Author: Alan Moore
Penciller: Dave Gibbons
Colourist: John Higgins
Publisher: DC Comics
Date Published: Originally published September 1986 – October 1987, hard cover compendium published 2008
Who watches the Watchmen?
‘Watchmen’ has all the big words attached to it, like ‘the greatest comic book of all time’, ‘masterpiece’ and was even included in Time’s ‘Top 100 Novels’ (though I don’t think much to Time or critic lists, I’m more amazed that they even recognised a comic book). Once these kind of accolades are attached to a text, generally it rules out innocent enjoyment for future audiences. Expectations sky rocket and plummet when readers attempt to digest something that they think will rock their socks to the enth degree. ‘Watchmen’ surprised me; despite all this, it not only lived up to my expectations, but surpassed them.
Written by one of the comic industry giants – Alan Moore – ‘Watchmen’ is set during an alternate 1980’s America that closely resembles reality. The major difference in ‘Watchmen’ is that superheroes exist, though superheroes are generally just people in costumes trying to fight local crime. With the discovery of Doctor Manhattan, a vastly powerful being who can manipulate subatomic structure, the global nuclear meltdown between America and Russia is threatening to boil over. The story begins with the murder of Edward Blake, The Comedian, and Rorschach’s attempt to investigate the crime.
Explaining why ‘Watchmen’ is a masterpiece is difficult. What is it that sets it above other moralistic superhero tales? One of the strongest aspects is the setting, which captures the palpable hysteria and fear of the Nixon era. The insanity of humans possessing such dreadful power as the atomic bomb and the mania of an impending nuclear holocaust is constantly looming over the events. The clock is literally ticking to imminent destruction, a theme which is layered through out the story.
The complexities and variety of characters is a credit to Alan Moore’s talent as an author. Rorschach is the raw, beating heart of the story and the character I looked forward to reading the most. Comic book protagonists tend to be tough and violent, yet Rorschach had a strange vulnerability that made all the difference. Dr Manhattan is fascinating and his subatomic world view, which could have been clumsily handled, was so eloquently described. The Comedian is at his best described as flawed, at the worst psychotic. He is dreadful; at times merciless. But there is something in his harshness, his brutal honesty, that enthralls the reader.
As with the rest of the cast it is their shortcomings, their humanity and extreme personalities, that truly draw the reader in. A good chunk of the book is dedicated to a group of normal New York residents that pass around a news stand, who were all as lovingly fleshed out as the people with powers. Between each chapter Moore has provided fictitious news articles, biographies, literary criticism and essays from the ‘Watchmen’ world, which helps to enrich the events and provide a great deal of background to characters that couldn’t have been included within the plot. The story-within-a-story comic strip ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’ showcases Moore’s descriptive flare and provides a harrowing parallel to the real time events in ‘Watchmen’.
Gibbons art style is realistic, solid and skilled; perfect for the attention to detail required for ‘Watchmen’. His nine grid panel system speaks of confidence in his own art. Visually, Gibbons has worked hard to fastiduously interlace the multilayered emblems, clues and background information into the panels. Higgins’ colours are not glossy, but flat, yet they capture the mood perfectly with bold, primary colours contrasted to dark murky brown and navy.
The ‘Watchmen’ film is coming out next year – without Alan Moore’s blessing or approval (who has been reputed to have never watched any of his comic book adapted films, such as ‘V For Vendetta’ or ‘From Hell’). Though I am selfishly excited about the project, I am wary of the fact that Watchmen has been considered unfilmable for a good reason and that the chosen director, Zack Snyder, is relatively inexperienced and also made 300 (which was a visual feast, but an intellectual famine).
I am confident that ‘Watchmen’ will impress even the most grizzled anti-comic reader (to test this theory, I have given the book to my Father, who could be nicely described as ‘an ignorant prat’ when it comes to comics). It is a masterful rendering of the genre. For Moore’s reluctance with the history laden ‘Superhero’ genre of comics, he produces a work which toys with and ultimately rises above the staunch moralisation of its predecessors, by bringing his characters into the harshly real world of atomic warfare and modern America. Despite this reviewers colourful accolades, at its bare bones ‘Watchmen’ is truly great because it combines fantastically written characters with a unique and intelligent plot – something which, despite its seemingly relative simplicity, is hard to achieve for any writer.
♥♥♥♥♥ – 5/5