Colin McKay Miller's Reviews > Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore
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Oct 19, 2008

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bookshelves: graphic-novels

“Who watches the Watchmen?” is the question from the Roman poet, Juvenal, about who has authority over those in authority. Now, who reads the graphic novel Watchmen by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins is an entirely different and far simpler question. The answer: Comic book nerds.

A graphic novel is a comic, although it has differences in length and complexity of storyline (akin more to a literary novel than an episodic piece) and is often aimed at mature audiences. Watchmen came out in twelve issues, starting in 1986. Self-contained, the characters don’t appear anywhere else, so it’s an origin story and a concluding piece all in one. Set in an alternate history where the Nixon is still President (now in his fourth term) and the U.S. is close to nuclear war with the Soviet Union, it is clear that Watchmen has a political bend. This works well, however, as it’s more about the abuse of power than the any political viewpoint. There are no real superheroes—save one, Doctor Manhattan, a man who was caught in a nuclear explosion and is now a blue being existing outside of time and human confines—but the graphic novel does a good job of probing into the psyche of what makes someone want to go out and fight crime. Some are mentally imbalanced, others feel forced into the work by a hero parent, but all the characters have issues to one degree or another. In the initial pages, the heroes are dealing with the murder of one of their own. The crazed vigilante Rorschach—my favorite next to the Comedian, a nihilistic cynic whose very presence mocks the notion of a hero—becomes convinced there is a greater plot to eliminate masked heroes.

One of the fascinating things about Watchmen is that it dissects the necessary parts of a superhero into differing characters. Generally speaking, in the old comic book days, superheroes were powerful, moral and pristine in temperament. They were all of the above. In Watchmen, the characters who are powerful aren’t necessarily moral (and vice versa), so even if someone can save the world, doesn’t mean they care to. Some have radical political views (bordering on Nazism); others are contracted to work by the government. Alan Moore’s writing does a great job of analyzing the impact of having a group of masked heroes in society, how the average person would respond. Also, since this is a review of a comic, I must comment on the art style. Dave Gibbons style is simple, but effective. Usually, the story is told in a nine panel format (three by three per page), but when Gibbons deviates, it’s well done. The full page panels of issue twelve hit with great impact. Additionally, the colorist, John Higgins, does a good job of echoing the darkening tone of the piece as the colors literally fade down as the graphic novel draws on.

Unfortunately, Watchmen makes the bold assumption that you know comic books and have bought into all its tenets. No wonder comic book nerds were blown away by how Watchmen twisted the genre (as is evidenced by its rippling influence and the fact that its sales allowed the publisher DC to overtake rival Marvel for a brief period of time). If you’re not a comic book nerd though, you didn’t buy in anyway, so many of the deviations just seem to make sense. Of course people are flawed… even heroes. Despite all the bad conventions Watchmen deviates away from, it still gets snared by dreadful monologues. It becomes clear they didn’t have enough material for twelve issues. As a result, much supplemental material is thrown in. Sometimes this works well, as is the case with minor character storylines (the doctor who changes his life after interviewing one of the heroes is my favorite) and fictional written works at the back of each issue add to the series’ backstory. Then there’s the comic within the comic—the commentary within the commentary—that one of the minor characters is reading. It only works about 15% of the time, and the rest of the time, well, the eye starts skipping. Despite the flaws, the three artists created a seminal piece for the comic book medium that is still a fairly good read today. Three stars.


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message 1: by Colin (last edited Feb 25, 2009 03:35AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Colin McKay Miller So, who reviews the reviewers? Just kidding.

There's actually a lot to comment on with Watchmen; I think that's why it's so loved--because it sparks many debates. And no, I don't think they'll be able to pull off the movie. Writer Alan Moore doesn't think so either, but I'm convinced that he turns on everyone on a long enough timeline.

The ending (still spoiler free, people) raises many questions since our reality has made a different statement, but it's still a well-written ending.

One of things that does bug me though, is that there's actually nothing wrong with the superhero. There are people in our society who are good looking, smart, successful, seemingly all of the above when it comes to good aspects. Why dump on that? Jealousy, I imagine. So why dump on superheroes, tearing them all the way down so that they can't be all of the above? I'd ask Alan Moore, but like I said, on a long enough timeline, he'll turn on everyone.

I still like Doctor Manhattan's storyline though, even if the origin issue was far too long. I like that he's so knowledgeable that that it made him emotionally impotent.

As for all the awards Watchmen has received... meh, OK.


message 2: by Nicholas (last edited Feb 25, 2009 03:35AM) (new)

Nicholas Karpuk I think what always annoyed me about "The Watchmen", even though it's a good book, is the presumptions you mention about how the reader is already on board with super heroics and shouldn't bat an eye at the fact that these people put on costumes and commit daring acts.

Some of the super heroes in The Watchmen are kind of ludicrous, and Moore acts like that's just how things are.

I've been reading super hero stories since I was a little kid, and I still like it when the author gives a good explanation for why this person would do something as deviant as become a costumed vigilante. I still need to be sold on the idea after all these years.

The trouble with superhero deconstruction is that it took a lot of the wonder out of the archetype. Frank Miller himself pointed out that it should be amazing that people can fly, but it's treated as such an ordinary activity in most superhero stories.

At this point it's actually more refreshing to see stories like Jeff Smith's "Shazam", or Robert Kirkman's "Invincible", stories that actually seem interested in the child-like wonder these stories can invoke.


message 3: by Mandapants (last edited Feb 25, 2009 03:35AM) (new)

Mandapants I appreciate that "The Watchmen" raised questions regarding the genre- you almost can't go back to a place of innocence regarding super heroes without acknowledging the vast adult issues the genre raises first. You've got to hang the blank canvas on the wall and call it a painting first before critics can say, "is it really, or are you just a dipstick?" It's almost like Moore gave the industry a license to say, "phew, now that THAT'S out of the way..." Of course, the phrase after the ellipses in nerddom is more often than not "I will attempt to copy it in all that I do so as to make lots and lots of money!"

I could get past the Moorishly dense text in the Watchmen story itself, but the pirate side story made me want to set his beard on fire. It was like an melodramaticized page out of an ethics text book, and no amount of assuring Moore that I did indeed GET IT made the dang thing go away.

I think "The Watchmen" is "great" for its place in history, and I think for the story too- especially the ending. But I don't know that it'd be on my reread list. If you want a Watchy Watchmen story, I recommend Terry Pratchet's "Thud". More fun, fewer pirates.


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