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REVIEW: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

REVIEW SUMMARY: A great deconstruction of the superhero mythos.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A group of aging superheroes are called out of retirement when their former colleagues start turning up dead.

PROS: Excellent world-building; superior storytelling; realistic characterizations.
CONS: I could have done without the parallel fiction-within-the-fiction story of Tales of the Black Freighter. Nitpicky, I admit.
BOTTOM LINE: Totally engrossing and realistic.

Before recent litigation threatened its release date, the Watchmen movie was shaping up to be one of 2009’s biggest films aimed at genre fans. Even so, it seemed like a good time to finally read the well-regarded graphic novel on which it is based. The single volume Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, is a compendium of the 12-issue DC Comics series that ran between 1986 and 1987. It went on to win the 1988 Hugo Award and it’s obvious as to why: it’s a great combination of storytelling and world-building.

Watchmen is set in an alternate United States where Nixon is on his fifth term as President and people are still fearful of the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Costumed “vigilantes”, who first appeared in the 1930’s, are now considered outlaws with the exception of those working directly for the U.S. government. Former superheroes have mostly gone public with their identities. Sadly for them, they are now turning up dead and the remaining superheroes are pulled out of retirement where they uncover an even greater threat to humanity.

Watchmen hooks the reader through superior storytelling. Initially, it’s the murder mystery that’s the main focus. Gradually, other story elements are layered on top of that: the alternate history setting; the conflicts and flaws of the characters as they are introduced; and even the prose back stories that follow the first eleven chapters, which provide flavor and clues. These elements blend together into a cohesive whole. (That said, I could have lived without fiction-within-the-fiction story of Tales of the Black Freighter, which was written by a minor character in the story.) The artwork also adds to the story as it uses repeated visual clues to fill in some parts of the story and foreshadow others. Reading Watchmen is like putting together an intriguing puzzle that gets even better as more is revealed.

The characters are well-drawn and realistic. The enigmatic Rorschach is the first to suspect that the heroes are being targeted, whereupon he informs his former colleagues who make up the Watchmen. (They never refer to themselves as the Watchmen. The only reference, in fact, is the repeated visual of posters and graffiti asking “Who watches the Watchmen?”, a reflection of both national paranoia and how the heroes have fallen out of favor with the public.) And so we are gradually introduced to the other, middle-aged heroes: the schmuck of a man known as The Comedian; the tech-savvy Nite Owl; the intellectual Ozymandias, who capitalizes on his former fame by building up a corporate empire based on merchandising; Silk Spectre, whose mother also used that name in the previous generation’s superhero group, The Minutemen; and the blue-skinned Doctor Manhattan, the God-like hero who can manipulate atoms and simultaneously see all things future and past. It’s worth noting that only Doctor Manhattan, has an ability that would be considered super powers; the others rely on fighting skills and gadgets. Doctor Manhattan’s abilities are responsible for huge leaps in technology. Those same powers have also altered his personal perspective and made him something of a wild card, much to the chagrin of the government since he pivotally serves as the only deterrent against Soviet nuclear aggression. Taken together, this wonderful set of realistic portrayals, where character relationships are also shown to be tenuous and complicated, adds much to the enjoyment of the story. These are real people.

Watchmen ultimately serves as a marvelous deconstruction of the superhero mythos. Gone are the too-unbelievable events and abilities that populated the comics of my youth — and I welcome the change. Watchmen applies real-world logic and sensibility to something as fantastical as masked crusaders for justice. What happens (culturally, technologically and politically) when there is a backslash against such heroes, for example? What happens when power goes to our collective head? What becomes of us when the glory is gone? These are the issues that Watchmen brings to the fore and it’s what makes it totally engrossing and realistic.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

11 Comments on REVIEW: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

  1. I’ve got it on the pile for a re-read. I first bought it when the original omnibus tradepaperback came out.

    Speaking of superheroes…anybody out there read George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards stuff (written by him, edited by him)? The series has been re-launched, so it is time to visit the old tales again. Good stories, though I thnk that running a multi-author shared-world series of short stories and novels has got to be like herding cats.

  2. After re-reading it this fall, the thing that irked me was the morally amiguous ending.  It’s hard to discuss it without a major spoiler, but it sure left a bad taste in my mouth . . .

  3. I agree.  I just read Watchmen for the first time.  I’m not a big graphic novel/comic reader.  I’m only exposed to them as they overlap onto the Sci Fi genre, but I loved it.  I have enough understanding of the superhero tropes (as do most Americans) to appreciate the deconstruction.  I enjoyed the morally ambigious ending.  I find myself coming back to it to ponder it.  That’s how it ended up on that list (Times is it?) of 100 Greatest Novels.  That’s its nod to literature.  But it fits – the entire novel gradually shows that none of the costumed adventurers are perfect.

    WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD:  I read that it wasn’t until the Alan Moore got to writing chapter 4 that he realized that Rorschach had to die.  He saw the world in black and white and wouldn’t go along with the coverup for the greater good. — END SPOILERS

    I agree with you, John, that I could have done without the “Tales of the Black Pearl” especially once the ending of it was revealed in the text at the end of one of the chapters.  The parallels were heavy handed and just slowed down my reaching the conclusion of the story I was actually interested in.

    The other flaw I found was the datedness.  The book just didn’t build up the 80s era and fear of nuclear destruction very well.  That wasn’t needed when it was published in 86 and 87, but as a reader in 2008 (who was a kid in the 80s) I just didn’t feel the looming fear of mutually assured destrcution that drove the characters and the world.

    Overall though I liked it alot, and I am going to hang onto to the book instead of selling it used.  I am glad to have read it before the movie.

  4. I enjoyed Watchmen immensely, but I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who wasn’t enamored of the Black Pearl story. What really stood out for me was the character arcs–especially Nite Owl’s. Love him!

  5. @Fred: Nope, I haven’t read the Wild Cards stuff, though I was buying them up like candy several years ago.

    @Jeff and @SF Fangirl, RE: The ending:

    It didn’t bother me so much. I took the uncertainty of the ending as another reflection of real life; we don’t know what’s in store for us tomorrow.

    @SF Fangirl: “I just didn’t feel the looming fear of mutually assured [destruction]…

    Remember that this is an alternate history, where Doctor Manhattan has bestowed to the U.S. untold power and military/political dominance. In this version of the world, the nuclear threat is still very much alive. That was my take, at least

    @Heather: Yeah, I liked him, too. When have we since seen a superhero with a paunch belly? (Besides Arthur from The Tick…)

  6. John,

    Calling the Comedian as a “schmuck” and then saying “These are real people” is sorta dismissive, wouldn’t you think?

    I will, however, start my defense of the Comedian by saying he commits inexcusable acts in the story, no doubt.  Maybe not so much a defense of the Comedian but a defense of his place in the story.

    The idea that the Comedian “got the joke” as a repeated theme in the book is actually the character catalyst for the story.  The Comedian understood that “the people” that he found himself defending were ungrateful and just as savage in their commissions and omissions as the people he fought.  He got the joke, quite literally, in his discovery of Ozymandias’ plans.  He found one punchline depressing, the other horrifying, and it is these realizations that drive the story.

    The Comedian thinks nobody deserves superheroes.  Rorschach believes the innocent need superheroes.  Nite Owl thinks he deserves being a superhero himself.  Silk Spectre thinks she’d be better off without superheroes.  Dr. Manhattan thinks humanity might not deserve itself, but finds the question uninteresting.

    Ozymandias, worst of all, thinks that people deserve him.

  7. I thing that label sill applies.  Some real people are schmucks. πŸ™‚

    Otherwise, great analysis, which just goes to show how much depth there is in this story.

  8. Hey, great minds think alike! I just read this for the first time a few weeks ago as I did not want the movie, be it good or bad, to color my experience of reading the graphic novel. I really enjoyed it and am glad to have finally read something that I should have no doubt read long ago! Uncanny how relevant it is at this particular time in history.

  9. I love Watchmen. I started reading comics before I was in kindergarten and this series hit just as I was finishing up high school, so I had the history of comics superheroes well ingrained in me and knew what a radical departure this story was (much has been done with the ideas since, so some of the novelty has worn off). I let my friend collect the issues and then read them after number twelve came out. I remember there being delays with some of the issues that would have driven me mad if I had to wait for them while reading the story. I go back to the story every few years. I bought a copy years ago specifically to loan to other people and it has made the rounds.


    ********SPOILERYNESS AHEAD*********

    John, maybe you realize this, but the pirate story was tied to the larger story in an important way. I admit I wasn’t crazy about slogging through it the first couple of times either. Firstly, it adds to the strangeness of the world. Moore choose a pirate comic because he figured a world with real superheroes wouldn’t have such a market for superhero comics as ours does. Besides mirroring the action in Watchmen in the small panel by panel ways that come up again and again in the book, the journey of the protagonist in the pirate story represents the journey of Ozymandias in that he begins as a decent guy, but to save the people he loves, he slowly turns into a monster. He doesn’t realize it himself, but outsiders who see him are terrified of him.

  10. I think Ozymandius was right.




    And the Comedian was a douche. You defend a rapist, and murderer of the woman carrying his baby, you’re defending a douche. Whether that makes you one, is up to you.

  11. Hi Matthew, yeah, I got that.  But as SF Fangirl pointed out, the parallels were heavy handed.  But who knows…on a re-read I may feel entirely different.  And as I pointed out, I know it’s nitpicky.

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