watchmen1Watchmen, 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.

11 thoughts on “watchmen”

  1. I’d agree with your analysis. I think it’s a fantastic book, but certainly not one for younger readers. I’m very excited for the movie next week.

  2. i liked the book because i can see the influence that it has had on pop culture since its inception (movies, tv, music, other books etc.) I think the author almost makes a step towards a theistic view when his characters talk about the absurdity of life existing and how something that fights the odds so hard such as life, must be protected. You are right though about the utilitarianism, especially at the end when the characters decide that lies and peace are preferable to the truth and war, or their understanding that the events unfolding would lead to war. the book is not for children but is very interesting as an artifact for our society.

  3. I wouldn’t give it to younger readers just on the basis that Dr. Manhattan transcends pants…

    But just to chime in again, I love Watchmen and I am always shocked at how well it holds up to multiple readings over the years. I also love it for the huge positive impact it had on comics to step up their games since.

    Reading about the discussion of giving it to younger readers makes me think of the Simpsons episode with Alan Moore in it where Milhouse asks him to sign his copy of “Watchmen Babies: V is for Vacation”.

    I hoping very much that the Watchmen flick breaks the trend of Alan Moore’s excellent graphic novels turned into crappy movies. V for Vendetta almost did that but fell just short…

  4. Great review. I agree with your assessment of the characters and their flaws. That proved to be the most fascinating part for me, how each character has a distinct worldview and sense of ethics and morality. The tension for me is that it is an incredibly dark and graphic story. It’s hard to find any sense of hope in it. But as character development goes, it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read.

  5. i felt very much that the ending was a slap in the face of government and this notion of “the elites” (even if it is a ‘democratic’, or at least diverse, elite) leading the fate of the world in their own hands.

    but i thought your overall assessment was spot-on to what i was thinking about the piece, marko. and i’m with Rick in that i don’t think that the movie could possibly stand up to a comparison (by a long shot). the director seems more fascinated by the style of violence and musculature than in any such thing as subtext.

  6. Again I echoe the judgement that Watchmen is not for younger audience- not a great idea, due to the content, but also the complexity and the general story themes.

    But it has made interesting converstations with the older young people. Not simply from appreciating that they are now at the stage to appreciate a ‘classic’ like watchmen but the investigation into what it is to be a hero has been interesting.

    Most of them like me grew up with super heroes that were ‘Good’. Now with shows like Heroes and aprreciating Watchmen for the first time they have had to rethink what it is to do good and be good. Is it impossible ideal or sometyhing to aspire too?

    And it is simply very cool!

  7. I saw the movie last night. I can’t imagine how it will be received by those who haven’t read the comic. It was well done and faithful to the book with a few changes most of the fanboys next to me (watching with WATCHMEN tome in hand) felt were acceptable.

    The movie is more violent feeling than the film, and the sex is well … sex. And we see way more of Dr. Manhattan than the gn reveals.

    That said, the graphic novel is the best way to appreciate this story. It truly is literature. I can see why Alan Moore took his name off the film and signed over his cut of the film to WATCHMEN artist Dave Gibbons.

  8. ** correction **

    I meant to say the movie is more violent feeling than the graphic novel.

  9. I find it painful to believe that any Christian would have any desire to see such a movie that is morbidly evil as Watchmen is. I will not be seeing it and will not encourage any of my youth to see it either. And even adults should not corrupt themselves with such garbage. Yeah everything is permissible for us, but not everything is beneficial. We need to truly consider what we decide to take in because all we see, and hear will affect us whether we believe it will or not.

  10. Mike,

    Then don’t believe it. If you want to live in your own manufactured, safe bubble, please continue to do so. If you want to discourage your youth from watching it, that is also fine, I suppose.

    And I probably won’t watch it, either, but not because you think the movie is so evil.

    For that reason, should I not venture out into my big city, where wolves dine on sheep at all hours of the day? Should I not read the Old Testament, full of stories of people every bit as wretched and wicked as any of the main characters in The Watchmen, full of stories full of sex and violence and exploitation and depravity?

    Should I not pay attention to the New Testament, which makes it plainly obvious that I am not bound by rules and regulations of others, but by a relationship with a God who loves me boldly and freely and asks me to do the same to my neighbors? That would include you, Mike, so I’m trying to bite my tongue.

    But frankly, I’m tired of the judgmental sneer of Christians thumbing their noses down at those they deem to be incapable of making their own moral judgments of what is good & right for their own lives.

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