Friday, July 31, 2015

Watchmen created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins

Title: Watchmen
Writer: Alan Moore
Illustrator/Letterer: Dave Gibbons
Colorist: John Higgins
Publisher: DC Comics (1986)

It's a constant delight to me that despite Michael and I being at this joint posting thing for over five years, we still record a fair number of firsts. Thanks to the reader suggestion poll hosted at the end of last year by Michael, we had two reader suggestions for this year (which, btw, was a first). We did the first suggestion back in Jan and this month sees the second. However, it's also a first in that we haven't before used a comic/graphic novel for our source material. In the days of studios having tri-phasic superhero movie plans that might come as a bit of a surprise but what can we say? Sometimes you need an outsider to help you shake things up. 

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here. 

Click here for Michael's film review of Watchmen
at It Rains... You Get Wet

It's 1985 and someone is targeting costumed adventurers. These self-styled saviors of humanity have either retired voluntarily or submitted to decommission after the Keene Act. Despite being almost wholly inactive, someone wants these crime fighters dead. As Rorschach tries to rally the troops, so to speak, lives are at stake and obligatory back stories commence. But as we delve deeper into the mystery we're forced to ask: is something far larger afoot?

I was seven years old when this first came out and even though I found it in the youth section at the library I would not consider this a book for kids. And, in fact, I didn't read it as a kid. The comics I remember reading were lots of standalones for kids, Batman, and some old Disney and WB comics I found in a relative's garage. I never lost my love for Batman, but I didn't stick with comics for long. I started reading more books and preferred them as a medium for stories (as I do to this day, books still beat out all other forms of story telling for me). In a funny coincidence with Watchmen coming up now, I delved back into comics last year because someone I knew could not shut up about how great Planet Hulk was (btw, they were right, it's great!). Here's a quick snapshot of where comics and I live right now:

recently read (on the left) and to be read (on the right)

I mention all this to make it clear that I feel like an outsider to both the 80s paranoia/fear complex and to critical analyses of comics. I also think both of the above are inseparable from Watchmen. As a casual reader, a lot of what Watchmen had to offer was pretty exciting. There were also points at which it fell short of my expectations (and if you pay any attention at all to comics or the book world it's very hard to not have Great Expectations going into this one).

Watchmen is set in an alternate history in which the US won the Vietnam War, the Cold War is still a thing (including HUAC), and a certain blue fellow has changed the face of technology. This tech seems to be mostly focused on military and energy needs as most people are still living typical 80s lives whilst being paranoid as shit because the world (which, in Watchmen, seems to refer solely to NYC and Russia with Vietnam and Afghanistan as war props) is devolving into one giant criminal hot bed under the constant threat of nuclear war with moral decay added on for funsies. The absolute horribleness of the world is a relentless theme throughout the 12 chapters.

The aspect of Watchmen I found most appealing was its structure. There are several story threads woven throughout which run, for lack of a better term, at various speeds in relation to each other. The reader is bumped between current events (sometimes several happening simultaneously), past events and an in-universe pirate comic with creative abandon. Actually, that's probably unfair, there is a very specific direction that Alan Moore is taking his readers and those jumps are all leading to the finish. Alright, that pirate thing is wholly symbolic but it still tied in with the larger themes of the story. (No, I did not care for the pirate story or find it all that necessary but I still admire the craft its inclusion displayed.)

There were several character arcs that also quite drew me in though I think there was definite room for improvement there. A few of the arcs were pretty shallow and even the best of them had at least one major hiccup. Rorschach gets my vote as the best developed and most consistent but I'd sure be interested in the perspective of longtime fans.

I don't know if there's a name for it but the building of the character world was quite rich. These characters didn't exist previous to Watchmen and yet they feel like characters that have made the rounds. The intersecting time points and backstories, along with the supplemental materials at the end of each chapter (memoir excerpts, articles, ad campaigns, company memos) lent a depth of reality to the costumed heroes that is necessary to the epic scope of the book.

For all that there's a lot to love, I found myself bored at times. The themes aren't exactly subtle and the "world is total shit" aspect was a dead horse that could have used far fewer hits. I think if this had been tightened into 8 chapters it would have been an absolute page turner. 

