Writer: Alan Moore | Illustrator: Dave Gibbons | Colorist: John Higgins
Setting: New York City, 1985
Genre: Comics & Graphic Novels
Published by DC Comics
Hugo Award (1988) | Named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Best Novels
There’s a reason why my review for Watchmen came in weeks after I finished reading the book. Watchmen proved to be a deep and profound read, so much so that it left me speechless. Needless to say, I’m still reeling from the experience of reading one of the most famous graphic novels of all time. The praise for Watchmen and the people behind it are well deserved but I’ll get to that later. Starting the 7th Annual Graphic Novels Challenge with Watchmen was perhaps the most obvious choice since it’s considered by many as ‘groundbreaking’. Its significance over the years has not dwindled since its first publication in 1987. Its movie adaptation is a testament to its popularity albeit garnering mixed reviews from viewers and critics alike.
Watchmen was originally a twelve-issue comic and was later released as a trade paperback graphic novel. The story begins with a murder investigation. Edward Blake a.k.a. the Comedian is found dead after being pushed through a glass window, but no one seems to know who had killed him. Considering that he worked for the government and was a member of the Minutemen (and later The Crimebusters), he must have accumulated a number of enemies so the perpetrator could be anybody and just as powerful as he is. This attracts Rorshach, a vigilante and former member of the Minutemen himself. He starts his own investigation and warns the other masked heroes. While he investigates, we are led into the world of masked men and women. Further reading will tell you that the Comedian’s death only scratches the surface of the story and there is more to know and more to discover as you read along. To further tease you:
Watchmen is set in an alternate reality which closely mirrors the contemporary world of the 1980s. The primary point of divergence is the presence of superheroes. Their existence in this iteration of America is shown to have dramatically affected and altered the outcomes of real-world events such as the Vietnam War and the presidency of Richard Nixon. In keeping with the realism of the series, although the costumed crime fighters of Watchmen are commonly called “superheroes”, the only character who possesses obvious superhuman powers is Doctor Manhattan. The existence of Doctor Manhattan has given the U.S. a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, which has increased tensions between the two nations. Additionally, superheroes have become unpopular among the public, which has led to the passage of legislation in 1977 to outlaw them. While many of the heroes retired, Doctor Manhattan and The Comedian operate as government-sanctioned agents, and Rorschach continues to operate outside the law. (From DC Comics Database)
The characters were all interesting but my favorite is Rorschach. His choice of costume is very ‘laid back’ but what sets him apart from the other characters is his uncompromising attitude. His childhood was tragic but this didn’t stop him from doing good. I sympathized with him the most because he seems to be the most dedicated among them. In the graphic novel, only Dr. Manhattan is considered to be ‘super’ after being disintegrated (unfortunately) in an Intrinsic Field Subtractor in 1959 (or maybe fortunately for the fictional world of 1985). I was mesmerized most by his almost infinite power. He is the embodiment of quantum physics and atoms and nuclear physics… Well, he’s just awesome, awesomely blue. Let’s leave it at that. My least favorite? It would have to be Silk Spectre II aka Laurie Juspeczyk. She has a lot to live up to being the daughter of Silk Spectre I aka Sally Jupiter. Her character seems needy but it might be attributed to a strained relationship with the original Silk Spectre and not knowing who her father really is.
The art work and character development are commendable. I was amazed by how detailed the illustrations are. The utilization of different point of views, colors and shadows struck me. They were done very well. The writing proved to be one of its biggest strength. A lot has been said about the Watchmen‘s literary merit. I, for one, was amazed by how good the writing was. It wasn’t juvenile or crude. The themes presented in the Watchmen are universal and relevant even in our times. It touches on politics, science, morality and philosophy.
The strength of Watchmen as a graphic novel lies not only in its great illustrations and story, but also of its treatment of masked crusaders and superheroes. This graphic novel did not aim to glorify their presence in the world. It focused on the dissection and deconstruction of masked heroes and superheroes, as well as the exploration of the paradoxes of their existence and purpose. Obviously there is a distinction between superheroes and masked ones, the latter as vulnerable as all of us, but possess the right skills and perhaps intuition to fight the bad guys. There’s something visceral and profound in the exploration of these lives. They are driven to defend people but also need to deal with their own lives and relationships. They are human after all – they may evoke power but they also have their flaws. Such complexities and quandaries abound not only in the characters but the events that transpire within the graphic novel. There are stories within stories, philosophical at times and full of symbolism. This is what makes it so deep and dense. I found myself going back to some pages to fully assimilate what is being said and where the story is going to.
There is also the dilemma everyone is facing, whether they are superheroes or ordinary people. Commentaries are not given sparsely. There is Rorschach’s psychiatrist and a newspaper vendor that lends more depth to the entire story by giving us their own observations not only of the characters but the world they live in. They give us an insight into the characters’ minds, revealing their reality and struggles while also discussing the more weighty subjects like war, child abuse and violence. Their voices ground you to the nature of being human just as much as the masked heroes’ lives.
Watchmen is a very complex and compelling story, well worth a second or even a third read. This graphic novel broke grounds when it was released and it deserves all of its accolades.
Should you read it?
“I’ll leave it entirely in your hands”
Truth be told I wasn’t sure if Watchmen would translate well to the big screen. I think we can all agree that other kinds of media at our disposal serve only to undermine the depths only books and comics are capable of. Surprisingly, the movie remained faithful to the graphic novel, with the extras of sounds and special effects adding depth to the whole experience. It’s always great to see the characters in books come to life. The costumes look great, the visual effects are top notch. I especially liked how Rorschach’s mask looked in the movie and how his past life was portrayed. I think Jackie Earle Haley, the actor who played Rorschach in the movie, did a great job. I also liked the visual effects involved when Jon Osterman or Dr. Manhattan disintegrated in the Intrinsic Field Subtractor and later on materializing as a circulatory system and a partially-muscled skeleton. Overall a great and entertaining movie.
- “The title Watchmen is derived from the phrase quis custodiet ipsos custodes, from Juvenal’s Satire VI, “Against women” (c. AD 60–127), often translated as ‘who watches the watchmen?'”. [Source]
- The heroes of Watchmen were originally based on characters from Charlton Comics. DC Comics acquired these characters from the group in 1985.
- Alan Moore has used various pen names: Curt Vile, Jill de Ray, Translucia Baboon, The Original Writer.
- “Moore named William S. Burroughs as one of his main influences during the conception of Watchmen. He admired Burroughs’ use of “repeated symbols that would become laden with meaning” in Burroughs’ only comic strip, “The Unspeakable Mr. Hart”, which appeared in the British underground magazine Cyclops.” [Source]
- “To date, Watchmen remains the only graphic novel to win a Hugo Award, and is also the only graphic novel to appear on Time Magazine’s 2005 list of ‘the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.’” [Source]
Other Graphic Novels You Might Like:
Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned (Y: The Last Man #1) by Brian K. Vaughan
The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the Street by Warren Ellis