Sara's Reviews > Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore
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's review
Jan 13, 2010

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bookshelves: graphic-formats, science-fiction, 20th-century-fiction
Read in January, 2010

I came to my reading of Watchmen with pretty high expectations. I steered clear of the film until I could take in the book, having heard what an original, complex and downright groovy graphic novel this is. I guess I would call Watchmen original and complex, and for that matter groovy. And yet, I didn't love it the way I wanted to love it. It did not seem immediate or very relevant. I disliked the female characters and the book's handling of gender. Every once in a while the over-earnest writing (especially for Rorschach) elicited an eye roll from me. And then it struck me Watchmen was published over 20 years ago.

I tried to cut it some slack and decided I would probably most effectively understand and appreciate the book within its context. That is, within the context of the historical moment of its publication, as well as within the context of the tradition of graphic novels and what was expected of them when Watchmen was published. Essentially, I got the feeling that so many tropes of modern superhero literature had been introduced and even created by Watchmen, that if one didn't take care to remember this, one might fall into the error of thinking it hackneyed. Like believing Shakespeare wrote in clichés, when in fact he originated language that would become, through acceptance and use, clichéd.

The main plot line of Watchmen unfolds against and becomes intertwined with the eruption of a nuclear scare between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U. S. President at the time of this occurrence (1985ish) is still Richard Nixon. We learn that he ushered through a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for more than two terms. Even though nuclear armament, and the threat of its use in an alternate historical 80s, comprise the very specific atmosphere within which the larger questions of heroism and altruism develop, these questions still resonate today. We no longer fear all out nuclear war (even though we probably should), now we fear terrorism. In any event, there still exists a phantom-like hostility out there, which leads us to gauge the balance of our safety with our freedom and to imagine heroes capable of offering us the former while protecting the latter. Perhaps because Moore envisions superheros as real personalities, because he questions vigilante justice and what would draw an individual to pursuing it, do we today portray superheros the way we do - as flawed and somewhat frightening humans who exercise power many of us wish for, many of us distrust, but few of us would truly want. Just as with contemporary superhero films, Watchmen maintains interest in both the effect of vigilante justice on the psyche of the superhero/vigilante and its effects on the public those superheroes/vigilantes purport to protect.

In addition to this theme of moral ambiguity, Watchmen achieves complexity with its interesting structure. The main narrative (and illustration, in this case) alternates both with different formats, news clippings, book excerpts, etc., and with a parallel narrative or story-within-a-story of "The Black Freighter". (Aside: The Brecht fan in me really appreciated this homage.)

Altogether a work of ambitious scope and intellectually interesting questions, I ultimately appreciated Watchmen mentally much more than I did emotionally or aesthetically. I think that for its emotional and aesthetic impact to reach me, I would have had to read it in the 80s, when it all seemed fresh. But that's my failing, I think, and not really the book's.

Oh, and Dr. Manhattan is a f&*%ing badass.

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