Opinion Prone

My opinions, let me tell them to you.

Review: Watchmen (comic)

March 5, 2009 Review

This was something that has been on my to-read list for years. One of my professors assigned it as required reading last quarter, but we never ended up discussing it, so I never got around to finishing it. I was determined to finish it before the movie’s release though and thus finally sat down and marathoned through it in five hours on Tuesday. Now I can finally look forward to the movie tomorrow (not seeing it at midnight). I hear there have been a lot of mixed reviews going around, but I don’t really want to read any of them until I’ve seen it. I’m not really worried, honestly. The trailers look great, though I’m kind of on the fence about the special effects. Despite that, I don’t think I’m expecting a whole lot from it, so hopefully my purist neuroticism won’t strike too badly.

We’ll see. I will definitely be writing a review of the movie as well, so yeah. In the meantime~.

(this review contains no spoilers!)

STORY – Watchmen presents a very good question: superheroes only fight the symptoms of a greater disease that affects all of mankind, so who is there to cure the actual disease? Is it even possible to cure? In a slight alternate universe, the disease has brought us to the brink of a third world war, and as the saying goes, if WW3 is fought with nuclear weapons, then WW4 will be fought with rocks, if at all. There are other themes, though, including the idea of superheros in the real world, and power. Blasphemous as it may be, I’ve read very little of Alan Moore’s other work, but I’ve pretty much fallen in love with his style. The prose is very sophisticated and the dialogue is top notch and natural. New York is recognizable, and this could well be our real world. The story is presented on many different levels and all are interconnected, whether directly, tangentially, or metaphorically. I think a lot of comics have literary merit, but Watchmen is a classic example all the same.

Many aspects of the story openly mock the trends and stereotypes within superhero comics, but even in a world where superheroes exist, Watchmen makes direct references back to real comics in our past, such as Action Comics #1, where the Man of Steel was born. It’s these little things that make the illusion all the more convincing and engrossing, and that illusion is perpetuated by the material in between chapters: excerpts from documents within this universe, including memoirs, reviews, letters, essays, newspaper clippings, notes, and photographs. It reminded me a lot of Stephen King’s Carrie (the novel, not the movie) though I’m sure that King wasn’t the first to use this brilliant storytelling tactic either. All the details, all the thought, and all the angles: everything fit together so neatly, and I appreciated that Moore made everything so utterly convincing that the first time I encountered some of these excerpts, I had to wonder if he actually took them from some source material in our real world.

At its core, Watchmen is really just a murder mystery. The multiple levels at which you can read it allow for tons of little details that hint towards the final revelations. I love stuff like that. You can read it again and again and still go “ahha!” at the things you never noticed before; you can continue to draw connections and parallels between all the different characters and events. You don’t just “get it” once. You get it again and again and that feeling is great. And really, the depth of the political and philosophical commentary is just extra. A very enjoyable extra, yes, but extra all the same. And the ending? I have pretty mixed feelings about it, but regardless of that, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad ending. It just makes me wonder what Alan Moore really thinks and feels about the subject.

CHARACTER – No matter how you look at it, Rorschach is pretty much a badass. Whether or not you actually agree with his principles and philosophies, he is a badass. It’s hard not to admire someone who is so true to himself and what he believes in. It’s also easy for me to appreciate homage characters, and Rorschach is pretty much Steve Ditko (and/or his characters Mr. A and The Question), who has been described to me by a professor as being of a similar personality and philosophy. Annnd… I’ve pretty much always like superhero characters that consider their masked identity their “true” identitiy while their human personality is only a facade. It’s why I like Batman so much. And it’s one of the many reasons Watchmen gives for why people decide to become masked vigilantes — they’re insane.

Despite wild pseudoscience as far as physics and technology go, the realism in Watchmen is persistent, and one of the clearest examples is its cast of characters. With the exception of Dr. Manhattan, none of the heroes in Watchmen have actual powers beyond their personal resolve and technical ability. Motivation for a career in crimefighting is varied and ranges from pureness of character to fetishism, idealistic romanticism, and moral objectivism. The essays and articles that accompany the comic really emphasize this, and it’s easy to conclude that most of the superheros are at least a little mentally unbalanced — still, most are not such overt cases that it feels contrived.

Rorschach does not change much as Watchmen progresses, but more and more insight on his character is gradually revealed. He himself recounts his past to the audience and the distance he places between the person he is in the present and the person he was in the past is profound. I don’t want to exhaustively go through the rest of the cast, but suffice to say that they are all very human. Jon Osterman, Laurie Juspeczyk, and Dan Dreiberg are all exceptionally well-rounded characters, the latter two especially. I had a harder time following Jon’s logic, but given the nature of his character, that might just be an ironic coincidence. Adrian Veidt also felt a little further out there, but I guess not everyone’s perfect (those feel like pretty ironic words too). But hell, even the Comedian was a good, multi-faceted character and he’s already dead on page one.

The supporting cast is also brilliant. The city is populated with many personalities and their lives serve to parallel many themes in the story. Though the sniplets we get of them are small and seemingly insignificant, the way they’re all intertwined and interconnected in the end makes certain events hit harder. It’s always the little things that make the bigger picture seem crazier and more amazing. The newspaper vendor whose name you don’t even get until halfway through, the boy reading comics by the electric car pump — these characters are just as real as anyone else in the story, perhaps even moreso because their lives are so ordinary — it’s these characters that complete the illusion that’s contained within the pages you’re reading.

