Reviews: Watchmen

Why It's King

Watchmen is, on its face, a murder mystery story. Try to remember that when reading it, though. Truly, the level of immersion and depth that the book (and I will call it a book) invokes is astounding, and at one point towards the end, when it reminded me that it's about a guy dying and finding out why, I was blown away at how far Alan Moore had taken me in the time since the beginning.

But ultimately, the story of Watchmen is almost boiler-plate. I hesitate to use that word, because it is good, but it's really not the story that you come to see. It's the characters, and I must say, the characters are magnificent.

From this point forward, there may be (minor) spoilers. It's thirty-six years old, so, you really shouldn't need to worry about it anyhow.

Rorschach was easily my favorite. He was sociopathic and murderous and rigid with a sometimes insane Black And White Morality, but he also had motive and was honestly trying to do good and, I mean, come on, he was one of the only people who actually did anything for the first 2/3rds. If there were any character I would say was the real defining member of the fiction, Rorschach would be it. Other characters capture a glimpse of why Watchmen is amazing, but Rorschach is the embodiment of it, and is all the more awesome for it.

The other characters I liked less (their movie counterparts were better), but even though I had little sympathy for any of them (Nite Owl and The Comedian notwithstanding), they were all good. That, I think, is Mr. Moore's greatest achievement: creating characters who I wouldn't normally like, and making me care anyhow. That, in and of itself, should speak of the brilliance of the work.

Complete Deconstruction

I recently read the series, and it was one of the greatest pieces of literature I ever read.

The art style shifting between panels was incredibly interesting, especially during the flashback of the comedian at Moloch's. Every little detail is in place for a reason. Rereading it for more content gave me bonuses that I never noticed.

The best characters are probably the comedian and Rorschach. They are fundamentally flawed in the way they operate, but are incredibly engaging, to the point of sympathy at the funeral.

The only problem I had was the exposition seemed a bit rushed. Chapter eleven is almost nothing but plot twists and reveals. Aside from that, this is arguably the most influential piece in the genre. Name one superhero comic or film that did not take an example from this.

Why I think the concept of "spoilers" is bull

When I was, like, 11, my uncle gave me a bunch of Who's Who comics. Who's Who was the encyclopedia of the DC comics universe/s produced in the mid 1980s to coincide with the continuity-spanning Crisis On Infinite Earths. One issue, the last issue of Who's Who Update 1987, discussed Watchmen. In just two pages, I learned all about the story and the characters - about the story and how it plays out.

When I was 15, I read an online annotation of the series, absorbing every last tidbit of information to be found, both textual and apocryphal.

When I was 17, I got the series itself from that same uncle who gave me Who's Who. I already knew the plot, I already knew the characters, I already knew every last thing there was to know about Watchmen.

I was still blown away. I read the entire series (in single issues, mind you) in one sitting, completely immersed in the story. After I was finished, I read it again. And again.

Keep in mind, I enjoyed comics quite a bit before. But it was here that I fell in love. Watchmen made me believe in the beauty of an entire medium - even though I knew everything that was going to happen. That's when I came to the conclusion that spoilers are ridiculous; if it's a good story, it's still effective even if you know what happens. If it's actually cheapened by knowing beforehand, it wasn't good to begin with. One thing that bothered me when the release of the movie drew close was that people were suddenly sensitive to spoilers concerning it - as though the movie's story hadn't been available as a comic book for 25 years.

I didn't see the movie, and frankly I never plan to. This isn't out of some misguided fan outrage, of course - what's the point in adapting something that the author himself claims was specifically crafter for the comic book medium? And that besides, why adapt something that's already so perfect?

The Comic: An interesting deconstruction of the superhero genre

The superhero known as the Comedian is murdered under mysterious circumstances in a time when superheroes have fallen out of favor with the public, and the heroes soon learn the death is part of a larger conspiracy. The characters, crusaders for justice with their own flaws, each have their own ties to the Comedian, and the plot is as much about their role in the changing world and their internal conflicts as it is about the mystery itself.

The premise in and of itself would be enough to draw readers in, but Watchmen easily goes beyond that, and provides an insightful look at the superhero genre itself by way of deconstructing the many cliches, like superhero costumes and tactics. Nite Owl's many gadgets are highly impractical and potentially dangerous, Rorschach comes to consider his superhero identity his true personality and the brilliant Ozymandias finds himself isolated from the rest of humanity. The comic also touches on superhero history, and effectively shows how superheroes would mesh with law enforcement, the kinds of personalities needed for superheroes, and even the kind of entertainment people would turn to if superheroes were no longer fictitious.

The story effectively contrasts the different moral standards of the heroes without too heavily favoring one view over the others, and does a good job of presenting each with a situation that challenges their ideals, effectively showing how they react and reconsider their stances.

The art is nicely done, with many subtle touches and visual motifs, especially the iconic blood-stained smiley face. The pictures mesh well with the dialogue, often ironically depicting what the characters are talking about, like a reporter asking Dr. Manhattan if he will "be prepared to enter hostilities," as elsewhere, Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II fight some thugs.

The novel has many extra features between chapters that help shed light on the characters' pasts and personalities, as well as the history of superheroes in Watchmen. Even minor aspects are explained, like the identity of Veidt's three servants as refugees from the Vietnam War, living in Antarctica due to it not being owned by any other state, show Moore's attention to detail and give life to the world of Watchmen.

Watchmen is an excellent story, but the small touches help make it truly great.

This comic lives up to the hype

Watchmen is awesome.

Lots of superheroes have flaws. What Alan Moore gives us is different. Instead of superheroes, we have a group of human beings who like to dress up and fight crime, and takes us on a complex, multi-layered story through their very real lives and motivations.

Moore delves deep into the sort of issues that would make somebody don a strange costume and walk the streets fighting crime, and comes up with some rather dark observations. Of all the would-be heroes, only three are effectual, and two of those are violent sociopaths (the other is a Physical God). However, where it would be easy to make this into an anvilicious moral about how violence never solves anything, Moore delves deep into what makes them tick and allows the reader to make up their own mind.

Yet the weaker, more moral heroes aren't neglected either. The apparently weak, yet clearly more sane, heroes are contrasted against the aforementioned sociopaths, forming a fascinating study into the effects of violence and attempts to live up to a moral code might have on a person.

As the series goes on, it focuses more on the issue of how much violence is acceptable to maintain law and order, and whether law is more important than morality. Is beating up an ex-con justified? What about breaking someone's thumbs? Killing one person to save another? How about killing 10 to possibly save 100? There are no easy or clear-cut answers here, which is kind of the point. Real Life isn't as neat as a typical comic, an idea which Moore shows with incredible skill.

In closing, I can't recommend Watchmen enough. It may have spawned a host of low-quality imitators by writers who didn't grasp what truly made it great, but even today, this is an incredible comic, and one of the greatest works of fiction ever written.

If you like this, you might also like:
  • Death Note - explores some similar issues. Specifically, if you have power of death, how would you use it? Does the end justify the means?
  • Code Geass - another series dealing with how much evil can be committed in the name of the greater good.