The “Watchmen” Book Review

August 27, 2008

I promised a discussion on “The Batman Archetype” dealing with aspects of the character that make for one of the best fictional characters in modern fiction; that’s coming, but look for it linked as a separate page on the sidebar of this blog soon.

I wanted to go ahead and give a review of “Watchmen,” the comic that ranked as number 1 on my recent top ten list.

“Watchmen” is the greatest comic of all time, written by the greatest comic writer to ever script an issue and illustrated in perfect detail by Dave Gibbons. “Watchmen” is the graphic novel (technically Watchmen is a tpb, and if you want to read why it’s better to classify it as a graphic novel you will soon be able to click here for an explanation) that comic fans have been recommending to their non-comic-reading friends for years, and it’s also the only graphic novel to make it onto Time’s list of 100 greatest novels of all time. This is all for good reason, primarily because Watchmen is flawless, intricate, sprawling and all of its parts work together perfectly.

A problem that critics have pointed out concerning American comics is that the industry here has turned what should be a genre of the medium into practically being the entire medium. If you ask someone on the streets what comic books are about in the US, most are going to say superheroes. In another country the answer will vary; as most comic readers know, there are several great comics that have nothing to do with superheroes, but the average comic shop will stock a larger percentage of superhero comics. Comic readers also know that of those superhero comics, many are great, many are not, and the great ones find ways to make more of their genre than an outsider would expect. But more on point here, if you look back over my list of 10 great examples of comic literature you’ll see more than half have nothing to do with superheroes, but ranked firmly at the top is this, Watchmen, which is very much about superheroes.

But Watchmen is not the traditional superhero story. Since its publication many writers have tried their own variation on the central premise in some form or another, but none have been nearly as ambitious or successful as this one. Alan Moore writes a novel here about super heroes in the real world; what would they be like? What would drive them, shape them, make them who they are? What kind of people would choose to dress up in costumes and attempt to be a hero? How would the world react to them and what would occur as a result? Moore wanted to critique the state of the world specifically the political ideas and policies of his own Britain’s Thatcher and America’s Reagan, but played it more accessible to the eighties american reader by trading in Reagan for Nixon. He figured Reagan would still have some supporters but that “everyone would pretty much agree Nixon was a bastard” and therefore Moore could critique Reagan’s policies by pretending Nixon had been president continuously for years.

Watchmen may be a superhero book, but it’s more a deconstruction of the superhero mythos. All of it’s protagonists are the superhero archetypes pushed to their respective extremes–Superman becomes Dr. Manhattan, Batman becomes Rorsach (although many of Bat’s lighter characteristics are reflected in Nite Owl), The Comedian is a more realistic and scary version of The Punisher, etc. Moore uses these archetypes to exlpore what would happen if these heroes were real, and what would happen if suddenly they became forced into the limelight, forced to register openly as costumed heroes as the government tries to utilize their abilities and squash vigilantiasm. He then uses this as a backdrop to deal with war, nuclear prolifration, the “cost” of peace, and a list of concepts and policies that could go on for pages. Most of all, Watchmen explores humanity–what defines us, what drives us, how we cooperate in society and ultimately what destroys us.

Watchmen is the book for details; Gibbons panels are layered, important details often occur in the background while something else is going on in the foreground. Clues to the book’s ultimate mystery (Who killed the comedian and why?) are placed throughout, and like any great mystery a second reading will make you wonder why you never guessed the truth all along even though it’s so great at what it does you’d rarely have a chance on figuring it out the first time around. There are even styilistic patterns placed into this book–one famous two page spread consists of panels that mirror each other until they meet in the middle (there’s no way to describe this until you read it, so just trust me on this one).

Also it’s notable that after each single issue (which works out to being a chapter in the collected edition) of Watchmen, there are pages of text that build up the back story of the books protagonists. These text pages are identified as news reproductions, extracts from a character’s biography, psychological profiles, etc. There’s also a comic-within-a-comic that a minor character is reading throughout the book that readers catch glimpses of in some panels.

Ultimately, Watchmen will show the casual reader what the comics medium is capable of and it’s just an excellent story with great art and it works on multiple levels. The current movie trailer is dazzling and I can’t wait to see the film adaptation of this work (if we get to see it, as in recent weeks the rights of the distribution companies are under litigation). You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read this before seeing a film adaptation of it, because no matter how good a movie can be, it’s nothing compared to this source material.

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