Comic and Graphic Books. Fiction. HTML: This Hugo Award-winning graphic novel chronicles the fall from grace of a group of super-heroes plagued by all-too-human failings. Along the way, the concept of the super-hero is dissected as the heroes are stalked by an unknown assassin. One of the most influential graphic novels of all time and a perennial bestseller, WATCHMEN has been studied on college campuses across the nation and is considered a gateway title, leading readers to other graphic novels such as V FOR VENDETTA, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and THE SANDMAN series..
Watchmen is set in New York City in the 1980s of an alternate world, in which masked
Like all good storytellers, Moore and Gibbons do not spoonfeed the reader. Many small details about this intriguing world are minor images hidden in the background. In the first chapter alone, the astute reader will find that Vietnam has become the 51st state, Richard Nixon is still the President, the USA is building missile silos on the moon and the doomsday clock (a recurring motif in a book overflowing with them) stands at five minutes to midnight.
Watchmen is about superheroes in the same way that No Country For Old Men is about cops and drug dealers. It deconstructs one of the most iconic images of America, developing flawed heroes with complex psychological profiles. All but one lack superpowers, they all have deep problems, and some have nagging doubts about the ultimate purpose of fighting petty crime in a world threatened by nuclear annihilation.
This is the overall vibe emanated by Watchmen, a Cold War text down to its very bones. I've always found superheroes to be a laughable, childish, outdated element of pop culture, but Watchmen treats them realistically and examines the effects they would have on society: the police strikes, the swaying public opinion, the inculpability of vigilantes and the aforementioned failure to address society's real problems. Early in the novel, in a flashback to the 1960s, we see a USMC-lieutenant turned crimefighter discussing the problems America faces, among which he includes "student protests" and "black unrest." The very awesome character Rorschach, dressed in 1920s tweed pants and overcoat, executes both a serial rapist and the average mugger without remorse, while his diary reveals the workings of a disturbingly warped mind. A major character who is employed by the government and held in high regard by the people of America also has a history of sexual assault. The world of Watchmen is like our own: everything is uncertain and relative, and morality is hard to pin down.
Flipping through it at the bookstores, I found Dave Gibbons' artwork to be relatively bland and generic, the typical American comic book style familiar even to someone who never reads comic books. When I started actually reading it, I discovered that there were much deeper layers to it than I thought. Apart from the minor details found in every frame, the way the frames themselves move is beautiful, resembling film techniques in the way they segue into a flashback, create ironic contrasts or suggest deeper symbolism to images in nearly every panel. I did not even realise until later that the chapter entitled "Fearful Symmetry" is itself symmetrical through its dark and light coloured panels. Just as the story breaks down the traditions of the comic book narrative, the artwork breaks down the traditions of comic book illustration, with a particularly welcome relief from motion lines and transcribed sound effects.
Anyway, I could talk forever about this awesome story, but it's difficult to do so without giving away a lot of plot details. Suffice to say that it's a richly thematic masterpiece of symbolism, philosophy and humanity, with beautiful artwork, a great story and deeply memorable characters. It's the best book I've read this year (granted, it had the unfair advantage of pictures) and the pinnacle of 20th century comics. It can be bought at your local Borders for roughly $40 AUD. Go start the car.
But even the superheroes have human flaws: indifference, immorality, greed, cowardice, narcissism, intemperance, fear, self-loathing - everything that might prevent someone of above average abilities from arriving at a solution to the world's ills. It's easy to hate these characters for not delivering, for not being steadier and greater than they are - especially the Comedian for being such a louse, although it's important to read closely everything he says. He possesses wicked insight into the flaws of his fellow supers; as he tells one of them, "I've got your number."
There's a murder mystery to solve and a nuclear war looming, but world-building and character development overrule plot through the first half. Every second chapter explores the background of one of the supers: the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, etc. We learn not only these characters' foibles, but also the tragedies from their past that make them human. I'd anticipated a quick read but instead I was analyzing every panel, picking up on themes and details. So much atmosphere comes from the pictures rather than the text: the flying dirigibles, the Gunga Diner and its related trash, the clues to secret identities. I read every legible word on every depicted newspaper or sign, even if I had to turn the book upside down to discover that Richard Nixon is still president and the United States has won the Vietnam war.
There's a wonderful technique used multiple times where overlapping scenes inform one another, dialogue from the first serving double-duty as simultaneous narrative for the second. This could work on the movie screen (and maybe has; I've not seen the movie), but is probably most rewarding in this medium. The extras at the end of each chapter (book excerpts, etc.) are also a great touch and inform the story. I was looking for the best in the genre as a yardstick for what it can do, and my respect for the medium has definitely risen.