ART – I’m really not that familiar with Dave Gibbons’s work, but I definitely enjoyed his art in Watchmen. At first glance, it’s pretty generic superhero stuff, but the feel of that style really suits the series, so it’s no big setback. Besides, Gibbons’s characters are chiseled, consistent, and very expressive. Like many American comic artists, his angles and environments are masterful, and his spot blacks are fantastic. I’ve been shown some of his Watchmen pages as plain inks with no color, and honestly, I feel like they would have worked perfectly fine just like that. The nine-grid layout system that’s used throughout the comic allows for very precise control of time and pacing. The story moves along very steadily for the most part, but it’s very easy to tell when a scene is being sped up or slowed down. Occasionally, there will be an oversized panel for emphasis, and since the rest of the structure is so clean, that emphasis is tenfold.

Gibbons also did the letterwork for the comic. I’m usually not drawn to lettering because few people take the time to make it interesting, but I really enjoyed how it was done here. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan’s dialogue bubbles are very distinct, and it fits great because I imagine both to have very unique voices — the former because he’s speaking through fabric and just has a very quirky speech pattern in general, and the latter because… he’s a freak? There are also different caption types between Rorschach’s journal and the narrative of the pirate story within a story. Once again, it’s the little things that make everything so clear and tightly packaged. I approve.

John Higgins’s colorjob put me off at first, especially when I have Gibbons’s beautiful inks to consider, but it’s definitely something I got used to. While simple, the colors definitely help to set the moods of certain scenes and environments, as well as provide additional clarity when moving between narratives and locations. It’s also worth noting that printers and colors were more limited when Watchmen first debuted. After a few chapters, the simplicity and the clashing of some of the palettes stopped bothering me altogether. Honestly, I would hate to ever see a “remastered” version with a more modern coloring style — in conjunction with the nostalgic, nine-panel layouts, it just wouldn’t fit.

OVERALL – You know, I kind of don’t think the tagline “Who watches the watchmen?” fits as well as it should. I don’t feel as if that question represents the most important theme of the story. I think the words in Rorschach’s journal on the first page are a better representation. Watchmen is a very well written piece of literature. The artwork and visual storytelling is good, but the story and the writing is undoubtedly its greatest merit. I think it’s a great introduction work for people who don’t read comics in general, but especially for manga fans who don’t read Western works because they perceive the superhero-dominated mainstream to be generic and shallow. There’s a very good reason it’s so widely revered. I was not disappointed.

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists, and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout, “Save us!” …And I’ll look down and whisper, “No.”

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  1. ghostlightning on March 5, 2009 11:19 pm

    Spot-on, even down to your comment about the tag-line. It doesn’t make as much sense as it should I feel.

    I wonder if Alan Moore wrote that himself, or it’s some other (perhaps a marketing guy) person’s idea.

  2. Jarmel on March 5, 2009 11:38 pm

    I also just finished the comic recently. I personally am also mixed about the ending and don’t like it but I respect it for what it is. Rorschach is indeed a badass, hopefully the prison scene gets the justice it deserves.

  3. dotdash on March 6, 2009 12:47 am

    “Who watches the watchmen” is from Juvenal (original Latin, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”) and presumably this is the source of the comic’s title.

    I think the idea is to ask the question, “Is it OK to allow these loonies to be custodians of our morality?”, which is an idea reflected through a lot of the moral issues central to the story, including the big moral question at the end.

    Dave Gibbons is British, but I take your point, since British and American artists tend to work in largely the same market.

  4. Kiriska on March 6, 2009 12:54 am

    @gl: Well, the tagline is seen several times as graffiti in the comic, so presumably Moore decided it should be there, but I guess it is also quite a bit catchier than Rorschach’s spiel at the beginning. ;3

    @Jarmel: I’m not as worried about the prison scene as I am about pretty much everything involving Dr. Manhattan — I’m just not too fond of what I’ve seen of the special effects. I’m not sure what it is though; too shiny? We’ll see.

    @dotdash: Yeah, Wiki tells me as much as far as the phrase goes, but I think the source of the comic’s title could come from any number of things. The quote from Einstein at the end of one of the chapters comes to mind also: “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” And that quote feels more relevant to what I perceive to be the series’ main theme. Still, it’s true that that theme and the superhero theme is closely intertwined, so maybe I shouldn’t be differentiating them at all?

    Haha, I always forget that. Alan Moore is British too, but I guess since DC published the comic, I consider it American.

  5. dotdash on March 6, 2009 2:56 am

    Alan Moore is fond of a good pun, and Einstein watch reference is surely intentional. The great thing about Watchmen is that you can enjoy it on so many levels.

    We all have filters that we see things through (feminism, Marxism, postmodernism etc.) and different filters can highlight different aspects. Personally, the thing that struck me most about Watchmen was from the point of view of genre theory. The framework is a revisionist superhero story, and what it does is similar to what Once Upon a Time in the West, Ride the High Country, High Plains Drifter, or Unforgiven did to Westerns, or what Evangelion did to the boys’ mecha genre. That’s one of my filters though.

    Of course the series was written at a particularly dark period in the Cold War, so the political/nuclear aspect and the way it comments on the legacy of Vietnam provide another way of looking at it. Hats off to Alan Moore, I say.

  6. Kiriska on March 6, 2009 3:06 am

    Indeed, I think its multi-layered nature, including the fact that the series’ title can seemingly be derived from so many different references, is part of what makes it so enjoyable and accessible to such a wide range of people and precisely why it can be considered such a brilliant piece of work.

    The genre theory is fun, and I agree, but I also think Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns can be considered a significant contribution as well as it was published around the same time.