Watchmen

watchmenI have a weakness for stories about superheroes. If you were to examine my movie collection you’d see the X-Men movies sitting comfortably next to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the Spider Man movies sitting next to Shadowlands. If a new superhero movie comes to DVD and gets halfway decent reviews, I’ll probably see it, and I usually won’t be sorry.

Despite my enthusiasm for superhero movies, I’ve never bothered to read superhero comics. Frankly, they intimidate me. Most of the well-known characters have been around for years, and their stories have been reinterpreted and rebooted by countless artists. It’s hard to know where to start.

So for a reader like me, Watchmen by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins is the perfect superhero comic. It’s a standalone comic/graphic novel series, with characters created for the series and a complete story arc. The back-story that readers need is incorporated into the comic itself. Plus, it’s a dystopian story, and I love dystopian fiction. So Watchmen was an easy sell for me; it’s been on my list for years, the release of the movie moved it up to the top.

The world of Watchmen is our world, with a twist. Masked adventurers, most of whom don’t have actual powers, have actually roamed the streets and skies, looking for wrongs to right. However, the police and the public have come to see these vigilantes as a menace and made their work illegal, unless they act under government supervision. Most retire in compliance with the law, but a few decide to work for the government and one chooses to go underground, fighting crime on the sly.

In Watchmen, none of the characters are wholly good or wholly evil. Rorschach, for example, wants to see evil punished, but his definition of evil seems overly broad and his methods of punishment rather too brutal. He operates outside the system because of the law against costumed crime-fighters, but the system couldn’t contain him anyway. Dr. Manhattan, the one character with an actual superpower and not just extreme talents or fancy gadgets, is principled and willing, maybe too willing, to work within the system, but the nature of his powers causes him to be detached and cold. I can’t say that I loved any of these characters (although Dr. Manhattan was probably my favorite), but I did love reading about them. Moore does a great job giving each character a consistent ideology and clear motivations while leaving room for them to grow as the story develops. I could have done with a stronger female character; the two versions of the Silk Spectre just aren’t the kickass heroines I want to read about. (They’ve got nothing on Buffy—or Dana Scully, for that matter.)

The story jumps back and forth in time, and each twist raises as many questions as it answers. I never could quite tell where it was going, and I couldn’t stop reading because I had to know now!!! The one thing that I didn’t like was the weird seafaring story that appeared in some of the scenes, sometimes running on the same panels as the main Watchmen story. (A character is reading the story in a comic as other characters converse around him.) I couldn’t quite figure out how to read the two threads simultaneously, and it felt like noise to me.

Watchmen clearly demonstrates how graphic novels and superhero stories to be complex, thought-provoking, heart-breaking, and full-on entertaining. (And yes, the movie is in my Netflix queue.)

This entry was posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Watchmen

  1. Jenny says:

    The movie looked too violent for me, in a Sin City kind of way (and that had to do with the female characters, too.) But tell me if you like it; as always, I trust your taste.

  2. Lorin says:

    I like your review – its an interesting take. Maybe because I do read a lot of comic books (though not really superhero comics), the interspersing of the secondary comic strip (the pirate story) was one of my favorite things – I just loved how they used the structure to comment on the story. Brilliant.

    Regarding the movie, Laurie (silk spectre 2) comes off way more kick-ass in the movie than on the page, happily. Unhappily (for me), it was also way more violent, to answer Jenny’s question.

    I’ll be interested in hearing what you think of the movie once it comes out on DVD.

  3. gaskella says:

    Hi Teresa,

    Like you I found the secondary strip instrusive, although it made sense in an allegorical way, I wanted the main story to get on with it.

    We read this in our Book Group a couple of years ago, and I remember everyone thought it was a great experience and that we’d picked one of the best graphic novels out there with most of us being SF lovers at heart. I don’t think it converted any of us to the genre long-term though, especially with the stereotyped women.

    I’ve just acquired one of Posy Simmond’s books though – a very different kind of graphic novel – A humorous modern take on Madame Bovary. I’m looking forward to that!

  4. Dreamybee says:

    I haven’t read the graphic novel, but I did see the movie. If Lorin is correct about the women being way more kick-ass in the movie than in print, then Gah! No wonder you didn’t like them! I didn’t think they were all that great on film. Also, re: the violence-I don’t think it’s necessarily any more violent than a lot of things that are out these days, but the violence is definitely a lot more graphic.

  5. I haven’t read this novel, but I have seen the movie, which I will agree is violent. However, I don’t think the movie is any more violent than other movies out there. Thanks for this review.

  6. lena says:

    I saw the movie opening night and it was brilliant. It was really violent however, it didn’t strike me as too much. I think they’re pretty loyal to the story. I haven’t read it yet, but my copy JUST came in so within the next couple of days, I really hope to.

  7. Teresa says:

    I had just about decided to go see the movie this weekend because it just came to my neighborhood theatre (I avoid the multiplex if at all possible), but I have a midterm to study for. I might see it next weekend, because it does seem like a movie that would be best on the big screen.

    Jenny: I never saw Sin City because it looked like the violence was the story instead of being in service to the story. I think the violence is Watchmen (in the book anyway) is in service to the story. I’ll let you know if I do see it. Did you see The Dark Knight?

    Lorin: I thought what Moore was doing with the pirate story was interesting–certainly comics in the Watchman universe would be different from what we’re used to, so it was cool to see what Moore imagined they’d be like. I would have liked it more had the pirate story been in a separate one-off (it was a cool story). I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how to read two stories at one. I am curious about the increased violence (because yikes!). Do they add violent incidents or is it just that we see some of the more gruesome incidents for more than a couple of panels? I have gathered from the previews that the film shows some stuff that’s just mentioned in passing (Dr. M wiping out the Viet Cong), which could certainly ramp up the violence. But it’s in the story, so I could deal with that. And if they show either Silk Spectre getting in a couple of kicks or punches somewhere, I’m in full support.

    Annabel: I can’t imagine reading this with my book club (I’m the only scifi fan in the group, alas). Jenny read Gemma Bovary a while back and liked it. I’ll be curious to see what you think. I’m becoming quite a fan of graphic novels, but the long-running series intimidate me.

    Dreamybee: The thing with the women in the book is that I don’t think they never actually do any real fighting. For the most part, their function seems to be to relate to the men. I’m getting the sense that’s still the case in the movie, although maybe they get to do some fighting and show some physical strength. That would be an improvement.

    Serena: I’ve gotten the impression that the amount and graphicness of the violence is about equivalent to The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight, which I liked, pushed the envelope for me, but it was mostly because the Joker’s violence was so random and capricious, which made me really uncomfortable, but that’s not so much the case in the Watchmen story.

    Lena: I’ll be watching for your review of the book. I’ll be curious to see how it comes across to someone who saw the movie first.

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