Before I read
That plot can deal with anything, not just superheroes like Batman. In the case of Maus (which won a Pulitzer Prize) it's the Holocaust; with Persepolis it's the autobiography of an Iranian woman. There is no limit to what can be used as subject matter in a graphic novel.
I've never been a big comic book person (though I'm starting to think that might be because I haven't given them a chance), so even once I figured out what they really were, graphic novels didn't appeal to me. Then a friend recommended Watchmen. Then he recommended it again and again and finally I read it. It was my very first graphic novel and I was completely blown away.
Here's the basic plot, the Watchmen are a group of crime fighters, including Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, Rorschach and others. Someone is trying to kill them off and discredit their work and the surviving members are desperately trying to find out who's behind it. The story dedicates a chapter to each of the characters, giving the reader a chance to get to know each of their history and current struggles.
I was expecting a basic good guys vs. bad guys story, predictable, but fun. This wasn't that by any stretch of the imagination. In Watchmen Alan Moore blurs the line between good and bad. He questions the characters' actions and motivations. He creates a world where you have to ask, "Who is watching the Watchmen?"
Watchmen has such a rich story full of complex characters, literary references and complicated back-stories. The writing is excellent, the illustrations are intense and the story is epic. Watchmen opened my eyes to an entire genre. I have since read quite a few graphic novels and I can't believe it took me so long to try them. I would encourage any of you who have never read one to find one that looks interesting to you and check it out.
I, the graphic novel tourist.
'This is my first graphic novel' begins the review. They
So I'll be brief. This was my first graphic novel in years. I can't remember reading one since I was yay high and spent much of my days crawling around through Lego. To be honest I was worried it would feature too many POWs and BAMs, and perhaps too little substance. On this I was proved completely wrong. In fact I quickly forgot I was reading a graphic novel, it just felt like a regular novel for which my mind didn't have to think up the images.
I ended up loving it. Themes of apocalypse and doom mixed with romance, regret, despair and a large blue (possibly) radioactive all-powerful man. Yes please!
Now for comparisons, since I really can't evaluate the graphic novel on its own. For the first three quarters of the book, the movie is remarkably similar. So similar that it was almost as though I had already read the book, since the images were sometimes verbatim reproduced in the movie, down to camera angles and specific blood splatters. This is a good thing, I think. It speaks to the artistic integrity of both works and certainly makes the movie better. It also meant that the movie somewhat spoiled these parts of the novel for me, though. That is, until the end. The end of the novel differs significantly from the movie, and I absolutely can't explain why without spoilers, so I won't (but I would love to talk about it with anyone who's read/seen both). The problem I had, which may be partially an artifact of expectations since I had seen the movie first, was that I liked the movie ending better. Returning to the Wizard of Oz example, this isn't the end of the musical Wicked, which throws out a good portion of the point (imo) in favor of a more satisfying conclusion. This takes threads that should have been woven together at the end and does it, spectacularly, in a way that the novel doesn't even approach. The end of the movie makes more sense to me than the end of the novel. And it kills me to say it, since usually I fall squarely on the side against movie adaptations.
So... I don't know. Watchmen is great. See it, read it, experience it somehow. Pick your poison: original form or an adaptation that follows it closely and then deviates wildly. Or do both, and then come talk to me about it.
Call me a snob or an ignoramus (or both - it's possible and a very bad combination) but I never knew comic books can be so complex. It's really incredible how much work has gone into this and how many layers of meaning there are. It's not just the plot telling a story, it's the structure, the colours, the images, the symbols, the songs (yes there are songs), the articles (yes, there are articles - including one from an ornithological newspaper!), the writing (a lot of Watchmen is an imaginary book - no images - which is supposed to be one of the characters' memoir), the subtle references, the little attachments (old "photographs", receipts, fragments of diaries or letters), the political and historical setting, the social commentary, the Tales of the Black Freighter (another comic within Watchmen)...etc. It's frankly amazing. I'm very new to this. I don't really read comic strips - never have, not even as a kid. But if I knew there were some this good out there, I would have started reading them earlier.
