Sunday, September 14, 2008

Book 15 – The Watchmen

By Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

With the excitement over the movie teaser earlier this summer, comic shops all over were sold out of the bound soft cover edition. Since I never read The Watchmen, Olman thoughtfully picked up a copy for me when he was in Berkeley. Of course, it’s been over 15 years since he read the original landmark series, so Olman patiently waited for me to finish it, then re-read it himself and promptly stole my thunder by giving it a nostalgic and glowing review (note I pre-date my posts, so it’s actually late October as I write this).

It’s just as well, since Olman pretty much expresses my feelings about The Watchmen, and does so with more passion and comic-reading experience than I, since I’m a fairly recent newcomer in the world of comics. What can I say other that I’m psyched I got to read this amazing work untainted way before the movie’s due out (can’t say the same for From Hell or V For Vendetta sadly)!

I will say, however, that I was very impressed with Moore’s complex, innovative story. Although Scott McCloud doesn't mention The Watchmen in Understanding Comics, I'd say this work belongs in the elevated level of pioneering work that made a difference. The idea of a superhero comic about regular people being costumed vigilantes and their love-hate relationship with society/humanity is ironically appealing. The interspersed sections of expository text provide a meta-fictional quality and fills in a lot of biographical background of the various characters. It also helps make this a valid 50-book entry as there’s a goodly amount of text! Olman tells me that the original comic series was the first of its kind with its glossy design, slick format and lack of ads.

The story-within-a-story about the shipwrecked man and his raft of human carcasses seemed somewhat bewildering and digressive at first, but the "he who fights monsters must take care lest he become a monster" theme does tie into the conflicts and turmoil of the vigilante heroes. Adding to this, Dr. Manhattan’s ability to transcend time and space contributes to a non-linear narrative structure with multi-layered subplots.

I can’t help but think how the TV show Heroes has been influenced by this comic, and its attempt to possibly one-up the narrative complexity with multiple heroes jumping back and forth in time suffers with mixed results. I was wondering why I was getting fed up with that silly TV show with all the heroes running around trying to save the world, repeating the same stupid and/or inexplicably irrational mistakes, then trying to re-save the world again. The heroes in the The Watchmen do save the world, in a sense, but at great cost and sacrifice. You get a clear idea of where each individual hero stands in their complex moral spectrum, their relationship to one another and how their past histories affect their present choices. You also get a satisfyingly solid ending!

Although I wasn’t as much into the aesthetic style of Dave Gibbons’ illustrations, nevertheless, I appreciated the care and attention to detail, which totally does the text justice. Perhaps it was done on purpose, but I found that the panels didn’t ‘open up’ to reveal wide shots very often and were kept consistently small. This added a very claustrophobic effect for me. But once I got to the climax of the story, the illustrations do become more psychedelic, creative and expansive, which was really eye-opening!

Based on Olman's observation, I can see why reading the entire bound edition or re-reading the entire series in one go would be a more rewarding experience than reading the original series piecemeal in stops and starts. With all the intricacy of plot and details you really need to keep a consistent flow to absorb this work properly. If I had to sum up The Watchmen, it is intricate, surreal, dark, complex, violent, uncompromising, and mindblowingly cool. It’s no wonder The Watchmen remains the only comic to ever win a Hugo award. Try to read it before the movie comes out!

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