious about the story and don't mind spoiling the movie, this is a great way to (somewhat) see what the fuss is about.

Rorschach being his uncompromising self. Warner Bros.

Cruel and Unusual Productions--headed by one of the movie's producers--has taken the art from the comic and animated it, making it into basically an animated movie. Now, don't get too excited. They've only used the original art assets from the book, so don't expect Wall-e or anything up to Disney cel animation standards. The animation here is crude, but very effective.

One of my favorite touches was seeing a character wallow in his depression. In the comic, the character is just sitting there humped over on a half splashpage with no dialogue. Here you actually see the character slump down, creating something more immediately effective. More cinematic.

And speaking of cinematic, they've also added camera zooms, pans, fades, and foreground defocusing to really give the motion comic an even more movie-like feel than the original comic already had. Also, with these camera movements they're able to make certain small details of character emotion stand out right away, where it may have taken a couple readthroughs of the book to notice this before.

Comics, and Watchmen in particular, can convey character emotion very effectively when needed. One thing they can't do though is convey emotion through music. The music in the motion comic hits a perfect tone for this first episode. It's very noir-like and creates a somber and sad, but menacing, mood. Perfect for Watchmen.

The Comedian being very unfunny. Warner Bros.

OK, now I have to put my geek hat on fully. Although some of the voices, like Rorschach's and Dr. Manhattan's, are effective, the voice of Nite Owl II is performed very woodenly. This is weird, since apparently all the characters are voiced by the same guy.

A guy who sees no reason to even try to fake a female's voice speaks for the character of Laurie. I'd prefer if they actually got a woman to perform her voice in subsequent episodes. Also, although I liked the way Rorschach's mask animates when his mood changes, the idle animation for it is too distracting. That's about it as far as negatives go though. Aside from a couple lines of missing dialogue and some weird pauses, I was highly impressed with what they've been able to do with art that was never meant to be animated in the first place.

The motion comic is cool, however it's using a different language to tell the story than the original comic book did. With the book, you have the freedom to stop and take in a scene and study the immense detail in each panel. Also, in the book, between each chapter there are very important pieces of the back story, written mostly in traditional novel form.

These breaks in the plot aren't necessary to understand the plot of Watchmen, but they are necessary to fully understand what makes this comic so great and why so many revere it. So, check out the motion comic, but remember, it is not a replacement for the book. It's more like having a couple of tasty courses of a seven-course meal. If you like the taste, then you'll love the full course.