Meanwhile, I will leave you with this little description from Wikipedia - just in case my "non-review" didn't convince you to read it yet: "Moore used the story as a means to reflect contemporary anxieties and to critique the superhero concept. Watchmen takes place in an alternate history United States where superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s, helping the United States to win the Vietnam War. The country is edging closer to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, freelance costumed vigilantes have been outlawed and most costumed superheroes are in retirement or working for the government. The story focuses on the personal development and struggles of the protagonists as an investigation into the murder of a government sponsored superhero pulls them out of retirement. Creatively, the focus of Watchmen is on its structure. Gibbons used a nine-panel grid layout throughout the series and added recurring symbols such as a blood-stained smiley. All but the last issue feature supplemental fictional documents that add to the series' backstory, and the narrative is intertwined with that of another story, a fictional pirate comic titled Tales of the Black Freighter, which one of the characters reads. "
Note re the film: Moore's vision was that of an unfilmable graphic novel - ""What I'd like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating" - , and actually stressed the differences between comics and film in Watchmen. Having now seen how that vision developed and having experienced its richness and complexity, I very much doubt, no matter how much effort might put into the film or how good the director might be, that it is possible to capture something like Watchmen on screen. But I shall watch the movie soon and see for myself.
Alan More and Dave Gibbons set their story in an alternative universe where superheroes are real, Nixon was elected for a third term,and the U.S.A. won the Vietnam War. The Superheroes, however, are not all that super. In fact, they're pretty pathetic characters whose powers are pretty much non-existent (with one notable exception). The plot centers around the death of several of these superheroes and a few of their rivals and twists into an incredibly detailed (and at times convoluted) story. There are also multiple subplots and numerous secondary characters as well as a comic within the comic and an intriguing text-based extracts from various primary sources set in this alternative timeline.
This isn't a book I enjoyed in they way I enjoyed some other graphic novels, and it's almost more akin to the comic equivalent of Franz Kafka. It's a disturbing and morally ambivalent universe that Moore and Gibbons create and the good guys aren't all that good and the villains are more pathetic than evil. Most of the heroes are pathetic vigilantes and their political philosophy is pretty much racist and fascist. Liberals aren't portrayed much better and come across as either hopelessly naive or as ruthless as their conservative counterparts. The illustrations do a great job of reflecting the atmosphere and Gibbons does a great job of recreating the style of earlier comics; there's a grimy and depressing quality to everything.
The Watchmen deserves its reputation and it deserves all the praise it's received. It won the Hugo Award and was named one of Time Magazine's top novels of all time a few years back. If you have a preconceived notion of comic books or superheroes, this book shatters everything you've thought about the genre. I don't think that everyone will appreciate this book -- there's just something odd and demented about it. I also found it a bit slow to get going but I think that's because I had trouble getting past my preconceived notions about superheroes. If you're patient with the book, though, and give yourself some time to reflect on the book once you've read it, you'll be more than rewarded.
If you're at all interested in the history of the comic book, you've heard of WATCHMEN. It revolutionized the medium and paved the way for all the edgier stuff that's come after. It's acclaimed not just as a
Alan Moore has been praised for deconstructing the superhero, but I'd argue that he's doing much more than that. He's also crafted an alternate world in which one important change has had organic, logical consequences for society as a whole, and in doing so he's deconstructed the comic itself. It's brilliantly done. It's deep and complex and subtle. And it's hella interesting.
In Moore's alternate world, Superman's first appearance inspired not just comic book creators but real people who donned costumes and hit the streets to fight crime. They've got day jobs and rent to pay and all the emotional problems that come along with everyday life. Few of them are wealthy. None of them have superpowers. They're just regular people who've costumed up for reasons as varied as their own personalities. Some of them really want to make a difference. Others hope to boost their careers. Some are on a power trip. A few just get off on the pretense. One is only in it because her mother has forced her. Moore comments on their place in the world via short excerpts from relevant sources, (autobiographies, scholarly papers, etc.), tacked onto the end of each chapter.
I say that none of them have superpowers, but that's not quite true. Jon Osterman --aka Dr. Manhattan--is the lone superpowered superhero in this world. Jon gains his powers during a horrific accident in which his corporeal body is annihilated. He gains the ability to see and understand all things at all times. He knows the past, present and future as one. He can see exactly how subatomic particles come together. He has complete control over his own reformed body, which is blue and glowing. And his powers have changed him, mentally as well as physically. He's not your standard, "I must use my powers to fight crime and save the world!" superhero; neither is he the typical, "I shall use my powers to enhance my own personal glory!" kind of a supervillain. He just... is.
He's had a huge impact on the world at large. The US won the Vietnam War, with his help. His ability to see and control subatomic particles has led to massive scientific breakthroughs, including efficient airships that have largely replaced airplanes and electric cars powered by public power hydrants. The world looks very much like our own, but it's really not. The changes are small, subtle, and absolutely vital to the way we react to the story. They don't sound like much on the surface, but they go deep. It's brilliant.
