Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Who Watches the Watchmen

I’ve read some comic books in my day. When I was in my teens, I used to sneak into my brother’s room and steal the comics my father had bought for him. I spent many a Saturday afternoon reading about Superman’s death and his four different incarnations and the adventures of the X-Men and Spiderman. I was enthralled when the Marvel characters fought DC characters in the last battle of the Universe, only to be fused together in the Amalgam series, i.e. Darkclaw and the like. But until a couple weeks ago I had never read a graphic novel cover to cover. I had flipped through Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and gone to see various feature film adaptations of Alan Moore’s work, like League of Extraordinary Gentleman, but it had never occurred to me what a startling medium the graphic novel could be.

Yesterday I finished reading Watchmen, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. An old friend of mine insisted I borrow his copy about six months ago. When I asked him what the book was about, he refused to give any details and only insisted that I read it as soon as possible. “It’s the way the story is told” he said. During the many months that the book sat in my magazine basket, others expressed their adoration for the work, and told me how much they envied that I was getting to read it for the first time. In the end it was V for Vendetta (based on the graphic novel written by Alan Moore) that finally lit the fire under my carriage to read Watchmen. Though I thought the film was flawed, I was so impressed with the ideas and the story, that I was inspired to read some other of Moore’s works.

The book is broken up into twelve chapters, a chapter for each hour around the clock, and each is about thirty or so pages long. At almost 400 pages, the novel is no quick newstand read. It is as dense and as intricate as any literary novel I’ve read in a long time. Watchmen is a brillant work on so many levels and for so many reasons. Moore’s intimate understanding of the “comic” medium and the entrenched mythology of its characters is displayed in the depiction of the hereos of this novel. One of the things I loved most about this book was the organic fashion with which he approached the concept of the Superhero. In the world of Watchmen, superheros started out as vigillantes in the 40’s and 50’s fighting crime for a variety of personal reasons. Some of these men and women had ideals of moral superiority, others felt genuine chagrin at the crime rate, while others gained gratification from donning an anonymous identity and operating above the law. Moore takes the established pop culture phenomenon of the Superhero and deconstructs it; illustrating what it’s like to be behind the mask, as well as the larger societal implications of their existence.

Watchmen asks the questions that I never asked myself as a kid. What does it really mean that Superman flies around Metropolis capturing whomever he pleases whenever he likes. Does he ever make mistakes, and who steps in to correct him if he is wrong? In the historical timeline of Watchmen, the U.S. government eventually enacts legislation to halt Superhero activity because it was getting out of hand. Moore blurs the line between the concepts of vigilante and Superhero. Though each word evokes vastly different sentiments and imagery, Moore forces us to look at their similiarities, give or take a pair of colored tights. By turning the comic book world on its head, and humanizing his Super Hero characters, the standard camps of good and evil are stripped away to reveal moral ambiguity and a dissolution of boundries between the heros and villains. As the story goes, the first generation of heros joined together to form the Minutemen. But this organization was no Superfriends or X-Men and tensions and conflicts eventually split the group apart. Moore questions, realistically, what would really happen in a world where any human could operate above the law, and let their own personal emotions and judgements cloud their behavior.

But as much as he shatters the pristine and sacred image of the superhero, exploring the dangerous fallouts of such a mythology, he does not subvert it to tout the benefits of institutional government either. Looming above all the action in Watchmen, is international nuclear brinksmanship. With Nixon as President, and Russia invading Afghanistan, the U.S. media is constantly bemoaning the threat of WWIII. Though the government ultimately curbed the power of the heroes, it too was a dangerous juggernaut, that could neither quell its own civil unrest nor properly resolve the escalating issues abroad. There are no easy answers here, no final solutions, rather a complicated ethical landscape in which only the reader can attempt to gauge what is the fairest trade. As grandiose and pretentious as it might sound Watchmen tackles philosophical quandaries surrounding humanity and his future.

The other wonderfully unique aspect of this graphic novel, was the different mediums that Moore used to tell the story. While the traditional “comic book” panel style was the dominant mode of the book, at the end of each chapter, Moore would include “found” artifacts. These included pages from books written by characters, magazine articles, newspaper interviews, and letters of correspondance among other items. They added a richness and depth to the story, giving the world of the Watchmen a heightened and painstakingly detailed reality. Not every piece of information divulged in these snippets were logistically vital to the general plot, but they often enhanced either individual characters or thematic elements of the story. Among these pieces of “found” material, there is a running comic book within the comic book of Watchmen. The comic book tells the dark story of a man who is shipwrecked by priates, and desperately tries to make it back to his hometown before the wretched criminals can pillage it and kill his family. This comic book is read by an ancillary character throughout the book, and fragments of the language and imagery of the comic are woven in piecemeal throughout the book. The result is masterful poetic juxtaposition of storylines and themes; the meaning of the comic and the graphic novel resonate within each other magnificently.

Watchmen was written lovingly and with care. It touched upon philosophical issues and moral conundrums in a sophisticated and artistic way. It posed questions about the existence of man in the universe and the justification of sacrifices. But it also provided a suspenseful mystery, and a touching and at times funny look at the secret life of a superhero. After reading this graphic novel, I was left with mouth agape at its beauty and truth.

6 Comments:

Blogger DoorFrame said...

I haven't gotten a chance to read this yet, but I just read the Watchmen for the first time like three weeks ago. Weird.

10:35 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Huh. That is wierd.... Did you like it?

10:56 AM  
Blogger DoorFrame said...

I found it disappointing. After the first chapter or two, I was really excited about it. I was captured by Rorshack's hard core politics, but that sort of became only a side issue... and I was disappointed with (and confused by) the ending. It didn't seem to really grow out of the story, it felt like "Oh, and then there's a giant exploding alien transportation device for some reason." I know it all made sense, but it didn't feel like it grew out of the story.

That being said, I've never read a comic book before in any sense, which might be part of the problem.

I was a big fan of the actual drawings. It's neat how each frame is like the key frame in a movie scene... you have to find that one moment that makes it all clear. I liked that.

It might just be that comics books aren't my medium.

7:40 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Yeah the artwork was pretty great --very cinematic. Even though I thought the book was terrific, I do agree that the first half was stronger than the second half. The first parts of the book seem to be really building up to something, and the ending while huge, did not necessarily encompass all the elements of the story --which I think is what you mean when you say "grow out of the story." Hey, remember those writers who were sent to the island and then blown up in the ship? Did you have any idea what those guys were about because I didn't....

9:43 AM  
Blogger DoorFrame said...

The guys on the island were the ones who created the "thing" that was "transported" back to the city. I guess I don't really understand why you'd need writers... maybe they're better at thinking of how an alien creature should look? Better at drawing out the narrative that will lead most quickly to world peace?

I don't know. The ending didn't feel like it was connected to the story that we had been following. It seemed like it could have been tacked on to any similar story. I guess it was linked with the red menace, but it was too big.

The story had been about small things, small situations. Everything was very personal. It was all about histories and relationships... the themes were played out with their lives, not with giant, strange events. A fake creature transporting into and destroying all of Manhattan felt much too big and unrelated to everyone's personal story. It wasn't personal at all.

2:13 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Aha! I see. I still thought the writers were going to play out in a different way, like it turns out they were the ones who created the Superheros to being with or something.

For me the big ending did link up with the big looming ideas of the story, but it would also have been nice to see more personal, intimate resolution I guess.

2:22 PM  

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