Why I Chose this Book
Why did I choose this book? I think I’ve been slowly gravitating towards graphic novels. I remember wondering a few years ago why the medium wasn’t more popular. They’re books with pictures! They have fewer words than a traditional text-based novel and they have interesting images. They’re like a transition state between books and videos. A lot of people don’t like reading, but most people like looking at images. You would think that graphic novels’ popularity would lie somewhere in between the two.
The recent explosion of comic book/graphic novel based movies and tv shows in the past few years has brought more attention to the medium. I think some are slowly realizing that they’re not just for teenage boys with superhero fantasies. They’re also for grown men and superhero fantasies! But seriously, there are stories that appeal to people of different ages, genders, and ethnicities.
Anyway, Watchmen is one of if not the most highly acclaimed graphic novels of all time. During my waxing interest in the medium, I decided to try out one of the best.
Watchmen is a graphic novel written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and published in 1986. A movie was produced based on the novel in 2009, before the current superhero and comic book film craze. The story takes a gritty look at superhero life and the world in which they live. Among the first generation of retired masked heroes, one was murdered for her sexuality, one was locked in a mental institution, one wrote a book about his life as a masked hero and retired to fixing cars, another wound up in a nursing home, and another was murdered by a mysterious intruder. The latter initiates the events of the novel. Among the second and last generation of masked heroes, there are complications as well.
In this world, masked heroes were ordinary people who wanted to fight crime anonymously. The first person was a mysterious person named Hooded Justice whose true identity was never confirmed, but suspected. Eventually, others emerged following suit. They then banded together to form the group The Minutemen. A new era emerged though when a young physicist was involved in a laboratory accident that disintegrated him reemerging later as a being made up of nuclear energy (or something like that) known as Dr. Manhattan.
Recently, it seems that someone may be murdering all of the retired costumed vigilantes. One not so retired retiree, Rorschach, begins investigating the death of the retired hero The Comedian. This story is more than a story about heroes fighting bad guys and more than a “whodunit” mystery novel. In this novel, Moore contemplates the importance of topics such as human life, human nature, time and existence, human relationships, and the usefulness of rationality and logic versus emotions.
“Who makes the world? Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there…a clock without a craftsman.”― Alan Moore, Watchmen
The character John (Dr. Manhattan) provides a unique lens to examine many of larger themes of the novel. Having once been human, but gaining powers and intellect akin to a god, John struggles to stay connected to the human world. For one, he can see in the past, present and future. According to him, as related by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, the past, present and future all exist at the same time and we merely play out the predetermined roles. This, in addition to the seeming meaningless of many things such as life, leads him to contemplate whether life or the universe is a watch without a maker. Through most of the novel we get the sense that this is, in fact, true, but then we get a glimmer of hope only to receive a hint at the end that the former is true.
One thing that done exceptionally well was connecting many different stories together, many of which weren’t apparently related to one another. When they do come together, there is an “aha” moment. This is also true for the images as well. Some compelling images are shown earlier that only make sense later. I also enjoyed how some of the panels were presented as individual panels but were really one continuous scene. Why do this? I guess breaking up one image into individual panels brings the reader’s attention to something important in each segment of the landscape yet still communicating that they are connected.
I thought it was either brilliant or very cheesy how something occurring in a scene such as a person on a T.V. screen discussing a news event or a kid reading a comic book could also be applied to the main event in the panel. The comic within this story was actually pretty interesting. At first, it seemed unnecessary and a little bit of a bother, but then the story itself became more interesting. Then, it’s connection and comment on the overall story became clearer in at least two different ways.
A minor complaint I have is I didn’t care for how towards the end of the novel, after learning of a tragic event, one of the female protagonist’s reactions was to fall into “bed” with a man for comfort. The timing and location seemed like a stretch to me. They also fell asleep there too.
What meaning does the title Watchmen have? Does it refer to the heroes in the novel who have tasked themselves with protecting the people in the city? Does it compare people to watches in that their actions have been predetermined and set in motion? Does it equate people to watchmakers who set things in motion as the events of the novel? Is it a simple warning to watch men?
Maybe an argument could be made for each interpretation which credits how good the book is. I could be biased because I went into this book knowing it’s regarded as one of the best graphic novels of all time, but I think it’s substance holds up without that knowledge. It examines a range of thought-provoking topics and is not merely a superhero comic. The artwork doesn’t have the slick computer-generated look of most modern comics, but it is still enjoyable. Overall, Watchmen is well worth a read.
Sidenote: I probably should have written the review before rewatching the movie. Though the novel and movie are similar, I had to parse out what I remembered from the movie versus the book. Also, it seemed like the heroes except for Dr. Manhattan were overpowered in the movie compared to the novel. I guess it makes for a more interesting movie, but it takes something away from the heroes knowing that they were regular people in costumes who chose to face danger. I also could have possibly missed this aspect in the book, but I doubt it.