David's Reviews > Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore
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it was amazing
bookshelves: science-fiction, graphic-novel, read-more-than-once
Recommended to David by: George L.

This review appeared on my now archived blog in January 2009.

I was never into comic books as a kid. They were just...lame. It wasn't just the fact that the characters were these two-dimensional cheezy dorks in fluorescent costumes. Stories dragged on pointlessly. Oh wait, there was a point: to keep people buying them to find out if Ultra-Fantastic Man was going to be victorious in his fight against Mr. Really Mean Dude. But since the Ultra-Fantastic Man comic book wasn't canceled, he obviously won while Mr. Really Mean Dude got away or was temporarily incarcerated. Either way, he'd be back. Lame. Even the comic books themselves were tissue thin paper colored with half-assed ink.

In college, I had a roommate who was an avid collector. This guy defied the stereotype. There was no mistaking him for a dweeb. He was a 6' 2" jock. He played high school basketball and, although he didn't make the college team, still played it for fun. He was an all around fan of sports in general, easily segueing from basketball to football without missing a beat.

He took it upon himself to inform me that the comic books had evolved. "Graphic novels" had emerged and elevated the pathetic industry into something resembling traditional fiction. They even used real paper!

For instance, Batman was revitalized by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns. Miller would later go on to create 300 and Sin City, which were both later made into successful films.

But the one that stood out from the rest of the graphic novels was Watchmen, written by Alan Moore (Moore would later go on to write The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V For Vendetta and were subsequently turned into films). In it, Moore imagines an alternate reality where superheroes really existed and explores what impact they would have on society.

The story is set in the mid 80s. Nixon is still president thanks to the help of these superheroes (the outcome of the Vietnam War was decidedly different) and the repealing of the 22nd amendment. Watergate? Buried, along with those nosy journalists. Cold War tensions are high and threatening to turn hot as the Soviets are tired of getting boxed in by Pax Americana.

The relationship between the public and the superheroes isn't so great. After initial gratitude for fighting crime, things turn sour. The cry of "Who Watches The Watchmen" goes out and is scrawled in graffiti everywhere. The police grow to resent the superheroes, seeing them as nothing more than costumed vigilantes reveling in the glory. They go on strike and hold protest rallies. Ultimately, Congress passes a law banning superheroes, unless they work directly for the government. Those that don't retire or go into hiding.

Meanwhile, someone is eliminating superheroes. The first one to go turns out to be one of the government sanctioned guys. And since he's working for Nixon, you know his hat can't be white. His death drags the others out of retirement (and hiding) to figure out what's going on.

Unlike your typical comic book superhero, the superheroes in Watchmen don't have super powers, except for one guy. They're all just normal people with good fighting skills and gadgets, a bit like Batman. The one that does have super powers, Dr. Manhattan, can re-shape matter with just a thought. He gets lost in a conundrum over time, experiencing it all at once. One moment he's reliving the accident that made him what he is, the next he's on Mars building sand castles contemplating his post-human state.

Other characters wrestle with the way their lives turned out or what the whole point was. Truth, justice, and the American way? Some wonder if that's a multiple choice question. They certainly don't agree with one another. Was it really about doing good? Was it just a costume fetish?

And underneath it all is the comic book within the comic book. A teen reads about "Tales of the Black Freighter," a pirate ship comic. Moore and Gibbons, the illustrator, deftly weave the events of "Watchmen" with "The Black Freighter" together with the narration from one paralleling the other. And there are the clever little segments at the end of each chapter: excerpts from an autobiography written by a retired superhero, a treatise on the study of owls, interview excerpts with retired superheroes, and articles on missing persons that figure in the story.

You wouldn't get this sort of literary skill with old style comic books. They were all "bam", "kapow", and "you haven't seen the last of me" crap. Watchmen helped change all that. While it didn't turn me into a collector, it did teach me to appreciate the medium and look at it with an open mind. I've picked up a couple stories, and even got into the Sandman series. None of that would've been possible without Watchmen and the other graphic novels of the mid-80s.

I haven't spoken to that old roommate of mine since graduation. However, I'm sure that he'd be pleased to see that graphic novels have received their due and then some.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
February 1, 1989 – Finished Reading
May 2, 2012 – Shelved
November 14, 2012 – Shelved as: science-fiction
February 4, 2013 – Shelved as: graphic-novel
November 10, 2013 – Shelved as: read-more-than-once

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