Watchmen is a graphic novel that has been placed on such a high pedestal, that I have been nervous about tackling it, feeling I wasn’t ready for it. But with this ongoing quarantine, I felt it was the right time for me to take the time to read it. I paired it with Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic movie that added limited motion, voice and sound to the originally drawn panels. I took almost a week to watch two chapters a night, and I would read the pages alongside the animation on the screen.
Let’s just get this over with- I did not like the story. But is that the point? I have actually picked up this graphic novel several times in the past but would put it down, thinking that it wasn’t the right time for me to read this acclaimed novel by the supposedly brilliant Alan Moore. It’s one of those books, that you feel if you don’t get it, then you aren’t deep enough to understand it and will feel guilty. However, it did include some heavy themes I have been thinking on a lot, and that is always a sign of a well-written novel.
Set in an alternative timeline to ours, a few key historical events have changed, leading to a 1980s NYC that is very similar to ours but is just enough different. A former superhero, The Comedian, now a government-sanctioned agent, is found murdered. Rorschach, a vigilante who never quit despite a national law that outlawed costumed adventuring, becomes the narrator of the story as he picks up clues that point to a larger conspiracy. He visits all his former comrades to warn them that they may be in danger; and soon Nite Owl, the second Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhatten and Ozymandias are part of a greater plot to bring about world peace at a great cost. The ideas of what makes a hero are explored, as they all are anti-heroes, and no one is blameless.
Divided into twelve chapters, I found chapter four to be the most intriguing, as Dr. Manhatten recalls his history in a non-linear format of how an accident with an atom reactor in 1959 changed him from a brilliant scientist into the only true superhero of the bunch. Between the chapters were additional backstory inserts that were supposed to be giving readers more insight into the Watchmen world. Some of the supplemental info is presented like reports and articles about the characters’ past and present. Some were more effective than others. A comic book story within a comic book story, the story Marooned from Tales of the Black Freighter, was entwined into the narrative, and at first paralleled the story of being lost and mentally unstable but then became pretentious and unneeded.
I believe what unhinged the story for me were the main characters. They were so unlikable, morally bankrupt and idiotic. I might have been at a disadvantage listening to the motion comic voiced by a man, but Laurie and her mother Sally were just the most petulant and shallow people ever. Moore at no time gave his women characters nuanced or authentic development. I’m sorry, but what Sally agreed to later with The Comedian was stomach-churning after what he had done to her years before, and that Dr. Manhatten’s decision to help Earth was based off that decision was shocking. I get that the characters were supposed to be a deconstruction of what we have come to expect in heroes, that was the whole premise of the book, but when you weren’t rooting for anyone, it becomes problematic.
The art was a mixed bag for me. Every page has a nine-panel layout, with only a few of the panels being enlarged. While a rather straightforward style, it allowed the artist Dave Gibbons to control the pace of the story. The cast of characters that he designed were an interesting lot, he didn’t draw them in a superlative style that we have come to expect from superheroes. The costumes looked homemade and their bodies were realistically proportioned, with Dr. Manhatten being the exception. The coloring by John Higgins was at times surreal, with deep shadows and a psychedelic color palette. All told it made for a distinctive, but not entirely attractive look.
Although I did not care for the narrative, I found the story refreshingly subversive for that era, and I applaud Moore and Gibbons for crafting such a unique story. That the characters, themes, and framework of the story are still being explored in movies, tv-series and other graphic novels today show that the story is a classic for a reason. While not a true fan of this tale, I am intrigued enough to explore some more adaptations of the Watchmen universe, and perhaps my feelings will mellow with time and I will come to appreciate how it changed comic book storytelling forever.