Watchmen: Alan Moore

08Apr09

by The Great White Gypsy

watchmen-cover3

I never really got into comic books.  I’ve always loved superheroes, I know most of the back-stories and storylines, but I only actually read them for a few years, and I stopped when I was 11.  I’ve seen all of the big comic movies the last few years, and most of them were awesome (the most evil super villains in the films are still Joel Schumacher and Ang Lee).  But none of them made me want to run to the store and grab the latest issue of Action Comics.  Until Watchmen.

As a writer and a fan of literature, I don’t pay attention to comic books.  Graphic novels, however, are an underappreciated medium, and there is a difference.  Comic books are generally between twenty and thirty pages, an ongoing plot with silly dialog, at least one fight, and its pretty much fluff.  Graphic novels, however, are between one hundred and three hundred pages, much more intellectual, violent, and in depth.  The writing is the best part of a graphic novel, and the really good ones have amazing artwork to match. For those of you who love Frank Miller’s films, I have news for you: he is a graphic novel writer, and he’s even done work on comic books.  Though Miller is probably my favorite, a close second now is Alan Moore, writer of Watchmen.

Allan Moore

 A big name in comics for decades, he’s penned some amazing novels that have been turned into films.  V for Vendetta, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were all Moore’s creations.  He has a broad career as a writer, and an impressive resume.  His books are always dark, profound, multilayered, and entertaining.  There is no question, however, that Watchmen is his seminal masterpiece.  It was originally released in twelve separate chapters, each around forty pages long.  Excerpts from fictional memoirs, scientific papers, and news clippings, adding an element or realism to the story, separate the chapters in the complete novel.  This makes reading it a challenge, but his ability to make readers relate and feel comfortable in such an outlandish story is commendable.

The Story

Watchmen is one of the most complex and well-rounded stories I’ve ever read, involving a complete alternate history of America starting in the late ‘20’s.  With the emergence of several masked heroes, the government decides to sanction groups of heroes as minutemen, only operating in times of crisis.  None of these people have superpowers; no radioactive spiders, space anomalies, or mutations.  They are normal people who dress up to protect society.  In 1959, a scientist named Jon Osterman is trapped in an atomic experiment, and vaporized.  Days later, he reappears as a being of pure energy, with the ability to move things with his mind, teleport, and experience time omnisciently.  His presence in America fuels the nuclear program, he is used by the government in Vietnam, and this stirs up the Russians, bringing them to the brink of nuclear war with the U.S.  President Nixon, in his fourth presidential term, allows a bill to be passed effectively disbanding the Watchmen, due to public fear and outrage.  In 1985 (Nixon’s fifth term), after eight years in retirement, one of the Watchmen, The Comedian, is murdered.  This causes the rest of them to once again don their cowls and uncover an evil plot.

The Characters

Dr. Manhattan is the name given to Jon Osterman after his transformation.  He has amazing powers that he generally uses to aide humanity (via the U.S. government), but he is detached.  His ability to see the future, to understand existence and the universe on another level alienates him from the rest of mankind, causing him trouble in relationships as well as in the public eye.

Rorschach is pretty psychotic.  He was raised by a prostitute, who kept him in the brothel with her.  This and the absence of his father resulted in the inability to connect with people on a meaningful level.  He sees the world as a horrible place, full of vice and crime, and the people as childish sheep.  The most interesting part of Rorschach’s story, though left out of the film, is that his mask is a piece of fabric he cut from a dress made by Dr. Manhattan with fluid woven into the fabric that is constantly changing shapes.  Dr. Manhattan originally designed this dress for a woman named Kitty Genovese.  For those of you unfamiliar with history and psychology, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment in 1964.  Thirty-eight people watched out their windows, but no one called the police, allowing the mugger to come back and finish her off.  This gave birth to the psychological term, “the bystander effect”.  Hence Rorschach’s mask being constantly changing, but always black and white; never gray.  He swears he will always be a vigilante, no matter what the government says, and he will never compromise, not even in the face of Armageddon. 

Ozymandias is rich, powerful, and his body extends to the outer limits of human physical prowess.  He started the last chapter of The Watchmen, and was sort of their leader.  He works with Dr. Manhattan on several nuclear projects, and is the only Watchmen to reveal his secret identity after retirement.  He is the quintessential superhero, and he uses different methods to accomplish the same goals.

The Comedian is one of the Watchmen veterans. He went back and forth between being a hero and a government spy/assassin (the film implies more that The Comedian shot JFK).  He has a fatalistic view of humanity, even feels himself superior to them.  He’s pretty much an asshole with a gun, but there’s always something under his scowl that you can’t quite put your finger on.  He attempts to rape Silk Spectre, he shoots a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his child.  This is all seen in flashbacks, as The Comedian is the one murdered at the beginning of the book.

Silk Spectre II was bred to be a hero.  Daughter of Silk Spectre, a Watchmen in the forties, Silk II was forced into heroing by her mother.  As a character, the only overtly interesting thing about her is that she is Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend, and she chain-smokes.  What’s more intriguing than her as a person is her past.  Her mother, the mystery of her father, and her friendship with Night Owl II make her thought provoking, but not sympathetic.