There are several panel sequences that are a joy to follow. I can flip through and find several action sets that I'm happy to peruse over and over. The last two pages of Chapter VIII, though, have to have been the most affecting for me. You've just come off a couple pages that have you following events from three perspectives - which are additionally overlaid with the pirate comic - and then you narrow down to one event that, over the course of 16 panels, still includes three perspectives but it's only in one room, watching the horrific fate of one person. It's amazing. It's like looking at those 3D posters, one moment I'm looking at the stunning artistry of the moment I have been drawn into, and the next I'm getting choked up all over again because it's a heartbreaking scene. I dare you to finish that chapter without tearing up a bit.

I happened to come by an interesting article regarding innovation in story-telling while reading Watchmen that got my brain working overtime. Its relevance here is a bit outside the scope of this review - and would include many spoilers for this title - but I hope to post about it in the coming days so if you want more of my thoughts on Watchmen I hope you'll come back by.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre


  1. "For all that there's a lot to love, I found myself bored at times. The themes aren't exactly subtle and the "world is total shit" aspect was a dead horse that could have used far fewer hits. I think if this had been tightened into 8 chapters it would have been an absolute page turner."

    I have to respectfully disagree. I think you are selling the book's thematic preoccupations rather short. I think that big question WATCHMEN asks is, Who makes the world? Who is responsible for the way it is? Both of these questions are explore throughout the 12 issues in fascinating detail as it deconstructs several of the costumed superhero archetypes - you've got the Batman-esque guy with Nite Owl, the Nick Fury type with the Comedian, the Superman figure with Dr. Manhattan, and so on. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons then proceed to ask some real questions of these archetypes and attempt to explore what would realistically motivate these people to do what they do and how would it affect them psychologically and more often than not it would mess them up as we see with someone like Rorschach who is deeply disturbed.

    I think that the book really addresses these thoughtprovoking questions best in the chapter that deals with Dr. Manhattan and his origins. This is where Moore and Gibbons really go into detail about their ruminations of how the world works. And the construct of Manhattan is really fascinating because for him all time is happening at once - past, present and future. And how they depict his worldview is pretty amazing stuff.

    Anyways, enough rambling. I quite enjoyed your review!

    1. Hi, J.D., thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! (By the way, really enjoyed your movie review that Michael linked to.) I can certainly understand your selling short perspective. I think the reason that might come across is that its thematic preoccupation doesn't connect strongly with me as a reader (for all my love of sff I'm a rather practical sort and feel the answer to such a question is self-evident) and because the answers served up weren't satisfying to me. Obviously each reader brings their own experience to a work so our interpretations can differ wildly but, for me, the answers were too fatalistic (apologies to Veidt who would probably chafe at such an interpretation).

      And just to add to that whole "we each have our own experiences with art" it's so interesting to me that, if I understand you correctly, it's chapter iv that really hits the heart of the matter for you. While I quite enjoyed that chapter (and most of Manhatten's arc), it had the least relevance - again, for me - in answering the question of who makes and is responsible for the world.

      Not sure if you'll have the time or inclination to follow-up on this but I'd be curious as to whether you think WATCHMEN is only exploring who makes and is responsible for the Comics World or if it also addresses that question in the Real World.

      Many thanks again for taking the time to share your comments. I love book discussion. Whether it helps me to understand my own thoughts better or changes my mind completely it's such a treat to get to hear others' opinions.

    2. I'm glad you enjoyed my review! I came to a film with a lot of baggage what with the graphic novel being my fave of all-time and Zack Snyder didn't do it justice by a long shot but it was a noble effort.

      You are certainly correct that every reader brings their own experience to a work and there are as many interpretations as there are readers!

      You write: "but I'd be curious as to whether you think WATCHMEN is only exploring who makes and is responsible for the Comics World or if it also addresses that question in the Real World."

      I would say that mostly with the former and some with the latter. Initially, Moore and Gibbons were interested in nothing more than commenting on certain comic book archetypes and stereotypes but then as they went along Moore realized that he was also coming to grips with reality that at any moment nuclear missles could be heading towards us and how do you deal with that? WATCHMEN was his way of working through those fears and it permeates every issue. Sadly, this is still the reality of our situation, which makes WATCHMEN just as revelant as ever.

      Moore and Gibbons intended for WATCHMEN to be a tombstone on the superhero genre but this backfired and actually revitalized it... much to their chagrin! Why I think the Dr. Manhattan-centric issue explores the notion of who makes the world and who is responsibel for it is because once he becomes Manhattan he gains an innate understand of how everything works. As he says at one point, "We're all puppets Laurie. I'm just a puppet who can see the strings." I think that is a crucial line in understanding Manhattan and his importance in the grand scheme of things. However, as we find out, Ozymandias manages to stay one step ahead of him for most of the novel by distracting and misdirecting him with all the scandals involving his past associates.

