Book Review: Watchmen by Alan Moore

As someone who has long appreciated comic books, graphic novels and similar visual modes of storytelling, when I get to review something like Watchmen I consider it a ‘book’ just as much as … well … a book. It’s sectioned in chapters, there’s still dialogue, but instead of words describing what’s happening, there are pictures. Sometimes pictures say more than words. The lest effective comics don’t take advantage of this, but when you take a brilliant storyteller like Moore, who will use every inch of frame he has, the results are masterful.

Watchmen is arguably is greatest graphic novel, and amongst the best of his work. We’re in an alternate 1980s. Superheroes emerged in the 40s and 60s – this action is shown to have drastically changed the course of the world as we know it unfolds. For example, American won the Vietnam War (that’s not too big a spoiler, I hope). The world of heroes Moore depicts, as well as public reaction to them, is a realistic one. The tribulations these heroes personally and mentally go through are gritty and human. We’re thrown into the story with the murder of Edward Blake, known as The Comedian. He’s a hero that has spanned both the 40s and 60s superhero eras, and is somewhat of a vet to the game. Other players are also introduced to the game: Ozymandias, a multimillionaire hero who goes by the name of Adrian Veidt, Silk Spectre, a woman called Laurie Juspeczyk who inherited the mantle from her mother, and Rorschach, otherwise known as … well… I shouldn’t give that away. Other famous characters include Dr Manhattan, who was once a man called Dr John Osterman who was caught in an Intrinsic Field Subtractor (think along the lines of the Hulk) and Nite Owl, a man called Daniel Dreiberg who uses owl-themed gadgets. You can see the pictures of the ‘heroes’ above.

It seems almost insulting to call it a story of heroes and villains. At it’s core it’s a story of human nature, of what we are pressed to do when confronted with right and wrong. None of our heroes are perfect. No matter who you root for they always have faults, weaknesses, they always end up doing things that might be considered questionable. Even the ordinary folk in the story are no wide eyed goggled fans. The resentment some see towards the heroes is real – in a terrifying move that can still be connected to societies today, we see briefly how one old school heroine is found out to be lesbian. She’s brutally killed. Moore concocts a long, intricate tale that does not leave the reader devoid of hope, but instead makes us think about who we ourselves are. What is our place in society? When the chips fall, what would we give in to?

There’s a character for everyone in this story, and I think it’ll depend on your own ideological preferences as to who you’ll prefer. There’s also a comic within the comic, called Tales of the Black Freighter. It’s a pirate style comic which may not seem to fit in with a 1980s superhero world but in fact parallels or provides counterpoint within the story. In terms of the artistry for this – it’s hauntingly done. So is the art for the rest of the book. Artist Dave Gibbons is a master of the page – colourist John Gibbins brings his creations alive with the palette of both dark, but sometimes sickly, colours – there are some particularly moving scenes where the horror or gravitas of the page is multiplied tenfold in a single frame.

I think for those who do not understand comic books, the medium of graphic storytelling is still one considered childish or one stuck in fantasy. People who generally make such critiques are not as acquainted with the medium as it should be (Persepolis, childish? I hardly think so). That’s not to say I don’t understand the stigma around it. But what Watchmen does so masterfully, and why it is so beloved a book is because it does to an almost unnerving, candid extent what the best superheroes also do: actually make us ignore the ‘superhuman’. Once the latex and spandex on the characters are primarily forgotten, no more than just something we as readers accept, the writers can make for some of the most compelling writing. Alan Moore does this like a master, and I would argue that this is why the film adaptation of the book did not entirely succeed. As much as I appreciated the almost complete lifting of comic book frames into the film, the emphasis on a “Hollywood style’ of production means that we were never convincingly sucked into understanding the people behind the masks.

So read Watchmen. Please do – even if you have seen the film. I promise you that it’ll be an experience like no other, and one coming from some of the finest in the business.

(photo credit: thoughtcatalog)

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