Review Rerun: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Year: 1986/87
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The year is 1985. Costumed vigilantes, (ie, superheroes), have been outlawed, with three exceptions--one of whom has just been murdered. The killing sparks a chain of events that leads five former heroes towards a confrontation that will determined the fate of the world.
That's WATCHMEN'S basic storyline, stripped right down to its skivvies, but it's not really what the book is about. It's a hell of a lot more complex than that. I mean, if you're at all interested in the history of the comic book, you've heard of WATCHMEN. It is the comic. It revolutionized the medium. It paved the way for all the edgier material that's come after. It's acclaimed not just as a comic book but as a serious work of literature. And y'all know I don't believe in essential reading, but if I did, this would be it. WATCHMEN may not be essential to an understanding of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century comic book, but it's undoubtedly an important work. I can't imagine why you'd want to cheat yourself out of it.
Alan Moore is a genius. (Yeah, yeah: "Tell us something we don't know," right?) He's been praised for deconstructing the superhero with WATCHMEN, but I'd argue that he's done much more than that. He's also crafted an alternate world in which one important change has had organic, logical consequences for society as a whole, and in doing so he's deconstructed the comics medium itself. The result is a deep, complex, hella interesting story that works on multiple levels.
In Moore's alternate world, Superman's first appearance inspired not just comic book creators but real people who donned costumes and hit the streets to fight crime. These heroes have day jobs and rent to pay and all the problems that come along with everyday life. Few of them are wealthy. None of them have superpowers. They're just regular people who've costumed up for reasons as varied as their own personalities. Some of them really want to make a difference, while others hope to boost their non-heroic careers. Some are on a power trip, or a quest to get off on the pretense. One is only in it because her mother has forced her. Moore comments on their place in the world via short exerpts from relevant sources such as autobiographies and scholarly papers, which appear at the end of each chapter.
I say that none of WATCHMEN'S vigilantes have superpowers, but that's not quite true. Jon Osterman--better known as Dr. Manhattan--is the lone superpowered superhero in this world, and Moore's nod to the traditional comic book protagonist. Jon gains his powers during a horrific accident in which his corporeal body is annihilated. He's left with the ability to see and understand all things at all times. He knows the past, present and future as one, he can see exactly how subatomic particles come together, and he has complete control over his own reformed body, which is blue and glowing. His powers haven't just changed his physical limitations, either; they've also altered his mental state and his relationship to humanity. Jon isn't your standard, "I must use my powers to fight crime and save the world!" superhero. Neither is he the typical, "I shall use my powers to enhance my own personal glory!" supervillain. He just... is.
Jon may not be driven to use his powers for any human reason, but his existence has still had a huge impact on the world at large. The US won the Vietnam War, with his help. His ability to see and control subatomic particles has led to massive scientific breakthroughs, including efficient airships (which have largely replaced airplanes) and electric cars powered by public power hydrants. This world looks very much like our own, but it's really, really not. The changes are small, subtle, and absolutely vital to the way we react to the story. They don't sound like much on the surface, but they go deep in that they've impacted each character's worldview. It's brilliant.
Perhaps the most interesting shift, though, occurs within this alternate world's comic book industry. Faced with real-life heroes like Hooded Justice, Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan, comic book creators feel no need to inundate the market with the fictional variety. Instead, comic books focus on pirates and ghouls--the very subjects, in fact, that came under such intense scrutiny in our own world during the 1950's. Moore asks us to consider the comic book as escapist literature, as an art form, and in terms of its creative development. Comic book history fascinates me, so I loved unpacking the alternate variety Moore gives us here. My very favourite end-of-chapter excerpt dealt with how the government vetoed the creation of the Comics Code Authority, the organization that held such sway over our own comic industry for so long.
Moore stitches every element of this world together so beautifully that you'll never notice the seams. He's crafted an absolutely fantastic piece of work that forces us to consider not only the society within the book but also our own world and its particular brand of heroics. There's so much here. I've rambled on for ages, and I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface.
On the downside--isn't there always a downside?--Gibbons's art is a little dated. It's fine work, but you'd never mistake WATCHMEN for a contemporary comic. Gibbons's use of line, coupled with John Higgins's colours, has a distinctly 80's feel to it. (And the fashions... don't you even get me started on Laurie's wardrobe. I mean, the crimes she commits against good taste! I know she was probably really hip back in the mid 80s, but I'm personally relieved that threads like that have gone the way of the dodo.) There are also some Cold War themes that may not resonate as well with those who didn't live through those times (which: me).
On the whole, though, WATCHMEN is excellent. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in comic books. It's a hefty tome that requires a fair commitment, both in terms of time and brain power, but it's totally worth it.
4 stars - loved it
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