      I would also say that the Comedian is crucial in that he not only kickstarts everything but he, more than anyone, understands how things "really" work because he's been privy to so many dirty secrets working for the government and has also done plenty of horrible things himself (rape, murder, etc.). He represents the evil that men do. He sees it all as a big joke that only he understands but then he finds out what Veidt is up to and that dwarfs anything he's done and seen and it scares him so badly that he spills his guts to one of his adversaries.

      To a certain degree, Rorschach also addresses this angle but his worldview is twisted in a different way, in some ways darker than the Comedian because of his bleak view of the world. And I like that Moore goes to great lengths to explore why these characters are the way they are. He provides very strong and detailed motivations for their actions.

      That being said, Dan and Laurie provide hope for humanity, esp. the latter in that great passage where she convinces Manhattan to return to Earth. She recounts her backstory and Manhattan is moved by the notion that the Comedian and her mother were able to somewhat reconcile their dark past by making Laurie. That out of all that darkness, she was born and that act is what convinces Manhattan that humanity is worth saving.

      I hope this makes sense!

    3. Hi again, J.D.! So glad you were able to come back by. And yes it definitely all made sense. :)

      I had no baggage or expectations and was still very disappointed with the movie! I'm sure it's a hard one to do at all but certainly even harder when the source material is so beloved.

      Cool point about Manhattan. Though his importance to the greater themes of WATCHMEN never really hit home for me as it was his commentary that was just too fatalistic for me. From my perspective, if he's right, then no one makes the world or is responsible for it but I don't think that's where the ending took the reader (or, at least, THIS reader:).

      I don't know if this was on Moore's mind but one thing I always had in the back of my mind in regards to the Comedian was that he perfectly represented the phenomenon of enabling evil. He was quite often surrounded by those with moralistic, or it might be better to say ethical, ideals but he was continually allowed to behave badly. Everyone saw what he was doing but no one would stop him. From the littlest things to the biggest, no one would hold him accountable.

      As a reader new to WATCHMEN, I really enjoyed reading your perspective! Thanks again for taking the time to discuss this with me.

  2. Wonderful review, Rachel. Watchmen carries an enormous reputation with it. Certainly, it's something that forces the reader, especially one used to comic book presentations, to examine more closely. When I was a kid, I always seemed to initially scan through very quickly for the artwork and framing of the action. Heck, it was all I cared about at the time, and something of them during the 60s were really great. Only coming back to "really read" the dialogue later.

    Having read Watchmen when I was much older, I think I ended up appreciated more the story right off the bat. Could it have done with some trimming? Maybe, but it did its bleak world-building with extra care. Perhaps, a reflection of Moore's expansive style of thinking and creativity. Who knows.

    And yeah, that chapter, when I came to it, did touch me in the same way as you. It's a marvelous, breakthrough work. Never thought of the genre the same afterward. I'd agree not everyone is going to feel the same about it, but I think most will recognize this was an enormous step forward for the genre.

    So glad we did this one, thanks to Bubbawheat. Made for a thought-provoking tandem for our series. Thank you. :-)

    1. Thanks, Michael! I agree it does have a huge rep and it can be a different reading experience to come to something after many years of hearing so much about it. I, too, want to scan the art/action first and read (maybe:) later. As you note, that's not really possible with WATCHMEN or you'll miss most of the point. Being such a text reader (I really only mix text/visuals at work) I really had to "learn" again how to read a comic book as an adult. Thank goodness I had done my prep work before this came up. :)

      I agree this was a great addition. Really fun to do something new. I hope we'll do reader suggestions again next year. Who knows where it will take us!


  3. :)

    "Everything is preordained. Even my responses..." — Dr. Manhattan

    First of all, well done. You've read "Watchmen" and lived to tell the tale of its tale (I realize that smacks of sarcasm but I sincerely mean it).

    Look, I understand that comics/graphic novels are not your cup of tea. They aren't a lot of people's cups of tea. They are the heavy metal of the literary world—constantly belittled, criticized as being for the immature, a pastime of which one 'ages out'... but THIS one, this masterpiece, is not even in the same universe—or multiverse—as other comic books/GN's; it is the "King Lear" of that world. I get that you haven't read many, that books are your thing (but you still carry a torch for Batman), and understand all the disclaimers you wrote. However, if there are that many disclaimers, would it not stand to reason that consequently one can't befittingly review this? That's like watching "Eraserhead" once with the expectation of understanding the psychosexual minefield of David Lynch after the first viewing. Aside from that, posting reasons why your review might be viewed unfavorably, i.e. making excuses... soothes the artist, not the audience.

