Sunday, September 14, 2008

41. The Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

The Watchmen cover picture

From the Wikipedia entry:

Watchmen is set in 1985, in an alternate history of the United States where costumed adventurers are real and the country is edging closer to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union; throughout the books, the Doomsday Clock is shown gradually ticking towards midnight. It tells the story of a group of past and present heroes and superheroes and the events surrounding the mysterious murder of one of their own. Watchmen depicts heroes as real people who must confront ethical and personal issues, who struggle with neuroses and failings, and who—with one notable exception—lack anything immediately recognizable as accepted super powers.

I really won't be able to do a thorough analysis of this masterpiece in a blog post, but please allow me some observations and memories.

I first discovered the Watchmen in grade 9. I discovered it along with re-discovering comics in general. I went to my friend Jeff's backyard to hang and he and my other buddy of the Lantzville trio, Lantzvillager himself (currently of Mt. Benson Report fame) had gone to the comic store and come back with a bunch of cool-looking comics, bearing mature themes. I think Scout was there and Mister X, possibly even the first Dark Knight. This, I now realize, was the period when the comic book scene was getting re-born with all kinds of ill shit and somehow these two cottoned on to it (I'll have to ask them about what motivated them to go to the comic store). It started us on to years of serious collecting. These comics just looked different than the superhero stuff we were used to (and weren't all that interested in, though I had gone through a big phase of war comics a few years before).

One of the comics that was procured was Watchmen #4. It really looked different. The whole thing was, cover to cover, was "designed" and there were no advertisements. I didn't really get what was going on in that issue, but I was intrigued and we eventually ended up getting all of them. For whatever reason, the 11th and 12th issues (the last two) took forever to come out, almost a year I believe (which also happened with The Dark Knight #4; why?) and I remember feeling a bit disappointed with the conclusion. I think that year of waiting (and the awesomeness that came before) built up my expecations to unreasonable heights.

In college, I bought the collected graphic novel and read it again, but it wasn't with fresh eyes. This time, with the movie coming out and the references to it in The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I really wanted Meezly to read it so I bought her a copy. While she was reading it, I kept wanting to read over her shoulder and realized that it had been so long that I had forgotten a lot of it (except of course for some of Rorschach's famous lines, which I'll never forget) and that reading it again could be a rewarding experience. It had been over 15 years.

This time, the ending was not a disappointment. As a collected whole, I don't think I'm being too pretentious when I call it a masterpiece. It's easy to look back at it through all the revisions the superhero has gone through in recent years and to see the way Moore deconstructed the superhero comic as being a bit obvious. But when it came out, the last major evolution of the superhero was Spiderman having human problems (and maybe Cerebus). Moore just blew the doors off the whole genre with the Watchmen. Really, where we are today, with movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight are the direct result of The Watchmen (credit has to go here to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight, but now I see clearly that Miller's simplistic righteousness is all encapsulated and critiqued in the character of Rorshach alone; Miller was only foreshadowing and possibly celebrating the neo-con fascism born out of Reagan's 80s, while Moore was doing so much more).

But it also stands on its own, as an exploration into power, ethics and history and as a moving tale of flawed humans who made some idealistic choices. You close this book and you want to talk about it. Who is the bad guy? What's the point of the pirate comic within a comic? I have many more specific things I'd like to talk about, but doing so would entail revelations that would spoil the reading for those of you who haven't yet done so. I will say that I think this is both a profoundly pessimistic vision of humanity and yet also a deeply caring one. My sense (and this could well be just my own worldview reflecting back at me through the shifting ethical complexity that is The Watchmen) is that Moore thinks were fucked, but that the human relations that go on between us are still powerful and important.

There are other things that make this book so great. The alternate history is fantastic, thoroughly thought out (with Nixon heading into his third term as president) on the historical level, but also the aesthetical. Small touches, like the weird helmets some people wear and the cigarettes with little spheres on the end make it seem different without being unrealistic and thus very plausible. All the little motifs that run throughout the book (like the blood stain on the smiley face, the shadow of the two people embracing) serve to lock all the plotines together like little hasps and bolts, while underlining the themes (a tear, love in the shadow of atrocity). They are also why The Watchmen is a comic book. It does things that can't be done in any other narrative medium. Dave Gibbons, the artist, put a lot of these touches in on his own, unbeknownst to Moore. Finally, while there isn't a lot of action, The Watchmen still has some of the most badass moments in comics, that single frame of Dr. Manhattan taking out some heisters still gives me a little shiver (not to mention the one of him in Viet Nam). And Rorschach. I mean, come on. I leave you with this in the hopes that it inspires you to go out and read The Watchmen ASAP.

None of you understand. I'm not locked in here with you. You're locked in here with me.


That Hank said...

Was it purely coincidence that we both posted about Alan Moore comics today?

OlmanFeelyus said...

I saw yours before I actually posted, but I had written it up yesterday and finished the Watchmen on Sunday, so basically yes! Wild stuff. Alan Moore must be floating in the Jungian zeitgeist right now.

Crumbolst said...

What a great review. I have a copy of this somewhere that I got as a gift two years ago. It will be my next read. Thanks for the motivation!

Buzby said...

We're all on it. Mount Benson told me a couple of weeks ago that he was thinking of re-reading them and I went down to the comics box in my basement and got the original issues that we bought in highschool. I am through number four and I agree that it is a masterpiece!

OlmanFeelyus said...

Awesome. That's so cool that you are reading the original issues. If only the kids today who will go see the movie in March (which is getting pretty good buzz) knew how original we were!

OlmanFeelyus said...

And Crumbolst, I can't believe you have had this sitting around and you haven't read it! You are going to love it. It's right up your alley.

meezly said...

excellent review, babe!
thanks again for getting this for me!

(even though I read the Watchmen before you, you are so on top of your 50-book game that you pretty much said what I wanted to say, and more! so thanks for that too!)

OlmanFeelyus said...

Why can't you be like this when it comes to our domestic discussions? :)

Unknown said...

Yay, plus one. I read this a few weeks ago but forgot to write it up I guess because it's a comic. The comic stores here are glutted with the graphic novel right now in contrast to how it was earlier in the summer when you were trying to find a copy. It's ranked 32 overall in all book sales at amazon as well.

I hope everyone out there who is buying it is getting as much out of it as you did. Nice review.

dsgran said...

nice to read the book review- all the press about watchmen recently has been about the movie, which will no doubt suck, but hopefully won't destroy the original in its badness. now i want to read it again.