November 27, 2009

Getting Graphic: "Watchmen" by Alan Moore

Title: Watchmen
Author: Alan Moore; illustrated by Dave Gibbons
Published: DC Comics (2005); first published as 12-part series (1986)
Pages: 408
ISBN 1563899426
ISBN-13 9781563899423

The most celebrated and revered graphic novel in history, is it? Well then, I'd better read it.

Watchmen is not your papa's run-of-the-mill comic book. It's a stark and rather satirical character study of superheroes. That may be why it's given such praise by critics. It even has the distinction of being the only graphic novel to be listed as one of Time Magazine's "100 Greatest Novels." Add up the accolades it received during its publication, then heap on the insurmountable onslaught of hype surrounding the film adaptation, and there is a recipe for disappointment for anyone who reads Watchmen for the first time--like me.

It's the mid 1980s and the world we live in has been forever changed by the existence of men and women in flashy costumes fighting crime. They appeared after World War II, seeking justice, power, fame, you name it. And the world gave it to them because there were just as many villains running around in costumes too. And it's that very premise of disguised vigilantes that Alan Moore presents as both plausible and ridiculous.

The story revolves around the death of one rather notorious superhero known as the Comedian. The news of which ends up causing an informal and unconventional reunion of the remaining Watchmen--Rorschach, Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, and Ozymandias. Masked vigilantism was outlawed in the late 70s, so they've all had to move on with their lives, some more willingly than others. Rorschach, the one resistor of the bunch, refuses to stop fighting evil even though he's become a fugitive himself and tries to enlist the others in his quest to find out who is behind the Comedian's murder and a possible plot to kill all of the former "heroes."

It's an alternate reality they exist in, and rightly so considering how influential the mere existence of Dr. Manhattan and his ability to manipulate matter on an atomic level altered the balance of power during the Cold War. The entire story in unconventional compared to anything I've had a chance to read in comic book form. It's kind of like Alan Moore's middle finger at the entire notion of masked men in capes swooping in to save the day. Anything that might get glossed over in the more traditional fare of the genre is hit with a big ol' spotlight within this series.

Vigilantism, corporatism, communism, democracy, misogyny, old age, utopian aspirations, and military conquest are some of the things that are thrown into the meat blender and provided to the reader for consumption. If you pick up Watchmen expecting to see the same kind of thing you've come to expect from your favorite comic books or superhero movies, you may be setting yourself up for a big letdown.

Had I not read previews for the film last winter, those picturesque trailers the studio put out in spring would have given me the wrong message. And now that I have had the chance to read through Moore's writing--and really appreciate the artwork of Dave Gibbons--I have a broader appreciation for the movie and story as a whole.

If there's one thing I took away from reading this, it's how humanity is not as noble as it tries to tell itself it is. We strive to be better, but our baser characteristics have a nasty habit of bubbling to the surface over and over again. Save the world? A nice thought for the superhero as he tries to stop the madman from detonating a bomb. But is the world he is saving better off, or just a few ticks of the clock away from the next madman with a bomb? And if the madman is the one trying in his own twisted way to save the world from itself? It's like the tagling for this story: "Who Watches the Watchmen?"

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