January 19, 2009

Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons

Watchmen takes place in the 1980s in an alternative United States. The main difference between this reality and ours is the existence of superheroes, whose presence influenced historical events like the war in Vietnam, and are now influencing the Cold War. The world is on the verge of nuclear conflict, but the presence of the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan gives America an advantage over the Soviet Union. This advantage disappears, however, when something forces him to go into exile.

The main characters of Watchmen are The Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Rorschard and the Silk Spectre. The book opens with The Comedian being murdered. Rorschard, the only non-government sponsored superhero still active after public discontent caused them to be outlawed, suspects that someone is out to get them all. Subsequent events suggest not only that he might be right, but also that there might be more to the whole thing than one could have imagined.

There’s so much I want to say about this book. Let me begin with the characters: all of these heroes are extremely ambiguous characters. As the story advances, we get more background information about all of them, information that allows us to form a detailed psychological portrait. And yet never for a moment do we feel that we have them all figured out. The characterization is too rich and complex to allow that.

Another interesting thing is that these characters have very different ways of looking at the world, and so we get to experience the reality they live in from several different points of view. I think this reinforces what is for me one of the main themes of the book: that reality is often ambiguous, that in real life things are never easy to categorize.

These characters are fascinating, but they’re not exactly likeable. But they also aren’t easy to dismiss as villains under the guise of heroes. They are complex, they each have their motivations, they are human. They are human beings with a lot of power and responsibility – perhaps more power than one person should ever have.

Power is another important theme, as are justice, revenge, fear, war, and the concept of “necessary evil”. Watchmen poses a lot of questions for which there are no easy answers. Therefore, it doesn’t attempt to answer them easily. Perhaps it could be said that the characters each have their own answers, but the book as a whole doesn’t advocate any one stance. And that’s s big part of what makes it so interesting. Apologies if I sound horribly vague here. It’s just that I want to go on and on about this book, but I don’t want to give away the whole plot.

As it’s often pointed out, another thing Watchmen is about is the superhero genre itself. In a world where superheroes are real, comics about them aren’t all that popular. Instead, pirate stories are big. The main plot is alternated with a story called “Tales of the Black Freighter”, from a comic one of the characters is reading. It’s interesting to realize, as you read on, how this story parallels the main plot.

I was particularly interested in the way the story questions the concept of a “hero” – it addresses not only its necessity or its flaws, but also everything that makes it interesting and appealing and be such a big part of our imaginations. In this way, it had some parallels with Perry Moore’s Hero, and like I said the other day reading them side by side was really interesting. Actually, the stories have some similarities too. I don’t mean this negatively, but having finished Hero first made me guess something about Watchmen that might have surprised me otherwise.

This is definitely a book I want to read again. I bet I’ll discover new things in it every time I pick it up. One last thing: I so love the quotations at the end of the each chapter, and the fact that the chapters were named after the quotations. The sources range from Bob Dylan and John Cale to Nietzsche or William Blake to The Bible.

Originally posted here.


jessi said...

Great review, Nymeth! I loved this graphic novel, and I definitely want to read it again before the movie comes out...if the movie ever does come out. :) I like how ambiguous the "heroes" are, especially Rorcharch.

Beth F said...

Great review! I would have dismissed this one because I'm a fan of the cold war genre. But you've let me know there's a lot more to this novel.

Nymeth said...

Jessi, thanks! I'm a little bit skeptical about the movie, but I hope to be proven wrong.

Beth: There's definitely a lot to it. I hope you enjoy it :)