Sunday, November 16, 2008

Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons - Watchmen (Graphic Novel Review)


"Watchmen" (Amazon: US, UK)
by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons
Format: Paperback, 416 pages
Publisher: DC Comics
-
-
I was technically never a big comic books/graphic novels fan, but there are always works that trespass the boundaries of their assigned genre and become ‘immortal’ in some way. Well, “Watchmen” are supposed to be one of those – movie adaptation that is coming to theatres in March 2009 was just an extra incentive for me to read them – since they are dubbed as (one of) the most influential comics or rather graphic novels of our age. “Watchmen” were written by Alan Moore, an acclaimed writer in this medium who was also the mind behind such classics as ‘V for Vendetta’, ‘Swamp Thing’ and ‘Promethea’, and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, also a well-known name in comic book industry; the illustrated novel in question won several prominent awards and worldwide praise from critics and fans alike. The question I’m trying to answer here is ‘do “Watchmen” deserve all the credit and praise they garnered’? My answer would be both yes and no, but I’ll return to this question and the reasoning behind my somewhat ambiguous answer a bit later.

The story begins with the murder of the Comedian, one of the masked heroes of America. It’s the era of President Nixon, the Cold War is burning hot and the temperature is still escalating. The Comedian was formerly of the league of Watchmen, a gathering of masked men of America to fight against crime of all kinds, but they were outlawed by the government, because they were perceived more as a nuisance than a benefit. Most of the masked men quit their vigilante activities and got back to their ‘puny lives’ and personal traumas, but some of them decided to soldier on. One of those who persist in the game is Rorschach, a cautious and methodical man, who has no prejudice against physical violence and sees threat in everything that happens. He is certain that the Comedian’s death and some of the latter occurrences form a pattern that leads to believe that there is some kind of evil plan to get rid of all the masked heroes. I won’t ruin your fun, but let me tell you that this isn’t your typical detective story as the author shrewdly entwines the ‘whodunnit?’ plot progression device with the portrayal of the human condition, some quality drama as well as sensible and thoughtful characterization (this is where “Watchmen” actually shine the most).

The Watchmen are really an ‘omnium gatherum’, but the author goes a long way – Moore uses flashback narration – to portray the personalities of masked men and what makes them tick. In most cases they are scarred, troubled, traumatized and/or confused individuals, but some of them turn out to be obsessed megalomaniacs or worse. The outside world reflects its troubled heroes and is in as much flux and turmoil as they are; the impeding nuclear war, crime, poverty and similar phenomena leave a bleak and pessimistic impression on the reader. NY is a pit of depravity and the masked heroes who are all too human under the hood have to deal with their own personal problems as well as with the barely tangible exterior threat. But this is only what comprises the main plot, there is actually a lot more going on in the background (political commentary, delving into the human soul, morally ambiguous themes etc.); the interludes that tell of events that happen around a small newsstand are heavy to bear at times, but the mini pirate story that is included and dispersed throughout the chapters (there is a guy that sits in front of the stand and reads comics) is ingenious; it’s really dark and foreboding, but beautifully written and it perfectly resonates with the main story.

The ending is sufficiently unconventional and off the grid to justify reading Watchmen on itself, not that the rest isn’t good; the book also ends on a morally shady ground, which might be off-putting for some, but for those jaded by “the hero gets the damsel that was previously in dire straits” endings I heartily recommend "Watchmen".

I’ve already stated that the story and dialogue are smart, but Moore couples this with the ability to create believable characters. They are hard to empathize with though, since all have skeletons in the closet and make some unchivalrous choices along the way. The most agreeable (likable?) character is arguably the Nite Owl.

Alas, all the major strengths of “Watchmen” also grate on it the most and make for a heavy read (intelligent, but heavy-laden dialogue, somber tone, pessimistic atmosphere and the semi-philosophical interludes). There is not much of ‘comic’ in this ‘comic book’; it demands time, concentration and involvement from the reader – it’s not hard to comprehend, but you have to be focused not to miss all the gratifying nuances. All this is not a bad thing per se, but I won’t lie to you that I was completely immersed in the book – I’ve read it slowly and in small dosages, and I believe it’s best consummated that way. That being said, I still believe that “Watchmen” deserve to be called a seminal work of fiction and that all its strengths surpass the shortcomings, they just weren’t that enjoyable for me to read and that is a key factor as far as I’m concerned.
-
-
--
-
-
p.s. as an afterthought: you can see the trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of "Watchmen" here.

- Thrinidir -

5 Comments:

Pete said...

Looking forward to the movie though I don't expect it to live up to the many layers of the graphic novel. Every time I read Watchmen (and I'm probably due for a re-read) I find something new. From the mirroring of the middle issue ie first and last panel are the same, second and second last are the same and so on to getting new meaning from the pirate story. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

ThRiNiDiR said...

I agree with you Pete; the movie will probably fail the graphic novel (but might be good on its own terms). I also agree about the thick layers of meaning coating Watchmen (thanks for pointing out the mirroring of the middle issue!) and I recommend it - I honestly believe everyone should read it and make up his own opinion - it's just that I wasn't so compelled by it than some of the folks (you for example :)).

Thea said...

Great review, Thrinidir, I'm glad you got a chance to read Watchmen!

Alas, all the major strengths of “Watchmen” also grate on it the most and make for a heavy read (intelligent, but heavy-laden dialogue, somber tone, pessimistic atmosphere and the semi-philosophical interludes). There is not much of ‘comic’ in this ‘comic book’; it demands time, concentration and involvement from the reader – it’s not hard to comprehend, but you have to be focused not to miss all the gratifying nuances. All this is not a bad thing per se, but I won’t lie to you that I was completely immersed in the book – I’ve read it slowly and in small dosages, and I believe it’s best consummated that way. That being said, I still believe that “Watchmen” deserve to be called a seminal work of fiction and that all its strengths surpass the shortcomings, they just weren’t that enjoyable for me to read and that is a key factor as far as I’m concerned.

Fair enough, and I can completely understand where you are coming from. (I feel the same way about, say, No Country For Old Men--which is brilliant, but grating and not very enjoyable for me).

Although, you can add me to the list of people that fawn over this spectacular graphic novel--I wholeheartedly agree with Pete. Every time I read this, I notice something else that I had not seen previously.

I am excited for the movie as the previews look awesome--but I'm more than a little wary. For instance, The Black Freighter story is one of my favorite parts of the collection, but will be omitted from the full length film (but released in a separate animated feature dvd shortly following the film's release). I'm not crazy about the costume changes for Ozymandias...and most of all I'm worried that the film will be all stylized pretty without the deeper, significant somberness and gravitas of the graphic novel. We shall see...

ThRiNiDiR said...

There is not much to comment on your comment Thea, it speaks for itself; we agree to disagree :)...I'll be glad to hear what you think on the movie when it comes out though.

Bob Andelman said...

You might enjoy this Mr. Media podcast interview with Dave Gibbons, co-creator and artist of Watchmen, as he discusses the Warner Bros./Fox dispute, being on the set during production, and what he thinks of the trailer and the rough cut he saw of Watchmen. He also talks about the possibility of working with Frank Miller and the message he took to Alan Moore from Will Eisner. Here's the link!

 

blogger templates 3 columns | Make Money Online