Graphic Novel Review: Watchmen
I have just finished reading the famous graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The first thing that comes to mind upon its completion is “Wow”. No doubt about it, this is a truly amazing piece of literature. That’s right, I said “literature” when referring to a graphic novel. I had heard from various places and sources that Watchmen was a landmark piece in the comic book world and that it, along with some other works such as Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns mini-series, helped establish a new-found respect for comics and graphic novels as pieces of literature with complex and intelligent story-lines and characters.
Well I now understand what all the hype was about. Watchmen is complicated, dark, psychological, intelligent, philosophical and much more. It’s characters, it’s mood and it’s fleshed-out history and world, as well as the amazing unfolding of the intertwining plot-lines place Alan Moore as an intensely creative and smart writer. He takes the traditional detective and super-hero story structures found in past comics and infuses them with post-modern techniques of inter-textual cultural mash-ups, a cheeky self-reflexivity and a well constructed hyper-real version of our own world and history.
The story of Watchmen basically tells of a world with a similar history to ours but one that contains actual super-heroes. Set in the 80’s during the cold war but with a few differences such as Richard Nixon still being in power, the Vietnam War having been won by the Americans and the world running on electric cars. Most of these differences have come from the only super-hero who really has what would be called “super-powers”, Dr. Manhattan. But now these caped-crusaders have been outlawed, except for a couple like Dr. Manhattan who work for the US government. The main plot-thread is that there seems to be a conspiracy to kill or get rid of all the super-heroes and the subsequent race to find out the truth, with the cloud of imminent nuclear war hanging over the world. Told through a narrative that unfolds bit by bit, including flashbacks and from many perspectives, we are slowly able to piece together the puzzle.
What differentiates the characters in Watchmen from those found in most earlier comics is their extremely complicated personalities, which fleshes out the super-hero icon like never before. And now complex personal character backgrounds are a staple in the comic book world. Moore’s characters have to deal with personal issues from impotence and social alienation, to nihilism and psychosis. Furthermore, he addresses wider social issues such as the pervasiveness of new technologies, the clash of political ideologies and their continued influence on the violence in our world, and the arguments for and against utilitarian sacrifice of human lives.
Alan Moore’s writing is superbly supported by the artistry of Dave Gibbons. While some of the imagery may seem a little dated in the face of modern comic art, especially some of the super-hero costumes, Gibbons excels in other areas. The moody tones he creates, smoothly moving from one to another often on the same page, sublimely establishes the atmosphere for each narrative section of the novel. A fulfilling gimmick is used by Gibbons whereby each chapter begins with a close-up of something indecipherable that is revealed in subsequent panels and perfectly reflects the complex unfolding of Moore’s narrative.
Look, Watchmen is fantastic. A piece of fiction that you will keep going back to and be constantly impressed by. Whether a fan of the graphic novel or not everyone should give it a read. It really is that good.