Wednesday, 23 September 2009

5 Days of Death: Watchmen

What to say about Watchmen? It's been described as 'A landmark in the graphic novel medium' by Time magazine, 'Peerless' by Rolling Stone and 'The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced' by Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost. Are these accolades that I would agree with? Well, Watchmen is certainly a landmark in the medium simply because of the influence it has exerted over subsequent graphic novels and comics. I would not, however, call Watchmen the greatest piece of popular fiction, nor would I call it peerless. In my own humble opinion, Moore himself has written a better novel - From Hell with Eddie Campbell - and while Moore is my personal favorite writer in the comic medium, he has many peers of comparable talent. I would also not say that Watchmen is the best superhero story ever, although it may be the best story about superheroes.

I'll explain. Moore has demonstrated a complex understanding of the psyche of the superhero over his career. He has experience writing for most of the major DC heroes, he has created dozens of credible superhero characters, and the best way to sum up his work for Marvel is probably to point out that he coined the name of the main Marvel universe, 616. M
oore has also worked with Rob Liefeld, but I try to dwell on that as little as possible. Needless to say, the man knows his heroes; and in Watchmen he seems to be presenting us with classic hero archetypes, bringing them into the real world and exploring how they would work. Let us take one example of the origin of one of the Watchmen heroes. An amazingly powerful being suddenly appears in the USA in the middle of a war, becoming the ultimate deterrent. This is Dr Manhattan, but it is also Superman, with a fair dose of Captain America (and, of course, Captain Atom). In the realistic world of Watchmen, however, Dr Manhattans wholly alien nature causes him to drift away from humanity, and his unbelievable power engenders nihilism and fear in the people of the world. If Superman really had landed on Earth in 1938, the result would be far more like Watchmen than the fictional canon of the character.

The other characters/case studies in Watchmen draw their own parallels to popular, famous superheroes. At a basic level, each of them is an analogue of a Charlton comics character because Moore's original intention was to use said characters; so Rorschach is the Question (and Mr A), Nite Owl II is Blu
e Beetle II, the Comedian is Peacemaker, and so on. To continue, Rorschach also has a lot of Batman in him, fueled by a burning desire to avenge his traumatic childhood; taking out his repressed rage on what he sees as the scum of the world. The rest of Batman goes into Nite Owl, who also has aspects of Iron Man. Powerless but augmented by technology (albeit to a primative degree), possessed of a financial inheritance that gives him the freedom and means to become a hero, and having an armed, crime-fighting craft in the style of the night animal he admires. Like Tony Stark (and arguably Batman), Dreiberg (Nite Owl) has his own personal problems; rather than a spiral of depression and alcoholism, he is completely impotent, metaphorically and literally, without his costume.

The many similarities between the characters of Watchmen are, I am certain, wholly intentional. The novel is like a cultural mirror, reflecting the distorted logic of the mainstream comic heroes. Putting aside technical issues, such as the hypothesis that Spider-Man's arms would be dislocated or ripped off as soon as he started swinging with any real speed, the heroes of Marvel and DC are inherently unrealistic. Moore seems to be pointing out that the motivations that would cause someone to want to take the law into their own hands, instead of, say, becoming a cop or founding a charity, are so warped that anybody possessing them would have personal issues of some kind. These are people who spend their days living a normal life and their nights running across rooftops and viciously beating petty thieves.

In my view, Watchmen is a critique of the superhero genre. It's also a tight, gripping story with great potential to be re-read. Moore's layouts are superb, as is the art by Dave Gibbons, but the real magic lies in the way Moore copies and subverts the popular superheroes of the time as the narrative progresses. For this reason, I have endeavored to avoid spoiling anything beyond the set-up of the book; if you haven't read Watchmen I hope I have persuaded you to. If you have read it, I hope you found the above illuminating. Feel free to comment below.

Note - Max will be back by Saturday, making this my penultimate graphic novel review. Tomorrow's finale will be The Death of Captain Marvel by Jim Starlin, in honor of Max's 5 Days of Death.

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