This Hugo Award-winning graphic novel chronicles the fall from grace of a group of super-heroes plagued by all-too-human failings. Along the way, the concept of the super-hero is dissected as the heroes are stalked by an unknown assassin.
This was a huge gap in my graphic novel knowledge and I had to remedy that. After reading V for Vendetta, I knew I was going to like Alan Moore's version of superheroes, although I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting myself into. I really loved this. Caveat: I think it will be best appreciated by readers who are familiar with the traditional superhero lore.
Watchmen starts with the murder of a famous superhero, which is an atypical, but great way of starting a superhero story. Indeed, the whole structure of the comic made me think of noir detective fiction of the really gritty kind. The mistery drives the pace of the whole novel - it is really entertaining. But there's much more to this graphic novel than just entertainment.
Once again, Moore has created an uncomfortable and ugly world which reflects the worst of ours. I found this alternate reality to be less relatable than that of V for Vendetta. In a way, this fictional world is a product of the 1980s social problems - nuclear war, Vietnam, the tension between the US and the URSS... The differences with our 80s are subtle, and they mostly reflect changes in technology and consumerism caused by the existence of this particular set of superheroes, the Watchmen. The cars are slightly different, the fashions are similar but not quite the same and sweets have different names. Superhero comics are not a thing, and pirates are all the rage. It's easy to overlook these little changes. Together, they help create a complex new society, different enough from ours that we can feel safe reading this from a privileged point of view.
The protagonists who give Watchmen its name are a bunch of atypical superheroes, fallible, flawed. More human than most comic book characters. Moore has used these characters to make us think about the problems of superhero comics, and his critique is superb. Traditional superheroes are constructed upon a set of problematic premises: superhuman heroes are individuals with extreme power and very rigid moral codes. In many cases, they have a tragic backstory to explain their motivations, which turns these so-called heroes in unstable people who express their grief through violence. Problematic, huh?
Also, they almost always have their way with the ladies, who don't get to be portrayed very accurately. Either they are the lady in distress, or the motherly figure, or a bitch. Even superheroines are constantly sexualized. So, if you put two and two together, you get a violent and volatile macho ideal as the protagonist of a power fantasy for the reader to identify with. Moore addresses rape openly, establishing that he respects female characters as much as male ones, and that the casual rejection of sexual assault in comics is not okay.
I enjoy reading and watching superhero stories (they are fun!), but wish that everyone would be aware of their problems. Unfortunately, some comic book readers have really interiorized this or have found their beliefs reinforced by superheroes, and you know how the saying goes: one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. Moore's deconstruction is particularly relevant, since this nasty comics reader clique can be very hostile to women and to minorities. My adolescent self suffered the consequences of daring to enter into a comic shop when there was an ongoing Warhammer game. Not nice.
I also appreciated the inclusion of homosexuality as a normal thing, with the casual feature of gay partners as secondary characters or as filler/background characters. I was over the moon glad to find that some of the Minutemen were also gay, although they aren't shown in the best of lights. I understand how this depiction is tied to the main point of presenting superheroes as human, but I couldn't help feeling a bit uncomfortable about this dire portrayal of homosexuals. It's not that every gay character has to be a saint, and it's not like good gay characters aren't present in Alan Moore's body of work (see Valerie Page in V for Vendetta), so I am possibly being too sensitive.
This novel is also very intelligent narrative-wise. There is a number of metafiction devices involved, and we all know I love that. There are some footnotes, and little excerpts of fictional biographies and interviews which are mentioned during the overarching story. They add depth to the characters and don't feel gimmicky at all. I specially liked the comic within the comic. It worked as a separate substory (I was really interested in the ending of The Black Freight!) but it also tied in nicely with the tumultuous events happening in this alternate New York.
The artwork, by Dave Gibbons, is also a masterwork. It is very detailed and very subtle - many frames give more information than the dialogue itself. The complete edition states that Moore himself wrote in-depth descriptions of each frame, and then shows the actual text that was swiftly translated by Gibbons into the iconic first frames, zooming out from the bloody smiley face to the top of the building where the murder has been committed. While it's true that Moore is responsible for the overall layout of the frames, Gibbon's artistic vision is what really has transformed this graphic novel into the masterwork it is, deceptively simple and fast flowing.
I particularly appreciated Watchmen at this exact time - I've been reading Nimona for a while and follow Noelle Stevenson (gingerhaze in tumblr). Lately, she sparked a discussion about comics. Unfortunately, a bunch of jerks hijacked her post and started spewing out sexist babble at her and accusing her of not being/understanding real comic readers.
Have you read this book? Please, leave a link to your review in the comments and I will link you here!
This book is part of the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge and for the Graphic Novel category of the Reading Outside the Box Challenge 2014 that I'm participating in.