Book #32: Watchmen
Somewhere along the way, superhero stories got stale, predictable, bland.
They all had the same template. Morally pure superhero saves highly dependent population from destruction by over-the-top, goofy looking bad guy with some type of weird schtick and creepy haircut.
The superhero had some type of cataclysmic event that gave him his powers, and he vowed to use his newfound abilities to save mankind–whether it be shielding earth from an attack of robotic cows or helping an elderly woman peel a Florida orange.
Superheroes are portrayed as such friendly, nice people–kind of like politicians before they get elected or your Uncle Bud before he has that sixth beer.
In 1985, Watchmen flipped that predictable script on its head. Superheroes aren’t super at all. In fact, they’re just normal people with day jobs. They don’t have superpowers or special sensory abilities. Maybe they’re just athletic, have good connections, or are adept at creating cool gadgets.
They get into crimefighting as caped crusaders for different reasons–maybe a mother forced them to, maybe they just got caught up in the celebrity of it all, maybe they’re out to get all Old Testament on criminals and avenge the abuse they received as a child.
But the superheroes in Watchmen–Nite Owl, Rorschach, The Comedian–are just guys and gals who have a lot of baggage, a lot of time on their hands, and a blurred sense of right and wrong.
Other than Dr. Manhattan, of course, who is the stereotypical superhero–the counterpoint to the everyman hero that Alan Moore shows through the other characters. Dr. Manhattan gains his powers after getting trapped in an “Intrinsic Field Subtractor.” After that incident, he’s contracted by the U.S.government to dominate wars and make other countries surrender because he’ll stomp on their faces.
He can control matter and space, which means he can teleport to Mars and back, build a fortress out of thin air, walk through walls, and generally creep people out.
But when a serial killer is on the loose, targeting caped crimefighters, all of these characters have to show their cards. Who’s out to protect themselves and defend their friends, and who just wants to get the heck out of Dodge?
As more crusaders are murdered or driven into exile, Rorschach—a creepy dude with what looks like a pillow case with ink blots over his head—attempts to get down to the bottom of it all, along with Nite Owl, a grown man who dresses as an owl with night goggles.
Dr. Manhattan can’t handle the superhero paparazzi, who follow his every god-like move and accuse him of giving cancer to people. It’s not cell phones…it’s Dr. Manhattan.
Anyway, Dr. Manhattan says “Screw you guys. I’m outta here,” teleports to Mars, and builds a massive fortress out of thin air. This is an interesting character, as Alan Moore is basically scoffing at past portrayals of superheroes with god-like powers.
If a human was suddenly transformed into a god-like person, then why would earth be of any interest to them? Why would they care about helping an old lady cross the street? What usually happens to people with unprecedented power?
Corruption and brutal self-absorption, right? Now, multiply that times 1,000 and you have Dr. Manhattan. All he cares about, as would most, if not all humans with his power, is heading up to Mars, kicking back, and enjoying the view and the silence.
Alan Moore has a dark, cynical view on the world, and we could argue to no end about this point, but that’s for another day. This is a dense, heavy book—and I don’t mean that in the literal sense. The goofiness of the costumed characters masks the seriousness of this graphic novel.
I’ve haven’t even touched on the apocalyptic theme in this novel—not only are caped crusaders being murdered but civilization itself is on the brink of World War 3. It’s a lot to take in, and I can understand how this was originally released in 12 issues.
In the end, I’m an awful person to review this graphic novel. This is like asking a ravenous T-Rex what he thinks about this year’s harvest of leaves and berries. Mr. T-Rex doesn’t eat leaves, and I don’t read comics.
All of that said, I appreciate Watchmen. I appreciate the originality of Alan Moore’s story and the beauty of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. The book didn’t leave me yearning to read more comics or graphic novels, so maybe I’m just hopeless in that regard.
But Watchmen did leave me with an appreciation for this form of storytelling. I’m glad Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo included it on the Time list.
Find out more about Watchmen at Amazon. (Affiliate Link)
The Opening Line: “Rorschach’s Journal. October 12th, 1985: Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.”
The Meaning: What would real life look like if comic book heroes actually existed? Watchmen answers that question.
Highlights: Well-written. Thought-provoking. Character-driven. Beautiful art.
Lowlights: The novel has a dark, hopeless world view. Illustrated through an art form, that’s not necessarily bad thing, but you might feel like going for a long walk on the beach after this one.
Memorable Line: “We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.” – Dr. Manhattan
Final Thoughts: Watchmen didn’t change my life or anything, but I think it was a good re-introduction to the world of comics and graphic novels. If I used a rating system with stars or buckets of popcorn, I’d probably give it somewhere in the neighborhood of three stars. I don’t think you would regret reading this novel, but I don’t necessarily think you would miss it either.