Moore & Gibbons – WatchmenNovember 11th, 2009 by Tom Cobb
Having viewed the recent 2009 film, I find it necessary to review the original graphic novel, written by Alan Moore with art work by Dave Gibbons. The critically lauded novel follows a group of mostly retired superheroes circa 1985 whose lives are seemingly threatened by the deaths of one of their comrades, the Comedian, a right wing, nihilist paramilitary agent. The plot is also notable for integrating the context of the cold war with the threat of nuclear war from the Soviet Union and for taking place in a parallel universe in which Richard Nixon is still present. As well, it is where America won the Vietnam War through the efforts of Dr. Manhattan; an atomically altered blue skinned superhuman who can perceive time in multiple facets. Yet fundamentally, the world is a realistically depiction of a world where superheroes have been present since the 1940s. Other important characters include Rorschach, an extreme right wing vigilante outlawed by the government but motivated into great action by the Comedian’s death as well as a lonely, insecure and impotent crime fighter called Nite Owl, feeling hollow from his retirement in 1977.
Far from ever being glib or superficial, the graphic novel revels in detail in defiance of many comic books. Gibbons’ illustrations are rife with subtle symbolism and the graphic novel incorporates both film and literary elements to great effect. Such examples of using close up style camera angles that intensify the storytelling and excerpts from a retired 1940s ‘hero’ truly flesh out characterisations and lend the novel further depth and involvement. This is indeed a graphic novel which can incorporate other mediums into its artistry, skilfully and seamlessly. But at the heart of it, is a book which is still heavily invested in the world of comics with a sense of playful irony. The book shows the comic book fiction to be pirate stories (in the real world, these stories ended in the 1930s) as opposed to superhero fiction. This is indeed satirical and playful with comic book history and folklore to an amusing effect.
But it is far from being solely an exercise in style and has truly complex and memorable characterisations. Watchmen is firmly grounded in the humanity of its protagonists and invites a compelling sympathy for the characters within the text. The character of Rorschach for example, is an extremely violent vigilante but the novel always provokes empathy for his abused childhood, loneliness and inner turmoil. Yet crucially, the novel is a morally ambiguous presentation of superheroes in the real world. Far from being genuinely good or of great moral integrity, the superheroes are often flawed by their abuse of criminals, working towards a US western- ethnocentric ideology and generally having to make profoundly devastating decisions, especially at the novel’s climax. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a consistent image throughout and the novel reflects the often horrific choices that political leaders may have to make. In this sense, it’s a very prfound piece of work.
But it is crucially a highly enjoyable book. Although the depth mentioned above may make the novel seem stuffy, it has a thrilling storyline and strong elements of mystery throughout. Each chapter ends on a tantalising conclusion and there are many shocking turns of event. This is a novel which can skilfully intertwine art and entertainment and it works terrifically as a whole. Also, the set pieces are far more thrilling than the film’s, the latter of which awkwardly contrives slow motion to unnecessary effect. The novel makes no such missteps, involving through the suspense, tension and drama itself rather than any stylisation.
Far superior to the film, the original Watchmen is an essential read that demands a return to its pages. It works well as a political satire as well as a mystery thriller and is not just a great graphic novel but also a great novel altogether with commentary and meaning stamped over every frame.