I 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.)