Watchmen. The very word invokes a sense of awe and reverence among comic book readers. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s masterpiece, one of many for both men is widely considered to be the greatest graphic novel ever produced. Featuring fierce political commentary, examination of the human condition, and stark, brutally honest commentary of the role of superheroes in today’s world, Watchmen truly stands apart and in some cases above the rest of comicdom. Today, I am going to share with you now my thoughts, good or ill, on this work, trying my best to do it justice. Ready? I’m not, but let’s move forward anyway.
An in depth review for one of comic books most revered titles.
First off, we have to credit to the men who crafted this work. Alan Moore, one of comic books most brilliant minds, wrote the story, while Dave Gibbons, one of the most respected artists in the medium handled the artwork. Watchmen is considered a landmark project for both men, cementing their legacies for years to come.
The story takes place in the mid-1980s in a world that is eerily similar to our own. For anyone not old enough to remember, the 80s were the final decade of the Cold War, the fear of Nuclear Devastation at the forefront of everyone’s minds. In the world of Watchmen however, things are decidedly worse than they were for us. The “superheroes” of yesteryear had for the most part retired, the only three still active being The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, who both worked for the US government, and Rorschach, a masked vigilante that had refused to leave after the government outlawed “masks” as they call them.
Our story starts with the death of Comedian, the government sponsored hero apparently murdered in his own home. Rorschach investigates, leading him to suspect that someone is killing “masks”, and endeavors to investigate. Meanwhile, the other “heroes”, deal with this death, slowly being drawn into the web that Rorschach discovers
As the story progress, we are treated to flash-backs starting in the 1940s, telling us about the lives of our heroes, who they are, and what shaped them into being such. The flashbacks do a great job of getting the back story in, giving us the history of the world of Watchmen while also moving things forward, the information seemingly irrelevant at the time, but eventually leading us to the conclusions that shape the book’s climax.
The six main characters, Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, Night Owl, Rorschach, and Ozymandias, are each unique individuals unlike any seen in comics before. The book examines them all, taking us down the rabit hole of their minds, presenting deep, layered, and incredulby complicated characters in world that is exactly thus. No one’s perfect here, only Silk Spectre and Night Owl II being clear cut “good” as we would understand it. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are more ambiguous, though both fighting on the side of “good” so to speak, are not the shining heroes we are used to seeing. Ozymandias and Comedian finally are the most complicated. Their actions may be good-intentioned, and in some ways have good results, but they are villainous in other ways, their methods irreprehensible. Make no mistake however, Moore isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with these characters. He’s pretty much mocking that the wheel existed in the first place.
This theme lies at the heart of Watchmen. These six individuals are not heroes in the traditional sense, at least by comic book standards. Rorschach fights crime certainly, but with a level of brutality that the common person would find and in the cases of the police officers chasing him does find, disgusting. Night Owl was once a great crime-fighter, but later quit, thinking it all childish fantasy (sounds like a lot of people that don’t like comics doesn’t it?). Silk Spectre was forced into the life by her mother, and desperately wanted to get away from it. However, her relationship with Dr. Manhattan prevented that, making her depressed and trying to figure who she is. The Comedian works for the government, supposedly for the greater good, but commits atrocities in that vein, laughing the whole time at it because “that’s how the world is”, (sound like the Joker anyone?). Ozymandias, the world’s smartest man, wishes to save humanity from destruction, but uses horrible methods to do so, in the end playing God with millions of lives. Finally, Dr. Manhattan, a being so far beyond human he stops feeling anything for the species, is all-powerful, all-knowing ‘superman”, whose sole purpose is to deter the Russians from war. When he leaves, his lack of presence is the catalyst for everything, his return and further actions immoral, even if they were for “the greater good”.
Overall, the tale that Moore weaves here is mind-blowing, gut-wrenching, and scary as hell. By the end, humanity is set on a new course, but at a terrible cost, the secret the heroes are forced to keep at the end a disgusting reality that will likely haunt them forever. Moore pulls no punches here, shading our “heroes” as something else, something less than, and frankly, something that makes us question whether they were heroes in the first place. Rorschach is the only one that truly tries to act altruistically; the most brutal and uncaring character the one that refused to sacrifice his principles for “the greater good”. Ironic to a fault, isn’t it? But then again, that’s the whole point.
