Watchmen is a landmark comic book that is the only graphic novel to sit in Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels [1923 to 2005]. It has a very realistic feel with dialog that belongs to the characters. Its highly cinematic approach to to storytelling lends a verisimilitude to it all. There are no action POW! effects or thought bubbles. Even the embedded narration is presented as an artifact, a journal . The story is thus composed only of elements of its own universe.
Although published by DC, the characters are unique to the Watchmen story. When you start reading you may find yourself wondering who all these characters are, and what their shared history is. It’s important to realize that those questions and answers will all be addressed within the self-contained graphic novel (original published as 12 separate comics). Thank God there’s no long running sixty years of haphazard continuity that you have to study before you can figure any of it out. (*cough* Final Crisis *cough*).
There’s a movie adaptation coming out and I’ll get to that and more. Let’s jump right into the comic art and examine the first three pages of the story. I’ll be back afterwards to talk a bit more.
As you can see, someone has killed The Comedian, a ex-superhero. Rorschach, his old buddy, is on the trail and provides the whodunnit elements of the story. They were both members of the now disbanded Watchmen, a group of crime fighters, and we will meet each one of them throughout the course of the story; discovering which piece of story puzzle they’re holding. The Keene Act of 1977 forced most of them into early retirement but Rorschach was an exception: he never surrendered his mask. Dr. Manhattan is also exempted, working as he does for Uncle Sam and the good old U. S. of A. Not that anyone knows how they could possibly restrain the incandescent blue god-like being should the need arise.
Welcome to the world of Watchmen a complex layered story that uses the technique of flashbacks throughout in a way that feels very similar to , which has used a flashback structure for the first three or four seasons of its tale (depending on whether flash-forwards count). Both present small fragments of characters' lives, interwoven between different time periods describing a mosaic of stories that also form one large story. Executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof have acknowledged the influence and indeed the dust jacket on my edition carries an endorsement quote from Lindelof.
Reading it now, twenty years after initial publication, changes some things. It was a reaction and commentary to some of the things going on in the comic medium at the time. A deliberate effort to do something other than the usual superhero book and also commenting on what the world suggested by most comic books might really be like. Its deconstruction of the vigilante nature of these costumed adventurers became the blueprint for many subsequent stories in the medium.
It’s not quite Sin City, but it get’s into some dark ass shit. Each chapter follows a different character. It’s all very postmodern as it does what it can to deny any object viewpoint. Everyone can believe they’re right, or justified, from their own perspective and each is on individual story trajectories growing from the pasts we uncover.
Some of those perspectives are quite intriguing too: Dr. Manhattan’s omniscient experience of time and its passage is some particularly thought provoking stuff. The novel is filled to the brim with interesting happenings. Happenings which re-awaken old memories and questions about who The Watchmen were and why they got into the crime fighting fad. But the past is a temptous thing full of dangerous businesses and plenty of good story material.
I can’t tell you exactly why but there’s a pirate story embedded in Watchmen. Answering the question: If superheroes were real, what would comics be about? I’m ambivalent about this element. One one hand it’s a bit distracting.
On the other hand: pirates!
It all takes place in an alternate reality where superheroes — or, as the book prefers “costumed adventurers” — have been real since the ’40s and influenced the course of history. Nixon’s on his third heart surgery and umpteenth term as president. See, thanks to the once patriot Dr. Manhattan, the United States won Vietnam. An entire world is created, informed by newspaper clippings, book excerpts and other artifacts stuffed between the chapters. Consider it optional material: if you want to really dig into the back-story then it’s there for you. If you want a quicker read you can skip the inter-chapter content and stick with the cartoons.
A lot of what made Watchmen great was unique to the medium of comics. Its lack of special effects and omniscient narration was a reaction to what was going on in comics at the time. It’s inter-laden storylines cut so rapidly between eras it would be jarring in a film. The many tangential story points will prove difficult to condense in a movie (I’m guessing pirates won’t feature heavily) but the core story's a compelling cool-ass ride, with a tale that has something to tell about the kinds of people that would choose to put on masks. The adaptation looks faithful and exciting and it opens Friday in theaters.
It’s an excellent, ambitious story and definately a comic worth reading. I understand many will just watch the movie (after writing all this, I’ve certainly kindled my own interest). If it’s good, perhaps you’ll find yourself wanting to know a bit more about its world. It’s a comic that influenced many of today’s authors. Plus, Alan Moore worships a snake god so, y’know, that’s weird.
Have some thoughts on Watchmen(movie or book)? Sound off in the comments section