Night Owl II is a one-dimensional character.  He’s like the Superman of the group, but without the superpowers.  Gadgets are his strong suit, relationships are not.  His only contribution to the story is his connection to Hollis Mason, the first Night Owl and author of Behind the Hood, a memoir of his hero days.  This connection to the past, the purity of the Watchmen, is the only thing he’s got going.

Good vs Evil

Unlike most other comic books, Watchmen doesn’t really focus on the bad guys.  Sure, they mention their foes from time to time, but since these heroes had no superpowers, neither did their counterparts.  The main theme of this book is ideological: good vs evil.  It’s actually very deep, and well developed in the novel, and it’s different for every character, but there are basically three sides: Black, white, and grey in the name of white.  Obedience to the government, bonds of brotherhood, responsibility to humanity as a whole, and responsibility to people as individuals are all elements in the ideologies.  It has some big questions in it.  Is doing evil things in the name of good still good, or is it actually evil?  Is apathy even worse then evil acts?  Does one act of contrition clearly establish your moral lines and forgive your past?  Or is the act of contrition itself an admission of wrongdoing that should never be made?  I won’t ruin the ending (the mechanics are different than the movie, but the basics are the same), but the turning point for all these characters is when a grey area is introduced, and they all must take sides.  Do the ends justify the means?  Can you operate in this grey area while still claiming the white side?  The conclusions they come to are unpredictable and complex.

Man as God

Jon Osterman walks into a room in 1959, and comes out an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent being.  “God is real, and he is American.”  He experiences time all at once, instead of linearly, so he is always telling other characters what is about to happen, how things will turn out.  They complain that they have a choice, that it doesn’t have to be that way, but he is right every time.

Even more interesting, as a god figure, he tries to help in human affairs, working mainly with the U.S.  He fights in Vietnam, does his duty in the cold war, and is America’s secret weapon against deflecting a possible Russian nuclear strike.  Yet he slowly drifts away from humanity, and takes a stance of fatigued indifference.  One great part of the book is when the Comedian shoots his “baby mama”.  Dr. Manhattan is standing right there, and tells him not to shoot.  After she is dead, he tries to condemn The Comedian, but he argues, “You could’ve stopped the bullet, took apart my gun, frozen time, but you didn’t.”  He is accusing Manhattan of being out of touch, apathetic, and cold.  When he is on Mars, talking to Silk Spectre II about the fate of the world, he asks her, “Why would I save a world I no longer have any stake in?”

Chapter IV was, to me, the best in the novel, for the way it handled time, Manhattan’s flashbacks and flash forwards, and gave you a window into the psyche of a god.  He feels isolated from everyone.  Its not that he doesn’t care, he does.  It’s that he’s not sure why he cares, if he cares for the right things or reasons, and if his responsibility is to directly help people, or to sit back and let them determine their own futures.  This theme, though profound, is not overdone or overcomplicated.  Good job Moore.

The Black Freighter

Another interesting part of Watchmen was the parallel story The Black Freighter.  This is a comic strip that an incidental character is reading periodically throughout the graphic novel.  In the panels, the internal dialogue from this comic book is run alongside actual dialog from Watchmen characters.  It is the story of a ship captain whose entire crew is killed, and he is stranded on an island.  He forms a raft out of the dead bodies around him, and sails home to warn his family of the approaching Black Freighter.  This may seem unimportant, but this narrative was inserted into Watchmen at key plot points, and if you read the novel through, in the end you understand another parallel of Watchmen morality.  (This was actually turned into a short animated film by Zack Snyder featuring Gerard Butler and a great song by Nina Simone.)

Novel vs Film

The film was condensed, entertaining, and a little more realistic at the end.  The novel was extensive, elaborate, and included elements that, though their absence didn’t detract from the movie, would’ve made things a little clearer, and a lot cooler.  Overall, I would say that the two are different halves of the same whole, and the best way to understand either is to enjoy both.

Final Review

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.  The art was fantastic, the narrative was amazingly deep without being cumbersome, and the flow was smooth.  All the major elements of a great book are here, and so many minor elements are added that the realism and cohesiveness are almost perfect.  Some of the panels actually look like a well-developed storyboard for a film, and the writing is so flushed out that Ayn Rand and Dave Eggers would both be proud.  Though my exposure is limited, this is my favorite graphic novel so far, and one of the best stories (as far as material and character development) that I’ve ever read.  My only criticism is that the ending in the novel was a bit ridiculous and underdeveloped.  Objectively, it could have been better, but the film made up for it, so I’m happy.

Final Grade: A



2 Responses to “Watchmen: Alan Moore”

  1. 1 Kevin

    Comics vs graphic novels. Only “graphic novels” are worth your attention? Snob! Watchmen started out as a comic. So did Sin City. Their writers detest the label “graphic novel”. Imagine the escapism and depth that your favourite novel gives you, then imagine that its creator(s) get the chance to make that world permanent, and fully explore the world they create, once a month for the rest of your life. Welcome to comics, and that’s just the beginning. (Also, Miller is a hack ;))

  2. I admit, I’ve got not been on this webpage during a long time… but it absolutely was another joy to see It’s such an necessary topic and ignored by so many, even professionals. I many thanks to help creating individuals additional attentive to possible issues.


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