I just finished experiencing The Watchmen and I’m thinking about how to talk about it, how to write about it, where to dive in, about the words and images and ideas, the silences and layers of meaning. And all I really want to say is that if you haven’t read it, you should. It’s expansive, gripping, provocative, and smart. If for some reason you think graphic novels are just pop art, not worth your time, well… Let me just say I devoured the book in two sittings, broken only on those frequent occasions when I stood up and walked around my living room shaking my head and trying to come to grips with the madness, intensity, brilliance, and guts of what I’d just read.
And that’s why I’m writing this review – partly to come to a better understanding of the novel’s intentions and partly to come to a better understanding of how it works so damn well. And I'm going to try to do this without giving anything away.
Alan Moore’s writing in The Watchmen is superlative in vision and in execution of that vision, and his writing is equally matched by Dave Gibbons’ illustration, creating a symbiotic work of art that grows increasingly deeper and more intelligent with every midnight flip of the page. The Watchmen develops a complex and self-contained world so remote and yet so similar to our own that it can only be described as genius.
I don’t throw around words like genius lightly. Saying genius means I couldn’t find a better way to say smart, well-crafted, and tightly-written, where each word and image counts and contributes to the whole, where nothing is out of place, except maybe the reader, who follows the story with hawk-like attention: every detail matters, every nuance is laden with meaning, every line and every letter, hung in text blocks or on a city wall, propels the narrative momentum forward, advancing multiple plots and lives and building the story into a dénouement that almost literally explodes from the page. The Watchmen is an emotional, psychological, and sociological tour de force.
It’s the mid-eighties, and someone is killing superheroes. Through Rorschach, a superhero working outside the law, we’re introduced to a brutal world similar to our own. Superheroes helped win the Vietnam War, constitutional amendments allow Nixon to serve additional terms, and nuclear Armageddon is stalemated by the quantum abilities of Dr. Manhattan, a superhero on the government’s payroll. Rorschach’s New York is a city filled with crime, with individual decay, with currents of fear, with social unrest and distrust of people who look or act different – homosexuals, black people, gangs – and against this background Rorschach sets out to find the superhero’s killer.
In this setting, The Watchmen becomes both a story about superheroes in society and culture, and a scathing social commentary critiquing the prevailing mood of the time through the lens of fiction. In both style and subject, The Watchmen is still remarkably relevant, and this explains why the novel is still so popular, and why it’s being adapted into a movie.
As I said previously, Moore’s writing and Gibbons’ art combine symbiotically. It’s impossible to read and understand the novel from only one of these perspectives. Throughout the novel, for example, an older newspaper vendor carries on a monologue while a young black man sits near the newspaper stand and reads comic books about pirates. The pirate comic describes how a shipwrecked sailor fashions a way off an island. Panes from the pirate comic nest between panes featuring the newspaper vendor, and in the telling of the pirate story the vendor’s monologues take on additional layers of meaning. In other panels, perspective lets the reader see the young comic reader from behind, and in his hands, scenes from the comic he’s holding. These scenes, along with the newspaper headlines and the lives of the news-stand’s patrons, add life and weight to the story. They allow development of even the most minor characters, characters that come alive under Moore’s pen and Gibbons’ stroke.
These aren’t action scenes, filled with superheroes beating up the bad guys. They are, rather, the real meat of the book, the scenes that give strength to the overall plot. Like the marooned mariner, there is much that happens beneath the story, much that is as important, or perhaps, even more important, to understanding the many themes explored within The Watchmen.
Like any novel, The Watchmen isn’t easily summarized. But as social commentary, it feels familiar. When The Watchmen was first published, the threat of nuclear Armageddon was ever-present, the war in Vietnam was only a decade past, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and society was perceived to be in decline, reeling from drug use and eroded social morals. Today, the threat of nuclear war looms with Iran’s saber-rattling, our country is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq; the economy is in shambles, and society is still perceived as declining. Technology, what technology represents, and what affect it has on people – in terms of access, knowledge, understanding, and power – are contentious issues in both the novel and in the life of the contemporary reader. The Watchmen portrays and exposes these timeless uncertainties and fears through the motivations and actions of the main characters, who struggle to lead meaningful lives in a mad and seemingly meaningless culture, and through details and nuances embedded in dialogue and background illustrations. Half the fun of reading the novel is drawing out these connections, the moments of surprise and discovery, the sudden insights and flashes of wonder.
And so The Watchmen is all at once a highly developed detective novel with astoundingly complex characters; an acute cultural critique; a literary play on meaning and craft; a triumphant collage of style and technique, of invention, imagination, and bravado. I said it was genius. You’ll have to read it to understand. Read and savor it slowly, because The Watchmen means far more than it says, and it will stick with you long after you’ve finished reading it. Just remember the last thing Dr. Manhattan says, remember his very last words…