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Watchmen (1986-1987)

Author – Alan Moore 

Artist – Dave Gibbons

Publisher – DC Comics

The only Graphic Novel to make it onto Time Magazines top 100 Greatest Novels, Watchmen is largely regarded as a seminal work in the Comic Book medium. Written by Comic Books guru Alan Moore (V for Vendetta) and illustrated by Dave Gibbons (who seems to have illustrated almost everything) it is possibly one of the most critically acclaimed Graphic Novels of all time, and apparently was one of two comic books that inspired Comic Sans as a font.

Set during the 1980’s, in the latter end of the Cold War, Watchmen concerns the investigation of costumed vigilante Rorschach into the murder of Edmund Blake aka The Comedian. As Rorschach digs further into the mystery he drags his retired co-vigilantes back to the surface, and together they uncover a conspiracy that threatens to change the face of the world. Watchmen is set in a universe where costumed vigilantes emerged during the 1930’s, but were deemed disruptive to the social order in the 1960’s and placed into forced retirement. However, the only vigilante to have ‘superhuman powers’ is Dr Manhattan, and very few of them can be easily called heroes, as most exist in a moral grey-zone, ‘donning the mask’ either because they’re political radicals, they’re looking for a publicity deal, or because they get off on it.

It is because of that that Watchmen is morally challenging in a way that I have rarely seen in Graphic Novels. The main protagonist, Rorschach, is a radical right wing psychopath, and very few of the vigilantes can be easily called ‘good guys’- even Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre seem to enjoy beating ten bells out of an attempted mugging, and are only able to have sex after rescuing civilians from a burning building. This seems to be a result of the tail end of the Cold War, post-Vietnam, where the citizens of the moral powerhouse of the United States began to have a serious introspective questioning as to whether or not they were the ‘right side.’ Unlike V for Vendetta though, Watchmen avoids being overtly political, instead focussing more on the psychology of vigilantes and the social repercussions of the threat of nuclear war.

The Novel is split into 12 chapters, each chapter interspersed with a document, either an excerpt from a book written by one of the characters, or a psychological report, or other documents. It surprised me to discover that Watchmen was released in serial format as it’s pacing is startlingly slow and quiet in comparison with more contemporary serials. Despite this, Gibbons artwork has aged very well, the frames edging on the thin line between realistic and comic, which compliments to tone of the novel brilliantly. My commendation however goes to  Moore’s scripting, as each character has their own distinct voice, possibly the most memorable one being Rorschach as he switches between a fluid, caustic inner monologue, and a jumpy, unstructured speech largely characterised by minor sentences.

I’d be lying if I said that every part of Watchmen has aged perfectly. [SPOILERS] Ozymandias’ plot to trick the governments of the world into believing they are under threat by alien invasion by releasing a psychic sexually organ shaped monster into Manhattan, being an example of this, seemed somewhat contrary to the tone of the novel, and I actually preferred the way in which Zack Snyder reimagined this in his 2009 film adaptation. [END SPOILERS] Despite this though, Watchmen is an iconic and memorable read. I have never read a Graphic Novel like it, or a Novel like it for that matter. What is most striking is how tragically human its conclusion is, and even though I was fortunate enough to not have to live through the Cold War, Watchmen opens a window in a social consciousness of the 1980’s, where humanity seemed to lose its innocence, and costumed heroes turned out to be just ordinary people in funny outfits.

  1. MartinJ
    July 18, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Spoilers! I haven’t seen the film version, but I know its ending, and think it’s much worse actually. If Manhattan is responsible, and he’s a symbol of the US, even fighting for the west at Vietnam, surely that wouldn’t produce world co-operation but actually just make everyone turn on the US? It’s a really stupid plan. End spoilers.

    Alan Moore is a genius because he uses the comics medium to its fullest potential. When you have the Tales of the Black Freighter overlap with the “real” world, the captions taking on double meanings, it’s amazing, and something that would never work on film (which is why I sympathise with Moore disowning all film adaptations of his books). See also: V For Vendetta.

    • July 18, 2012 at 8:02 am

      Great point, I had an extra paragraph in the draft of this review where i talked about the Black Freighter, but it ended up being too long! I was very surprised with how it was incorporated, and thought it was a stroke of genius. Go Moore.

      In terms of the ending, I think Snyder wanted to add in a 21st century reference, hence the infinite power core that Manhattan was working on. In comparison, Moore’s ending meant that Manhattan could have stayed on Earth (although probably wouldn’t have), whereas in Snyder’s Manhattan had to leave Earth, possibly signifying the end of the ‘Age of the Hero,’ as he is usurped by the Tycoon that is Ozy. I don’t think Moore’s ending was ‘bad,’ its just I connected with Snyder’s vision just a little bit Moore. (sorry, I had to do it)

      On a completely unrelated note, this video is hilarious. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDDHHrt6l4w

      • MartinJ
        July 18, 2012 at 8:18 am

        I’ve seen that before, it’s good. I’ve actually got a really interesting book called ‘Watchmen and Philosophy’, it goes into a lot of depth about the morality and metaphysics of it (e.g. whether Laurie actually has free will).

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