The new movie Watchmen sounded interesting, but it will have to wait for video because I just can’t pull 3 hours in a theater (or any other kind of chair) without serious painkillers. So I got the book for ten bucks from Amazon.
The danger of hype is that it can interfere with actual enjoyment. Watchmen is one of Time magazine’s “100 best novels”, and the co-creator of the TV series Lost calls it “The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.” Several of my friends have told me that it is just… “wall-to-wall awesomeness”. Some of that is well-deserved.
The story is about a group of super-heroes and their complicated lives. You have to know that putting on a funny suit and beating up criminals requires a… certain kind of mind, and a certain kind of surrounding society. Authors Moore and Gibbons do a great job of exploring on a human scale just what that might be like. It’s a grown-up story not only because of the violent and sexual themes and language, but also because it does a very good job of exploring how relationships blow up and become painful (or pleasant) memories, and how that affects the present and the future. This is something adults know from experience; insignificant moments we treasure in our mind, scars that we hide or deny.
On reflection you might not expect superheroes – or super villians either – to be virtuous people, and you’d be right. In Watchmen, most of them are violent, internally conflicted, living out the compulsive results of twisted childhoods. They get old, they grow fat, they die of cancer. Politically they range in all directions. An attempt to get them to join forces fails utterly, which becomes a major plot point.
The novel does a good job of explaining connections and background, though it is a staggeringly complex story. This is not; “alien threatens city, Superman beats up alien.” But I was able to follow it easily enough. Complex stories may be a unique asset of graphic novels: plot points become associated with images, and flipping through the book at high speed allows the reader to return to the relevant portion in seconds to refresh their memory.
The novel begins with the brutal murder of one superhero, and as the story continues (moving forward and backward in time, developing the lives of all the characters) we aren’t really sorry to have seen him go. Yet in his brutally amoral way, he was a mentor to even more powerful and intelligent characters.
Only one character really even has super-human powers, and his biggest challenge is that he is so powerful, humanity seems remote to him. How involved should he be? Should he interfere at all?
It ends with a moral conundrum; an act of mass murder rivalling anything in human history, which has the effect of saving humanity. At least, it will have that effect, provided the few people who unwillingly know about it know about it agree to remain silent. One person does not agree, the terrifyingly uncompromising vigilante named “Rorshach”. So what ought to happen to him?
Some people don’t like the term; “graphic novel”, opining that “it’s just a fancy term for comic book”. Well sure, and “Great Expectations” is just a soap-opera series collected into one cover. Fact is, I’ve seen some truly great stories put together that way: Maus, The Crow, Batman: Year One, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns to name a few. There’s no question in my mind that it deserves a place in the pantheon of literary types alongside text novels and story anthologies.
One point where Watchmen falters, artistically, is that the color pallate could use refinement. It was an annoying distraction in an otherwise great work of the imagination.
There are thematic similarities between Watchmen and other stories. For instance, The Incredibles also posit a future in which costumed superheroes are not really welcome, and someone is methodically killing off the ones who retired from the business.
I won’t try to go into more detail – it would require a post as long as (and far less interesting than) the novel itself. You can check out Wikipedia’s Watchmen article or better yet, just read the novel. I look forward to seeing the movie. Frankly it strains my imagination how it could be committed to cinema and still make sense.