Perhaps the most interesting shift, though, occurs within this alternate world's comic book industry. Faced with real-life heroes like Hooded Justice, Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan, comic book creators feel no need to inundate the market with fictional heroes. Instead, comic books focus on pirates and ghouls - the very storylines, in fact, that came under so much scrutiny in our own world during the 1950's. Moore asks us to consider the comic book as escapist literature, as an art form, and in terms of its creative development. I find comic book history just fascinating, and I loved seeing how Moore's alternate world had diverged from our own where comics were concerned. My very favourite end-of-chapter excerpt dealt with how the government vetoed the creation of the Comics Code Authority, the organization that held such sway over our own comic industry for so long.
Moore blends all these elements so well that you'll never notice the seams. He's crafted an absolutely fantastic piece of work that forces us to consider not only the society within the book but also our own world and its own brand of heroics. There's so much here. I haven't even scratched the surface.
On the downside, Dave Gibbons's art is a little dated now. You'd never mistake this for a contemporary work; the use of line, coupled with John Higgins's colours, has a distinctly 80's feel to it. There are also some Cold War themes that may not resonate as well with those who didn't live through those times (translation: me).
But on the whole, it's excellent. I highly recommend this to anyone with even a passing interest in comic books. It's a hefty tome, so far as graphic novels go, but it is most definitely worth it.
(A slightly longer version of this review originally appeared on my blog, Stella Matutina).
Watchmen weaves together the stories of several of these heroes, who in the telling become much more than vigilantes running around in silly costumes. Each one has human flaws and complicated motivations for putting on a cape and tights. One, a psychopath named the Comedian who also works for the government, is thrown from his apartment window to his death as the story begins. Another, a vigilante named Rorschach who hides behind a constantly shifting mask, suspects the Comedian was targeted because he wore a costume, and he begins investigating. This leads him to team up again with his old partner, Nite Owl, who hung up his costume when vigilantism was outlawed and has since lived an aimless life as a super-rich hermit. Together, they begin to unravel a complex conspiracy with a shocking ending.
Each character has a chapter devoted to them, and additional documents are provided as between-chapter filler to augment our understanding of who these people are and why they became superheroes. The narrative structure intertwines the past and present so that the plot advances while we learn each character’s back story. This complex structure adds dimension to the characters and helps us understand why they make the choices they ultimately do. For example, the Comedian’s psychotic nature is revealed little by little in the memories of those who attended his funeral. Dr. Manhattan’s story — one of my favorite chapters — jumps from moment to moment in a non-linear fashion, illustrating how he experiences time, with each moment happening simultaneously. Another unique structural element is the “comic book within a comic book”; one of the minor characters is reading a horror pirate comic as the story unfolds, and the events of the comic reflect — in more ways than one — what’s going on in the larger story.
Watchmen is one of those rare creations: absolutely engaging, a suspenseful page-turner, that also provides a lot of insight into who we are, why we need superheroes and what motivates someone to play god. I would definitely recommend reading it before the movie comes out next month.
I have read this book at least 20 times, and each time it gets better.
I have no doubt that the movie will suck.
The scope and clarity of the vision is immense, maybe even epic. The quality of the illustration is very high
It's a tour-de-force with no one to like, no one to love, and certainly no one with which to identify. This combination gave a certain necessary distance which allowed me to finish the book without running screaming into the sunset. I kept thinking of the exchange between Boromir and Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Boromir is afraid to venture into Lothlorien because he's heard that no one comes out unscathed, and Aragorn responds: "Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth."
I have not come away from this book unchanged.
The writing has depth. I loved the way Moore used parallel stories from different media to inform the main plot. This, led to characters who felt like real people. The cast is flawed, and you’re never quite sure who to be sympathetic towards.
The ending . . . well, to quote the dearly departed Robert Jordan, “RAFO”.
The story is this. You have two batches of incredibly screwed up human beings who, for whatever reasons, are compelled to dress up and save the world. We call them "superheros" even though they actually have no super powers (except for one guy, Doctor Manhattan, who isn't really a human being anymore as a result of the nuclear accident that gave him his powers... and he's blue). You might pause here and wonder, "wait, shouldn't we go into that whole psychology thing a bit more? Why do they do this?" Well... that's not easy to answer. You kind of accept that what spurs someone to feel like they want to "save the world" and don spandex is a bit darker than you might have otherwise thought, but for each character, it's a little different. (Side note... one of the cooler ideas is this: in this world, we won Vietnam and Nixon is still president. Like woah. But even though we won Vietnam, we're teetering on the brink of WWIII.)
