Watchmen, by Alan Moore (Author), Dave Gibbons (Illustrator)
i’ve enjoyed my share of graphic novels over the last few years. some of my favorites are genre-breakers, like blankets, persepolis (and its sequels), and jimmy corrigan: the smartest kid on earth. to be honest, i haven’t really connected with many of the graphic novels that are actually collections of serial comic books. but i thought i should read watchmen, since it’s considered such a standout in the graphic novel world. so i bought it, about two or three years ago; and it’s been sitting on my “to read” stack ever since.
with the movie coming out in a week or two, i thought it would be a good time to get the thing read! so, on a recent weekend trip to mexico, and packed it along, and got through the whole thing in two days.
it’s not a speedy read, as graphic novels go — it’s fairly long, and there is so much detail on almost every page. part of the brilliance of the book, also, are the multiple layers in which the storytelling takes place. for instance, there’s a minor character who sits at a newsstand regularly, reading the pirate comic book series written by a fictitious author who plays a minor role in the main story. but that story of that pirate series plays a role in telling some of the main story, through parallel inference. really, a fascinating literary device, with parallel text on panels where the main story is playing out, and occasional panels of the pirate story. regularly, the pirate comic’s words actually provide inferred narration for what’s taking place in the main story.
the illustrations are seriously beyond what you see in most graphic novels. really brilliant details and coloring. and the story has lots of twists and surprises. but what’s really captivating about the thing is how massively flawed all the characters are. none of the “super heroes” are superman types. even spiderman, with his teen angst and much-heralded complexity is nothing compared to the mess of these characters. a raging lunatic with a strong jack-bauer-like moral compass, a co-dependent with a sad compulsion to please, a brilliant hero who is really a villain (or some of both), an emotionally removed alien-like being who’s more spock than human, neurotics, an alcoholic, a lesbian, suicidal tenancies, killers, has-beens, wannabes. you name it: this is a screwed up lot of characters who are often lonely, and don’t mix well with others.
therein lies both the strength of the story, as well as some of what i struggled with. there’s a subtle utilitarian, ends-justify-the-means undercurrent to the whole book. in one sense, it’s blatant — the characters clearly believe that. but, while the book seems to try to stay neutral about whether or not this is merely the characters’ perspective and justification, and not the author’s perspective, gets blurry at times. i found myself, on several occasions, feeling like there was a not-so-subtle agenda of undermining any kind of theistic worldview (like christianity).
all that doesn’t mean i didn’t like it – i really liked it, and am on the “this is brilliant” side in my overall assessment. but i don’t think i’ll let my 11 year-old son read it (he has asked, multiple times). there’s also a good amount of language and sleaziness, and — of course — massive quantities of violence that, even though it’s just a graphic novel — is quite, well, graphic.