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Saturday, February 23, 2008

cover of Watchmen

Brilliant, but so dark. This is one of those great graphic novels that you hear about-- it's a Hugo award winner, made Time's 100 best novels of the last century, etc. I've been wanting to read it for a while, and finally got around to it. It's incredibly well-written and it's a compelling story, but it took me a while to read because it is so dark and challenging. Set in the Cold War of the 1980s, gripped by the terror of nuclear war, this is a world where real people decided to become masked superheroes, and Moore shows us the downside of that life, in large and small terms-- the societal outcomes, where police went on strike and the heroes handled the rioting poorly, and masked heroes were eventually outlawed. But we also see some of the individual outcomes of those choices: the flaws and world-views and motivations of these different people. Perhaps part of the reason I didn't particularly enjoy reading the book was that none of these people are particularly likable. Also, this story is set in a confusing and complicated world, and sometimes it was hard to figure out what was going on-- although I think this is probably a disorienting quality intended by the creators of the story.

The story begins with a dead man. One masked superhero, Rorshach, investigates and discovers that this man was the superhero known as the Comedian, and is convinced that someone is plotting to kill the masks. The story goes from there, with various chapters about some of the different people who became masked vigilantes. Each chapter (except the last, I believe) ends with an excerpt from a written "historical" document-- such as the tell-all memoir of the retired hero Night Owl.

Threaded through the book is a pirate comic series that a kid is reading on the street near a newsstand (it's supposed to be a well-known story written by a missing writer who comes into the plot in a small way). This is a dark tale of a man stranded on an island, his boat destroyed and his fellow crew members killed by a ghastly death boat that his heading towards his home town. In his fear for his family, he does whatever he can to get home in time to warn and protect them-- committing atrocities while intending good. By the time he gets there, he is so transformed by the process of all he has done in the name of protecting his family that he has turned into a monster himself, does more damage than good, and finally recognizes all he is fit for is the death ship, which was waiting for him in the first place. Of course, this story is a very bleak take on the heroes of the main story, and the bits of the pirate story we get mesh tightly with the rest of the plot as it flows around it.

Each chapter also ends with a quote from a song or literature that is relevant to the section that has just ended. The last one of these is in Latin from Juvenal, the famous line that most people know about this book if they know anything: "Who watches the watchmen?"

There are some compelling characters here, and for some of them we get a very clear insight into their perceptions and thinking. Rorshach, who wears a mask with shifting patterns like the famous ink blots, and who sees the world in black and white:

Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose.
Dr. Manhattan, the man who wanted to be a watchmaker but became a physicist and was accidentally disintegrated, and then figured out how to put himself back together piece by piece, and in the process learned to manipulate atoms, but who experiences time all at once and not in sequence the way the rest of us do. He explains his perspective thus:
I read atoms... I see the ancient spectacle that birthed the rubble. Beside this human life is brief and mundane.
(Although later he changes his mind on this last part when he is reminded by his one-time lover Laurie that every human birth is an improbable and miraculous event.)

In places the artwork is very compelling-- particularly the page at the beginning of each chapter-- a black page showing the top of a clock with the hand moving slowly toward some fateful hour and blood seeping down the page. These images change gradually enough that I didn't notice where it was going at first, but near the end of the book, when the details about some impending disaster were more clear, this image with the slow build-up was very compelling. Also, of course, the iconic cover image-- a close-up of a smiley face button with a drop of blood on it.

Author:Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons
Date published:1995
Genre:Graphic Novel
Number of pages:334


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