This is the first time in the history of my implementation of this meme that I have ever reviewed a graphic novel1. But once my friend Abou told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to read it in the same way that I need oxygen or London Porter, I decided that if I had to read a graphic novel, Watchmen would certainly be the one to do.
In many ways, Watchmen has achieved a literary notoriety that rivals that of traditional all-text books. Written by the famous, talented, somewhat-crazy Alan Moore (also responsible for V for Vendetta), it promises not the usual lowest-common-denominator entertainment of pulps and weekly Spiderman comics, but a complex, nuanced storyline and an extraordinarily busy visual layout.
Understand that I am not a comic fan: at the peak of what may be consider the narrative arc of my love of comic books, I perhaps read my brother’s secondhand comics, or perhaps plucked a few entertaining bits from a bargain bin. I never followed any particular series, but more importantly I was never a devotee of the entire medium, preferring all-text novels instead.
So, it should speak volumes that I was very impressed—on the whole—with Watchmen. It’s 20 years old now, and it’s possibly the first postmodern takes on superheroes and superhero culture. It’s arguably the inspiration for every such take on the genre written in the intervening years, and I include the reviewed Soon I Will Be Invincible and From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain among that legion.
From a reader’s perspective, it was certainly interesting: what if superheroes were something historical, as quaint an idea as comic books are to my generation? Given a theoretical world in which superheroes are a fundamental reality, strip away the absurd veneer of comic idealism and see what you have left: a loosely-connected cloud of superheroes, only one of whom has any præternatural ability, make them all psychological cesspools of fear, distrust, projection, and insecurity, just like real people. As a bit of irony, have a character whose defining trait, besides godlike powers, is a utter inability to feel human emotions2. Finally, place all this in a not-impossible dystopia where the Red Scare has turned into a decades-long pissing match between America and Russia, Richard Nixon is de facto emperor of the country, an undereducated and fear-stricken populace both loves and reviles the idea of supermen, and the threat of nuclear annihilation is dispelled only by the grace of an America-aligned superhuman named Jon Osterman.
In many ways, Watchmen is short in plot in the sense of a contemporary story arc which describes events in the time we are reading them. Much of the book is made up of flashbacks, filling out the series’ constituent characters one by one; there seems to be a span of individual “books”3 which tackle one main character each, reinforcing that it is vital for us as readers to understand who these superheroes are and why they act (or don’t act) the way they do. Rorschach, a masked vigilante who might be considered the series’ “main” character, is clearly psychologically scarred, but is also the most sympathetic character of the book insofar as he is a moral absolutist—i.e. “the ends don’t justify the means”—who satisfies both or desire for clear lines and our lust for justice which pays no heed to due process. Compare that against the godlike Jon Osterman (“Dr. Manhattan”), who, even though he possess to power to do just about anything, does virtually nothing because he considers himself past the entire concept of good and evil (textbook Nietzschean übermensch). My one complaint about characterizations is that while some of the cast were stand-out characters, others seemed overly simplistic or two-dimensional: the dynamic between the begadgeted Nite Owl II and miniskirted Silver Spectre II was late-blooming and ultimately underwhelming. Helpful, I think, was that Moore suffixed each chapter of the graphic novel with an excerpt from a fake novel, or report, or article, like attached errata which helps to flesh out the context of the story. And context, I think, is everything to Watchmen, which is why Moore expends so much text building it (as compared to furthering the storyline) and so many panels detailing the story’s world.
Watchmen is a bit like a Thomas Pynchon novel; it doesn’t come close in wordcount, but in many respects it’s a running tally of contemporary references, in-jokes, and subtle hints. Moore’s attention to detail is masterful, and though I was ultimately a bit disappointed by the main story arc, which I found much thinner than the exposition and tangents, I’m happy I read it. I suppose it constitutes an important piece of Literature-with-a-capital-L; perhaps not exactly college lit, but award-winning in its own right, and a particular new visceral/visual way of detailing the sort of thoughts forward-looking thinkers had in the 1980s about the economy and politics and the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation. It’s an impressive feat, and worth time it’ll take you to get through it.
For additional reference, you can find a more careful examination of the novel’s various themes and tropes in its Wikipedia entry.