Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Review: Watchmen by Alan Moore

I don't usually read comic books. Pardon me, graphic novels. It's not that I don't approve of the medium or the genre, it's just my brain won't process the format. I can't keep track of who's who, what's going on, or even who each speech bubble belongs to.

But, I love the comic book movies that have been coming out, and when I saw a trailer for Watchmen I was very interested. I'd never heard of it before, so I went to the Wikipedia article and read just enough about its reception to realize that I HAD to read it and see it in action.
And boy, was I impressed! This is seriously the best stuff I've read in a long, long time, and even though it's one of the most complicated stories I've seen, I didn't have any trouble following it.
For those of you who also have never heard of it, it's an alternate history set in 1985. Superheroes, or masked vigilantes which in this case don't have any superpowers, were once active but were then outlawed. The one notable exception is Doc Manhattan, who does possess superpowers and works for the government, and a possible second exception is Ozymandias, who is supposed to have "peak human" powers. The story begins with the murder of one of the costumed heroes, and proceeds with another hero's investigation. The book explores the idea of what it would really be like if there were superheroes in the world, but its basic theme can't be stated better than "Who watches the watchmen?"

The first things that struck me were the visuals, the cinematic quality of it all. The "camera" zooms, pans, and chooses angles in exactly the way needed to emphasize what's happening, but the fact that it isn't a camera allows for pauses and juxtaposition that can't really be done in film. The art itself was perfect and very detailed, giving everything a kind of uniqueness and realism and made each frame memorable. There are also multiple flashbacks, and at the end of every chapter a fictional primary document is included, which serves to expand the universe in time as well as space and make it seem all the more real. I could mention the frames that were the most striking, that are still burned into my retinas, but that would give away too many spoilers.

The second perfect thing is the characterization. Characterization is one of the things that I usually miss when I'm trying to read a comic, but Watchmen had a perfectly arranged balance of character exploration and plot. Neither overtakes the other, but both contribute to the story's progress. I was pleased to note that the romantic (or less than romantic) relationships between the characters were important and helped to move the story, they weren't just fanservice and they weren't boring. The characters range from Doc Manhattan, the inhuman character who has godlike powers, to Nite Owl, a kind of "average" superhero with a lot of gadgets, to Rorschach, the ultimate antihero.

The one most impressive feature is the sheer weight of all the subtle things going on at any given time. From the slowly counting doomsday clock, to the slow wash of blood through every chapter, to the chapter titles that are quotes by anyone from Bob Dylan to Albert Einstein. Every character is vital to the story. Every frame is vital to the story. Every poster on the wall means something, every incidental character means something, even a crazy dude carrying a sign is going to be important. (I totally pegged that one.) The atmosphere of the story, at first only barely noticeable, develops into an almost suffocating mixture of nostalgia and paranoia that pervades every action. And when the end finally comes... what are we to make of it?

Seriously. Read it. It's incredible.

Buy Watchmen

1 comment:

  1. Wow, great review! I'm glad you enjoyed this so much. There is just so much in this densely woven, complex book that I can easily see myself rereading it and getting more from it every time.


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