Not Your Typical Comic Book
On the art side, Dave Gibbons does a masterful job at capturing Moore’s themes. The feel of the art is very gritty and real, much different from what I’m used to with comic books. Gibbons takes Moore’s tone and uses to create a world that is dirty, corrupt, brutal, and at times flat out disgusting. The imagery we are bombarded with is a far cry from the happy, brightly coloured worlds that comic books often take us to. Watchmen is gritty, dirty, real, and examines the worst parts of humanity.
The character designs, are top notch, both celebrating and parodying the common motifs of the genre. Night Owl’s costume is more than slightly ridiculous, especially as his “spare uniforms” he has in Archie, his trusty airship. Silk Spectre’s costume is a perfect satire on female comic book costumes, from the heels, to the short skirt, the neckline; its classic comic book trope for the “token female” on the team. She even makes mention of it a few times herself, citing how stupid it was to wear something like that for crime fighting. Even Ozymandius with all his ridiculous Egyptian motifs felt like a satire on every cheesy comic book villain from the 70s, making it difficult to take him seriously for most of the book.
Rorschache was the exception, his dirty, blood-soaked trench-coat and special mask giving him the appearance of someone dirty, dark, and dangerous. Even the way his lettering was done, with a hazy, monotone vibe, was on point with the character, Gibbons showing us completely who he the first time we see him.
Gibbons panelling was also exceptional, using a three panel format for most of it, intermixed with some truly stunning splash pages, the aftermath of New York’s death toll truly gut-wrenching. This style allowed him to keep the story going at a good pace (a little slow at times admittedly) and giving him the room to draw the world and characters in their full detail.
The art in Watchmen is among the best you’ll see in the medium. Not as bright and flashy as modern comic books, but that’s the point. The world is dark, gritty, brutal, and for the most part lacking conscience. Gibbons art reflects this in spades, coupling with Moore’s words to create a world and characters unlike anything you’ll see in the medium.
Inside Alan Moore's Mind
Alan Moore, despite being in all likelihood the greatest writer in the history of comic books, has a certain... disdain for superheroes. It’s ironic for someone so heavily revered in the medium to have such a disdain for its main focus, but that’s Alan Moore for you.
Watchmen is, more so than any of his other work, a stark look at Alan Moore’s thoughts on the subject. In Watchmen, their mere presence created the problems of the world, Dr. Manhattan in particular. In addition, the way the book ended was another examination, the “heroes” not exactly saving the world and stopping the bad guy. In reality, they did save the world, but not without a horrible, terrible cost, the morality of it so ambiguous that I doubt anyone could truly quantify it. I sure can’t.
Moore has expressed such opinions before, most notably soon after Avengers broke every box office record in history, so it’s not much surprise to find this subtext running throughout Watchmen. In fact, it only adds to the reading experience, making the characters’ actions even more meaningful, forcing the reading to ask if having superheroes around be a good thing or not..
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Who Watches the Watchmen?
I was very nervous about picking up Watchmen to be honest. For one, Alan Moore isn’t exactly my favourite person in comics. His opinions on superheroes I think miss the point of why people read about them, but what’s more is that he is constantly attacking writers like Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns, claiming that they are “copying everything he did”. I may get into that in a in a separate blog post, but bottom line, Moore’s personal attitude towards the industry makes me question if I want to read his work or not.
That being said, he is a phenomenal writer, and after reading Watchmen, I have to admit that I really enjoyed it. In my opinion, Watchmen is a masterpiece. The story is all at once a parody, a commentary, and homage to the comic book industry, all the while telling us a amazing story of six complex characters trying to do right in the world as best as they know how. Moore draws us into a world where heroes aren’t shiny, perfect beings, but are flawed, conflicted, complex individuals that force us to ask if they are really the heroes they seem to be. Watchmen, both when it was published and today, forces the audience to re-examine how we look at superheroes, the effects of those examinations still being felt today.
Though the pacing is a little slow in parts, and the side-story of The Lost Freighter seems a little out of place, I can still give Watchmen an easy recommend.