I guess it’s about time for somebody who reviews comics and novels to take a look at one of the greatest graphic novel masterpieces of all time. True, Alan Moore claims that he doesn’t create graphic novels, but seeing as how I’ve never seen Watchmen being presented in the form of individual issues, I can’t exactly call this a trade paperback.
Why is it, you might ask, that with so many books on my shelf awaiting a critical eye, this is the first one that I review? One that everybody knows about and I may just be the last person to experience?
Well, for a few reasons. One of these is that I’ve known for over two years that the minute I got my hands on Watchmen, I would be reading it, and shortly thereafter reviewing it. Another is that comics and graphic novels, when done well, just tend to flow in a way that a novel can’t compete with, but are accessible in a way that film will never be. What other medium can you come back to the scene that you read last night, pick it up exactly where you left off, and find details you hadn’t seen before, like the symbolic significance of the t-shirt that guy is wearing or the billboards on the walls behind the main action? In essence, while nothing will ever replace a good novel, I can’t help but devour every comic that comes within arm’s reach, as though the written word was my faithful wife and comics the perpetually nineteen year old groupies that tempt me in ways I’m just not strong enough to resist on this world tour that I call reviewing. For free. Wow, that analogy got real sobering, real quick.
Which is a fitting segue-way, because Watchmen is nothing if not sobering. Ignoring the ending, which is a shock in more than a few ways, Watchmen is little more than a method of grinding the American superhero- our collective mythology, our hopes and dreams- into meat, blood, and booze. The first two things we’re introduced to are the remains of a murder scene, and the detached comments made by a cold-blooded vigilante who is responsible for far more violent acts on individuals no more guilty than the victim of today’s crime.
It’s no secret among comic fans that author Alan Moore originally intended for Watchmen to be a story featuring pillars of Charlton Comics- now integrated into the DC Universe- gone to pasture, which I have no doubt would have been an excellent story, the fact that he didn’t get what he wanted just goes to show that an original story is better every time. If Captain Atom, Blue Beetle and Black Canary were the stars, for instance, there is no way that we could have received the magnificent origins and histories encapsulated in this story.
Watchmen features a world in which superheroism sprang from mere vigilante-ism, starting with a group of individuals who merely happened to use their military, police or body building skills to do some good on the side, and continuing to the modern generation, the stars of the comic, from which truly talented individuals and even a nuclear superman emerge to form a truly lasting
impression on the world. At long last, due to a police strike, vigilante-ism was once again outlawed, forcing a fraction of the remaining heroes into retirement while others continued work, either for the government or in spite of police who just can’t do anything to stop them.
The gritty realism adds some minor touches of humor for the target audience. While it would be no surprise for a world like this to refer to individuals such as Batman as “costumed heroes”, the term “masked adventurer” can’t help but strike a cord- after all, isn’t that what fantasy games are all about, becoming an adventuring party because such a thing doesn’t exist in the modern world? By becoming “adventurers”, the rules change, and these individuals now find themselves faced with threats that only other such adventurers content with. Watchmen even has a supervillain, a magician-turned-criminal-turned-kingpin, of course retired along with the rest of the characters of this story by the time Page 1 rolls around.
At intervals that would likely be every issue, Watchmen features articles and excerpts from in-universe books. Each of these are written by or about one of our main characters, or in several cases they are articles that are referenced in the comic itself. I wouldn’t completely call them foreshadowing, but reading them gives you an insight into the world as you move about in it, and having read them I somewhat regret having skipped them while I was reading the comic, intent on continuing the flow of the story uninterrupted. For all intents and purposes you can do either. This can be read like a novel, start to finish, comic and text- it’s largely non-linear after all, in that way that only a visual medium paired with the written or spoken word can be. In fact, I imagine for some individuals it might be a struggle to listen to one person’s internal monologue in the present day while watching scenes from the past play out, but if you don’t mind this duality it’s a strikingly effective system that plays well on the moods invoked by the visuals to tell you the story in a way that the facts alone can not.
Ultimately, while Watchmen is the “Save the World” story that one might expect, in reality it’s far more than that. Much like the James Bond series of films, which have set the record for constructing the world’s biggest set only to demolish it and start on the process again, Watchmen sets up an entire world and destroys it before our eyes, and then does both again in a brutal way that forces you to confront the shades of grey of your own morality. I refuse to talk in too much detail about the decisions made at the end of this comic, only to say that this is probably the most realistic example of superhero fascism (and I mean that at least semi-literally, as the flavor text suggests that more than a few heroes in this universe had fascist sympathies) you’re likely to find, and the one most likely to make you doubt what you would do in this situation. Not only would discussing it in further detail spoil a great (if extremely dark) ending, but it’s something that should be thought out by the reader, not a conclusion that should be handed to you by someone who has no more answers.
Watchmen‘s is a world crafted with such loving detail that you could tell a thousand stories in it, but with the knowledge that all of the ones really worth hearing have already been told within its pages. Which means that I probably won’t buy any of the prequels, but that doesn’t mean I won’t revisit this world time and again and suggest you join me.