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.