Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Devil is in the Details: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen

by Kari Maaren.watchmen11

This Friday, several million extremely obsessed people will be heading eagerly to theatres to catch the opening of Jack Snyder’s Watchmen, a movie that several million other people who are not at all obsessed will probably be rolling their eyes at and calling “yet another superhero flick.”

Both reactions are understandable. The film has been a long time in the making, and many have been waiting decades to see it; on the other hand, it is arriving in the middle of a veritable plague of superhero films, several of them dark and edgy enough that they can claim to have been influenced by the original version of Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986-87 limited comic series. The film may just be in the unenviable position of seeming derivative of works that owe their success, at least in part, to the story that inspired it.

The irony is that Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen is a bit of a red herring as far as all the recent superhero adulation goes. The comic certainly did help give birth to a nightmare world of superpowered angst and despair in which heroes with midnight-black souls tortured themselves into monstrosity in cities choked with sin, but it did so unwittingly; Moore, its writer, still occasionally goes into paroxysms of frustration when he is lauded for (or accused of) “changing the Watchmensuperhero genre forever.” Watchmen is, in fact, an anti-superhero novel. It is not designed to convince readers that the best heroes are the ones who kill puppies and snort cocaine; instead, it presents a thoughtful, nuanced look at Western society’s—specifically, American society’s—semi-harmful love affair with heroism, which is not as clear cut a category as many would like to believe.

The comic has a seemingly simple premise. It is 1985, albeit not quite our 1985; power is cheap , Nixon is still president, and the US is winning the Cold War due to an accident of science that has given it a genuine Übermensch, Dr. Manhattan. This singular being has godlike powers but also possesses a godlike (that is, detached and unemotional) view of humanity. Though Dr. Manhattan is the only actual superhero alive, several people who call themselves “masked adventurers” have been inspired by early superhero comics to don costumes and fight crime, sometimes in groups and sometimes alone. As the story begins, most of the heroes have been retired or working legitimately for the government for nearly a decade due to an official clampdown on vigilantism. Then one of the older heroes, the Comedian, is murdered. A loose cannon who calls  himself Rorschach sets out to investigate the death, which he believes is part of a conspiracy to kill off the remaining heroes; Rorschach’s former comrades find themselves drawn into the increasingly tangled and ominous events that follow. The murder-mystery plot continues throughout but eventually fragments into a maze of counter-plots and clashes of political and social philosophy.

It’s a damn good read. It’s also an exhausting one; the reader has much more to concentrate on than the story itself. At a bare minimum, it’s possible to track several different philosophical viewpoints—each one connected to a specific hero—through the book. Rorschach, for instance, is Comedianan objectivist who adheres to a strict and brutal moral code that has nothing to do with what the majority of the population thinks of as “morality”; Dr. Manhattan takes a deterministic view, seeing life as a series of watch gears grinding rather mindlessly through an intricate pattern that very well may not have been initiated by a Watchmaker; the nihilism of the dead Comedian resurfaces frequently through flashbacks and the memories of characters who can’t decide whether to despise or mourn him. By the climax (the tenor of which I won’t reveal for fear that I may be lynched), the philosophical framework is strained almost to the breaking point, and the concept of the “hero” almost vanishes into a maze of paradox. Even those who start the novel thinking in terms of good versus evil will be left at the end with a handful of unravelling philosophies and a potentially black-and-white universe that has fragmented into shades of grey.

Words and images work together in Watchmen in a way specifically designed to make one’s brain melt. I have heard passionate devotees of the book explain that they noticed several new details on their seventh or eighth readings. The comic is, in a way, laid out like a jumble of puzzle pieces; it is up to the reader to find clues to the solution in the text, the recurring imagery, the backgrounds, the interactions of the characters, the segments of prose that alternate with the segments of sequential art, and the short, pointed quotations from various other writers that begin and end each chapter. The art style too is intriguing. Gibbons’ old-fashioned hatched line drawings hark back to the early days of superhero comics; the flat colours do the same, but to a different effect, as the bright, attractive reds and blues that distinguish Superman and his colleagues appear instead as the hues of a river of blood filling a gutter or the startlingly vivid skin of a man who has, through a freak accident, been definitively separated from humanity.

