Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Watchmen (the graphic novel): A Review

With the anticipated release of the film (I saw the trailer for the first time before The Dark Knight), I decided that I wanted to read the Watchmen graphic novel. A general review of my peers indicated I would be satisfied: people whose artistic taste I respect said that it was very well written, as good as any other true work of literature, and specifically, it all sort of comes together very well and completely.

After having read the comic entirely now, from cover to cover, including each additional set of a few pages of text that come at the end of every chapter, I must say, I don't agree with them, those peers of mine. I would probably give the comic an overall grade of B, maybe B+. Naturally, there are things I think it did well and others it did poorly, but overall, comparing it to an average work of fictional literature, I don't think it was that great. But perhaps my thesis is undermined by the fact that I have little to compare it to; I'm no graphic novel nut and its the only one I've ever read. But as some people have told me, that it was good as an average work of lit, that I must say, in my opinion, is false.

As the comic began, it had me entertained with psychological introspection and back story for the more major of the major characters. Nite Owl, Silk Specter, the Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan (the only character with technically real superpowers, though Ozymandias arguably has some superhuman traits if not actually "superpowers"), their development into superheroes, their past alliances, their particular socioeconomic backgrounds, and interestingly what they may have done with their inherent fame from being a superhero. Basically, each chapter was an in depth analysis of why they chose to become a superhero: their back story.

This is a very didactic approach to story telling. It makes sense for a large work with many central characters, and is very useful in explaining the different aspects that drive each individual to become an extremist for martial justice. Some of them are from very honest blue-collar backgrounds who seek justice, some tormented as children and seek vengeance on the criminal world, and others driven into the profession through familial influence. But that's all the comic is: back story. As we are introduced to each character we learn all about them, each chapter a new character, and just when you think the back story is over, that the comic will quit reflecting on the previous majority of the 20th century and something in the present (1985 NYC) will happen, the chapter is just more back story, even practically till the very end.

Again, I enjoyed most of these biographical, short novellas that come in the form of each chapter of the book for what they are. They combine superheroes with something that they are not usually associated with: realism. I personally enjoy realism in media and deter sensationalism; generally I like a good and exciting story, but things do need to be believable for me (and most other people too, I believe). The author, Alan Moore, does a good job of examining the way, were it actually attempted and achieved successfully, a person may actually become a superhero as we know them in fictional culture. Watchmen actually does reference Superman and highlights the whimsicality and ridiculousness of one actually attempting to become a superhero with thoughtful realism, care, and style. This is evident in the character's costumes, bizarre behavior, and their relationship with the media. And that's what I like: the characters are all centrally human, even the most powerful, Dr. Manhattan, can be seen as flawed and incomplete. But each, for different reasons has chosen to adapt this albeit strange lifestyle for better or for worse, and each history examines exactly why, what motivated them, what they did with their fame, and even the political associations they assumed.

So, that's all well and good, but nothing really happens till the end of the fucking book. As I consider the story more and more, it must be understood that each chapter was released separately from the others as a series, a new one introduced every week or every month till the story was complete. In that form, the book does seem to make more sense, or at least I can understand why the author chose to make each chapter a novella of just back story. But that's the pro side of work. The con side is that the story contemporaneous with the present is really supposed to be the main aspect of the work, or at least well-fused with back story and its affect on the present. But in Watchmen, this central story seems as more of a side to each individual back story. Each character in present day just looks back on the way things were and laments. The only character who seems to do anything and be concerned with the present is Rorschach (my favorite character by far because he's the most bad ass), who refused to quit being a superhero when the government outlawed it and now serves as a vigilante detective, wanted by the law himself, as well as despised by the criminal world for his particularly cruel treatment of them. That leaves each chapter with back story, a few small events in the present day that don't explain much, and a few reoccurring marginal characters who seem to be there to provide more plain human touch, but I find their presence irritating and distracting.

Another key aspect to the work, and thus it shows its age, is the emphasis it has on the cold war. The actual story of the work culminates with The Soviet Union and The United States on the brink of nuclear war that will surely end the world. It turns out that, in this strange plot twist that came completely out of left field from anything that actually fucking occurs in the piece, that the Watchmen, basically Rorschach, Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, and Silk Spectre, are hunting one of their former alliances Ozymandias, who has composed this goofy scheme to save the world from nuclear holocaust by simulating an alien attack on New York City that kills 250,000 civilians. I think it sucks: with so many great characters, if Moore had just taken more time and space, I feel he could have written a better story altogether, with less back story, or if not less back story, certainly more front story, if you will. Something that could have actually involved the governments of each opposing country maybe, and gave more orderly clues as the mystery progresses, and not just conjure some weird crap about a simulated alien attack on the earth that it feels like Moore just tapped on at the end after he finished writing each individual character's story.

But I'm a story man, and I suppose that's only half the comic book. The other half is obviously the illustrations themselves, which I think are undoubtedly done very well and are works of great talent. The artist, Dave Gibbons, gives life to all of Moore's creations with style and breaks the mold of the simple comic book sets of boxes by expanding them and manipulating them as he pleases, at times with illustrations that stretch entire pages, and others just simple and to the point.

So all in all, that's my take. I certainly enjoyed parts of it very much, but perhaps in the end my expectations were too high. If you are considering reading it, and if that is the case I hope you didn't just read this because I gave away the ending, perhaps read it as something not on par with timeless works of western fiction, but instead as a damn well-written comic book, as comic books go.

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