::Literate Blather::
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Watching the "Watchmen"

Revisiting the Breakthrough Graphic Novel 22 Years Later

Writer Alan Moore created “Watchmen” in 1986 because he wanted to push the comic book beyond adolescence into what he called “a superhero Moby Dick.” The 12 edition comic book series – and later the compilation graphic novel – went on to win the Hugo Award and to be named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Best Novels since 1923.

There is little doubt that “Watchmen” blazed a new path for comics – especially superhero comics. But did it really have the impact of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” which was first published in 1973 or even Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin’s “Blackmark” (1971), arguably the first “graphic novel” published in the U.S.?

And did Moore succeed in creating a comic book “Moby Dick?”

First let’s explore the narrative. “Watchmen” is a dark story. It captures the pre-apocalyptic fears of modern American and Western Europe in the mid-to-late 1980s as the Cold War rhetoric between the Soviet Union and United States was at its highest since the Bay of Pigs. The novel is in its essence a questioning of authority – especially of government and traditional institutions. That’s why the question: “Who watches the Watchmen?” appears throughout the novel.

The story centers on a group of masked adventurers in an alternative universe to our own 1980s (one in which Nixon remains president). The “superheroes” are, in fact, regular human beings with no real powers – other than extraordinary physical conditioning and mental acumen. Doctor Manhattan is only character with superhuman skills as a result of a scientific experiment gone wrong.

The novel opens with the murder of the Comedian (Edward Blake), one of the costumed avengers affiliated with the CIA and other secret government agencies. Rorschach, a second costumed hero, who refused to give up his vigilante lifestyle even after the U.S. government outlawed costumed heroes in 1977, investigates the murder.

Through the investigation, the novel enters the lives of the various costumed heroes: Nite Owl (a first and a second version), Ozymandias, Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre (first a mother, then her daughter), Doctor Manhattan, the Comedian, and Rorschach. The characters are all flawed – some of them grossly so. The Comedian, for example, is a misogynist and rapist and Rorschach is a sociopath.

Rorschach thinks he has uncovered a plot to murder all of the costumed adventurers and enlists the help of his former partner, Nite Owl, to help him. Meanwhile, the super powerful Doctor Manhattan, who has the ability to restructure reality and to manipulate time and space, continues to struggle with relating to regular human beings. After rumors that being near him causes cancer, he banishes himself to Mars.

The murders end up being the work of the genius Ozymandias, who has concocted an elaborate scheme to bring the world’s nations together: a fake alien invasion that kills thousands of people. His costumed friend figure out his plot, but are unable to stop it. And, in the end, it turns out Ozymandias is right.

The weakest part of “Watchmen” is the plot, especially the comic book ending. There are so many holes in the logic and execution of Ozymandias’ scheme that it’s difficult to follow or understand. But the plot isn’t really the driver in “Watchmen” – it’s the characters and Moore’s success with deconstructing superhero mythos.

Moore has taken stock superhero stereotypes and added depth and complexity. Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan, and the Comedian shine as the stand-outs – loners with a lot of psychological problems trying to cope in a world teeming with misery. Moore has less success with Ozymandias, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre who don’t have the depth or the conviction of the stand-out characters.

The novel is heavy on symbolism (lots of watches and clocks, for example) and mood – but differs from comic books from the time period by providing a straight forward and objective point of view. It’s up to the readers – not Moore as the author – to figure out how to react to the action on the page.

Another interesting device is Moore’s use of a “story within a story” by having a young boy read a comic book about pirates called “Tales of the Black Freighter.” The pirate story – about a man escaping from a pirate ship filled with dead, doomed souls – echoes the action of “Watchmen” and acts as juxtaposition to the main story.

The artwork in “Watchmen” feels like a throwback to the Golden Age of comics in the 1950s and 1960s (in fact, primary artist Dave Gibbons credits Norman Rockwell as an inspiration for “Watchmen”). There’s a cinematic feel to the artwork – especially of noir films with the shadows and darkness. But there’s surprising little movement to the graphics and sometimes the panels feel a bit inert.

So how influential was “Watchmen”? It is generally credited with taking superhero comics from low-brow kid’s entertainment and catapulting into high-brow art. That’s no minor achievement. “Watchmen” also ushered in an era of dark and bleak story lines around comic book superheroes (can we blame “Watchmen” for the death of Superman and Captain America?).

But Moore certainly didn’t attain his goal of creating the “Moby-Dick” of comic books. “Maus,” for example, is clearly a greater literary achievement than “Watchmen.”



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