As of this Friday, the book may find itself headed the way of The Princess Bride or Lord of the Rings, dominated in popular perception by a bigger, louder, simpler adaptation. However, I would recommend that people new to the story try the comic first. The plot is certainly not the whole point with Watchmen. Besides, we all need to have our brains melted every once in a while.

Edition shown:  Titan Books Ltd (1987).  Paperback.  ISBN-13: 978-1852860240.  424pp.

8 comments on “The Devil is in the Details: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen

  1. Pelotard
    March 4, 2009

    New Scientist has a semi-review from a scientific perspective. As is often the case with their looks at contemporary culture, this is a bit tongue-in-cheek.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16700-the-science-of-watchmen.html

  2. rosyb
    March 4, 2009

    Ok, ok, all you comic enthusiasts. I see I’m going to have to succumb. This review just fascinated me. Although I see find myself a bit put off by the comic-style artwork. Brainmelt here I come…

  3. Jackie
    March 4, 2009

    I’ve been seeing stuff about the movie on Tv & even saw part of a “behind the scenes” program which was rather indecipherable. The costumes & violence makes me uncomfortable, so this isn’t one for wimpy me. But I did find this review interesting, especially the ideas about morality & what makes a hero a hero. I think sometimes comic books are too clear cut about good vs. evil, which would eventually be limiting plot wise.The muted colors of this series is interesting,too, it adds a definite atmosphere.

  4. Kari
    March 4, 2009

    Jackie: From what I’ve heard about the film, it is much more (gratuitously) violent than the comic. The comic certainly contains violence, especially in connection with Rorschach and the Comedian, but it’s not violence for the sake of violence. Rorschach’s belief that there are heroes and there are criminals, and criminals must not be allowed to prevail at any cost (“even in the face of Armaggedon,” as he says, he will fight against what he sees as wrong), leads him to extreme measures against them. As he obeys his own strict moral code rather than American law, he ends up behaving monstrously (especially in the eyes of the authorities) in order to put down the monsters. The Comedian, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in morality at all; he sees life as a black joke that only he understands. The violence in which they indulge adds to the impression of heroism as soiled: an extraordinarily grey proposition instead of the black-and-white delineation in which many of the characters believe.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m a little afraid that it’s going to turn into a celebration of heroic violence instead of a critique of it. However, I’ll reserve judgement until after the film has come out.

  5. Kari
    March 4, 2009

    …That’s “Armageddon.” I’ve never been able to spell that word properly.

  6. Jackie
    March 5, 2009

    Thanks for explaining further, Kari. From the behind the scenes program, I think you’ll be right about it being a “celebration of heroic violence”, as there was an awful lot of exploding buildings, etc.

  7. Moira
    March 5, 2009

    I was intrigued by this. Being someone who knows very little about ‘comics’, I’ve never really thought of them as being capable of depth or subtlety … but this sounds like something very different

  8. Kari
    March 5, 2009

    Moira: the publication of Watchmen is often described as “the moment superhero comics came of age.” The word “superhero” is important; there were earlier comics in other genres (such as Maus, which began to be published in serial form in the 1970s) that were extremely complex and nuanced, but Watchmen was definitely one of the first mainstream comics to explore fully the potentials of the form. The layers of meaning in Watchmen are multiple. I teach it in my pop-lit class, and while we generally manage to deal with most works (some quite complicated) in about two weeks, it’s a struggle to fit Watchmen into three.

    The book is not God (certain fun people believe it is), but it is good…and an excellent demonstration of what comics can do when they try really hard.

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This entry was posted on March 4, 2009 by in Fiction: fantasy, Fiction: science fiction and tagged , , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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