You’ve probably heard of Watchmen. You’ve probably heard that it changed comics forever. Maybe you’ve even seen the film version… But to actually READ the book, that’s something else entirely…
Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons – Watchmen (1986/2005)
Alan Moore is, possibly, the most famous comic book author of all time. He’s also well known as a practitioner of magic, as having a famously bushy beard, and for his extreme anti-Hollywood stance, going so far as to demand that his name be completely removed from the film versions of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen…(and I kind of get that last one.) But why? Why go so far out of the way to distance himself from association with (and even any of the ROYALTIES from) these big-time productions? According to Moore, it’s because he wrote those stories as COMICS, utilizing the strengths and techniques of that medium, which he sees as being extremely different from film.
So, for this review, I reread the Watchmen graphic novel and rewatched the movie, and I have to say that I agree with Moore. The book is complex, with multiple overlapping storylines, which exploit the mix of textual elements and Dave Gibbons’ art, which is very detailed and expressive (the colors could take an entire scholarly article to discuss.) Having just rewatched the movie after finishing the book, it’s immediately obvious that the film had to exclude and simplify and change a MASSIVE amount of content in order to jam 12 comic book issues into 162 minutes’ worth of film. Which isn’t to say that the movie is bad. Some of the casting was excellent, and the special effects are quite impressive (especially the science fiction themed scenes with Dr. Manhattan), and the soundtrack was perfectly chosen adding a nostalgic element to the “historical” sections of the story. The movie was actually good—it’s just that the movie, even at almost three hours in length, can’t even come close to depth of Alan Moore’s story.
For those who don’t know the book or the film, Watchmen is an alternate reality tale that takes place in a dark and dreary mid-1980s (although there are frequent flashbacks to various decades and historical events in the 20th century), and the main premise of the story seeks to answer one seemingly simple question: What would have happened to the world if superheroes were real? The story is framed as a murder mystery with a “costumed adventurer” being murdered early in the first “chapter,” and one of the victim’s former team-mates suspecting that someone has decided to start killing “masks.” The book is grim and noir in style, with lots of rain-soaked scenes in dark alleys and seedy bars, and it should be noted that the atmosphere created by both art and text work perfectly together.
Beyond the atmosphere, what truly elevates this book above and beyond any other comic (before or since) is how Moore uses the superhero archetype to explore some extremely deep concepts, from media manipulation to obsession to the use of violence in the name of the “greater good.” The characters are complex, (no clear “good” or “evil,”) and most of them are deeply emotionally flawed. A character like Rorschach is sociopathic in his violent methods, but driven by an extreme dedication to justice and exposing the truth. Dozens of characters, even those who are peripheral to the main storyline, are explored throughout the book, like newsstand vendors and delivery drivers and security guards, so when horrible things happen to these usually cardboard characters, the tragic occurrences actually have meaning. Imagine that! A comic with emotional depth!
I should also mention that the story is extremely violent, nor is it very P.C. by today’s standards (reflecting the mid-80s culture in which it was written), and the story may actually be a bit TOO dark for many readers. Moore pulls no punches. Gibbons illustrates some scenes that are so gruesome they can turn a reader’s stomach. There is certainly a sense of existential angst so oppressive in this book that it should probably be classified as a horror story, as opposed to a superhero comic. HOWEVER, it is also absolutely brilliant. I’ve read this book three times now, and I caught nuances and details that I missed the first two times. (I’m certain that I’ll catch even more the NEXT time I read it.) The tension that this book creates is remarkable, and the tale, which mixes horror, political satire, time travel, murder mystery, nuclear armageddon, and superhero stories, all spread over five or six different sub-plots, comes together in a shocking and darkly satisfying climax (though I have to admit that the ending is not the happiest I’ve ever read.) Alan Moore, in an interview in 2009, said that if someone was only going to read ONE story by him, that Watchmen would be the one he would recommend. I concur. It’s dense and dark and disturbing, but so well done that I can’t think of any other book so complex yet so complete. It’s definitely one for the ages…
—Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)