    Well, you said you were interested in the perspective of long-time fans, so off we go...

    Forgetting the thorny discomfort of the funsies synopsis/commentary, the "absolute horribleness of the world" being a "relentless theme throughout the 12 chapters" has to be addressed. First of all, what did you think would happen—a wormhole would deposit you in Happy Fun World? Alice would awaken from her nightmare? Throughout said paragraph (and other locations in your review), you seem to infer a reckless abandon to "Watchmen." You failed to see a piece of art in which stunningly staggering amounts of thought blast every page, from the framework of each storyline to the entire morphology of the novel's universe. You spent an entire paragraph discussing its structure yet missed most of the more mind-blowing aspects of it, aspects that not only artists but mathematicians (and scientists too) would appreciate, ponder in wide-eyed wonder upon discovering each intricacy... each pattern and page, just as I do every time I read it.

    The book is a real marvel of structure, not just overall, but in regard to individual issues. Like "Fearful Symmetry," where the panel layout on the first page mirrors that of the last page and so on until the two center pages are reached, palindromic in nature... not in a glaringly obvious manner, rather a wonderfully understated way that also comments on the Subject of that particular issue. Moore and Gibbons also employ cinematic techniques to movement within the panels. For example, a character walks towards 'the camera' or 'the camera' revolves around a character. Touches such as these are what got Hollywood interested in wanting to adapt it into a film because it employs techniques and visuals that are ripe for cinematic treatment.

    Also, you dismiss the pirate comic book rather quickly. True, it is not everyone's taste but it is an important aspect of the comic book in that it comments on the storyline that drives the series, sometimes directly, sometimes ironically. Meanwhile it is also working on a subtextual level, fleshing out the world of the Watchmen, where superhero comic books have become extinct because real-life superheroes populate the world, forcing comic book creators to tackle other genres. Moore and Gibbons are also paying homage to the classic EC horror comics from the 1950's. So there is actually a lot going on there.

    To be continued...

  4. Part II

    I would also argue that the main characters that comprise the Watchmen superhero group are all given fairly detailed examinations, with each issue delving into their past/origins. Sure, some get more emphasis than others—that is only natural—but they are all important and all play an integral role to the drama as it unfolds. They all play their part and by the end of the story, it is revealed that they are all pieces of the puzzle that is the mystery of who killed the Comedian, which kickstarted the comic book.

    I also maintain that "Watchmen" is arguably one of THE best examples of world-building in comic books. The amount of detail that is contained in every page, in many frames, is simply astounding. Moore and Gibbons have created a fully fleshed-out alternate history where the U.S. won Vietnam and kept the Russians on the backfoot, thanks to Dr. Manhattan. But it goes beyond even that... in the background of scenes you see zeppelins flying in the air instead of airplanes, electric cars driving the streets, and Gunga Diners instead of McDonald's... all little details that illustrate how this world has changed because of the influence of the likes of Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias. Best of all, the excerpts from various books that end every issue really do a fantastic job of fleshing out the backstory of this universe, suggesting even more detail and history.

    I am a fan of comic books, a point I guess you've surmised by now. I am a writer by trade and yes, one of those insufferable superfans of "Watchmen" who cannot stop extolling its virtues. I really hope that you give this one several more reads. If you are a fan of books, you must know that the best ones, like (mostly) everything in art, bear repeat viewings. Much like Kubrick's "2001," Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing" twins (in LV and Campaign Trail '72), all things Shakespeare... you will see something different every time you read it, notice a nuanced color palate of a frame—or the structure of the parallel universe in which they live—and jump up to the pulpit alongside the rest of us to preach the gospel according to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

    "Now, pardon me, but I got an appointment. See you in the funny papers." — The Comedian


    "O villain, villain, smiling, damn├Ęd villain!
    My tables—meet it is I set it down
    That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—"
    —"Hamlet" (Hamlet)

  5. Hi LaLa Suzie, many thanks for taking the time to share your passion for WATCHMEN. It's been really interesting for me to get the perspective of long time fans. Cheers!

  6. You are very welcome... I hope I didn't freak you out with that giant tome of an answer... it was meant with the best of intentions and I truly hope you give Watchmen (the Graphic Novel much moreso than the film) another go. Like layers of an onion (minus the crying), all will be revealed. :)