But back to the characters. There's a first and a second wave of super heroes, the first of which has essentially retired/died off and the second that is a little out to seed, but are still bigger players in the current scene of things (though both play an equal role in the story, as we spend a lot of time trying to figure out everything that has happened in the past). Why are the "younger" heroes out to seed? Well, a law was passed that made their actions illegal (which resulted from a police strike against the vigilantes), thus forcing them into retirement. The book makes no secret of the fact that these people have to be a little twisted to do what they do. And "a little" twisted is putting it mildly for most of them. (See above.)
On to the plot, which is pretty simple. For some reason, a few of our masked vigilantes have been killed and it's suspected that there's a connection -- a "mask-killer" at work. Our book deals with the question as to whether or not there's a plot to kill masks AND, beyond the masks, whether or not the world is going to devolve into WWIII. Ultimately, the whole comic is more interested in its own style and storytelling (see the comic book within a comic book that was an interesting parallel illustration of losing one's sanity/humanity/values in the pursuit of one's treasured ideals) than developing an intricate plot.
The most interesting character for me was The Comedian. It's his death that spurs the plot, so I guess he would have to be the most interesting, as we spend a lot of time trying to "figure him out" to some degree. He's twisted and mean and clearly full of himself, but each time he entered into the story, I was more interested in what was going on. (Of course, knowing that Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays him in the movie, even before looking at the book, I knew The Comedian would die... because Morgan is always the guy who dies.)
I didn't like Rorschach in the sense that he unsettled me, but I found him to be a somewhat intricate character that, weirdly, was the most focused on the goals of being a superhero. By being the most intolerant and anti-social person, he seemed to epitomize a superhero's mantra of never giving up and always fighting crime and injustice. Of course, he was also a freak who saw the world as a dark pit of despair. So really, Rorschach was the best character.
Nite Owl and Ozymandias were mildly intriguing -- both more so in their "retirement." Doctor Manhattan was engaging if only in his singularity. As the only one with super powers, he becomes less human with the passing of time (though he himself doesn't see time in a linear fashion). Clearly, though, the creative trio were fascinated by him, too, and spent a lot of time on this. His relationship with Laurie Juspeczyk provided for one of the most interesting scenes -- when Laurie wakes up to find two of her blue lovers in the room with her and then realizes that he's become multiple beings as a means of both paying attention to her and continuing to work, thus not actually paying attention to her.
The least interesting characters? Those would have to be the women, Laurie and her mom. It makes me wonder how any women are actually fans of this comic, but then, it might not bother them as much? I wanted to scream at how terrible these women were. Empty shells of creatures. They existed for nothing but sexual plot points (be it rape or consensual) and had little personality and purpose. I would say I'm thankful that they weren't as objectified as women sometimes are, but that such an idea would cross my mind is rather appalling.
Perhaps what bothered me most was the sheer, unadulterated bleakness of everything, but that can't be a criticism, as it was part of the purpose of the comic, I'm sure (as was the intense nihilism that reduced anyone with a view of right and wrong to be the logical equivalent of a small child). You're being asked to read a comic book about super heroes where the world isn't worth saving. There was nothing bright or good here, really, and certainly nothing lasting. Laurie keeps making arguments for mankind (which are about as compelling as she is), but Rorschach's vision really triumphed. Even the muted colors and the lack of true connection between anyone... it was bleak and never compelled me to feel like I should be roused to support anyone or anything within the pages of the book. On top of that, the actual illustrations weren't as appealing to my eye, but that's personal preference. I wasn't a fan of the style, or the coloring palette, so I was pretty much doomed from the get-go.
I'm not saying I need this to be bright and cheerful and colorful. Clearly that wouldn't be the point of a piece like this, but I just didn't have anything to hang on to that would give meaning to all this.
So... I understand The Watchmen's importance in comic history, but that doesn't mean that I enjoyed the experience. I was intrigued by many of the ideas, but I suppose it's just not my cup of tea.
PS I got through the whole review without mentioning The Incredibles and how they totally Disney-fied the idea of super heros sent into exile! Except for you know, right now. Dammit.
I guess there's little I can add to the chorus of acclaim, except to point out that the movie is likely to be a huge letdown.
Watchmen has to be read slowly and carefully to get out of it all that it promises. The first time I read it, I was more of a comics reader, and that's how I read it. I could see that there was more to the story than the usual superhero fare, but I did not slow my pace to absorb it all. The panels are worth being studied to see not just what is happening in the foreground, but to witness the background action as well, to read the newspaper headlines, to identify main characters engaged in telling exchanges, to identify the meanings in the posters, the handbills, the billboards, and the architecture.
Maybe it's all a bit much at times, because the structure is so intricate. One can still enjoy the book even without shaking loose every last symbolic meaning. But the more carefully one reads, the more immersed one feels in the world of Watchmen, and more invested too, and that's more reward than many books can promise.