In this post, yours truly reflects on “Watchmen” (1986-1987) – the masterpiece by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. All pictures in this review are from the Watchmen graphic novel, no copyright infringement intended and pictures are for educative and informative purposes.
I’ll be honest with you: I hate superheroes and everything where they are involved. I will never go see the Deadpool movie, I won’t see any of the upcoming Marvel/DC Comics movies and if you ask me which side I’m on in the Civil War, I’d say “Yes!” For me, superheroes are just some guys with strange powers and they use their abilities to defeat their equally super and weird villains. Maybe my distaste for superheroes stems from the idea that the superheroes are also quite superhuman in their emotions, and the challenges they meet are less human and more the dramatic sort. Of course, let’s not mention the rabid fandom who would kill you dead for being on the wrong side.
But here I was reading “Watchmen”. Winner of Hugo and Eisner awards, selected as one of the 20th century’s finest novels and millions of copies in print. I had some money to spare, so I decided to add this book into my library.
I think I’ve made the right decision, and allow me to explain why.
In “Watchmen”, there’s actually only one superhero: Dr. Manhattan. The superheroes in the book are actually vigilantes who got inspiration from comic books to become costumed crimefighters. To fulfill a juveline fantasy of good-beating-the-bad and restore the rewarding kind of justice which even in our Great Recession times is awfully lacking. It’s kind of sad that in the age of surveillance we have to cover up our tracks of what we say or do and when we speak to a cop, we have to be on our toes, sweating bullets while worrying if the officer can still smell the weed you smoked a few days back. Was it me or did the dog just snarl at you?
The vigilantes were a welcome breath of fresh air, but as they were called superheroes for their fantastic costumes and gadgets, behind it all were ordinary men and women. People make mistakes, especially when they’re solely the judge, jury and the hangmen and have just minutes to deal justice. Followed by a gradual downfall of the superhero culture, an actual superweapon emerging from Dr. Manhattan’s electrifying experiment and a police riot, costumed adventuring was outlawed in 1977 and the vigilantes (save for a few fanatics) hung up their personas and retired.
Until 1985 when a murder of an active superhero sparks a chain reaction which bring on an investigation with shocking twists and turns.
The problems in the comic book aren’t just about a friend dying and a drive for vengeance. What lies beneath are feelings of doubt, a maelstorm of fear coming up and coming to terms of change. If killing would save a few people, is it justified? What seperates the person from the persona and is there actually any difference? Where does true power come from?
It focused on the men and women behind the masks and stripped them naked, leaving them shivering under our hawkish eyes, bringing them closer to us. By removing the queer pretense of superheroism and the expectations of it, heroes become more human. It’s something that I would never get from let’s say “The Incredible Hulk” or “Batman” – there’s always the mask, gadget or strength to come and save the day and the drama they go through is just something that happens rather than matters. Of course, after Watchmen, there’s a certain shift towards human realism, but after decades of superhero adventures and countless reboots/side stories/alternate realities/canon-fanon schisms, does it really matter if Peter Parker stayed together with Mary Jane? In 1987, they got married, but their marriage was annulled in 2007 in a single issue – completely wiped from existence and memory! The superheroes are completely helpless against the changing times, focus groups, executive decisions and the cruel whims of their editors.
That’s exactly what’s in my opinion killing the superhero genre. Nothing really matters – one day they die, other day they’re ressurected. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make any sense, chalk it up as a side-story instead!
Maybe that’s why I prefer graphic novels (or comic books, however you like to call them) –just one big longshot with nobody deciding that the thing you read a few chapters back doesn’t mean jack anymore. In “Watchmen”, everything that happened mattered to the characters. Were they successful in their quest? Maybe that wasn’t the most important thing. It’s the amazing amount of growth the characters went through during the whole adventure.
That is what I am really interested in. To see the characters thrive/decline by their own psyche, to see what makes them tick and what makes them who they are. In a storytelling sense, “Watchmen” is a masterpiece, a 100-point masterclass in the “Show, don’t tell” school of thought. Every single panel had already so much inside and still you could feel the pulsating life beneath. New York City is exactly as I could imagine it being tight and extremely cramped and the people wearing the masks carrying their own personal crosses.
What really did me in was the introduction in my edition of the book:
“Whether tales are told by the light of a campfire or by the glow of a screen, the prime decision for the teller has always been what to reveal and what to withhold. Whether in words alone or with images, the narrator must be clear about what is to be shown and what is to be hidden. […]
Although Alan knew the broad strokes of the story from the beginning, the precise narrative decisions were made only as we talked and pondered, shifting possibilities, waiting for the flash of gold in the stream of conversation and ideas. Waited for the glimpse of something valuable.
The story in this volume is the aggregation of what we gathered, what we thought would best tell our tale.
The rest, discarded, washed downstream and vanished from view.”
-Dave Gibbons, 2013
That’s where the genius lies. It shows exactly as much as you need to see, and nothing more. That’s what good storytelling is all about. There might be so much going on in the tiny world, but there’s no way that it’s possible to have it all written down. What we see might also be completely secondary compared to what we think and feel. The conclusions that we draw and the dread in our quivering hands as we flip the page over, hoping that there would be something to save from the inevitable doom. It’s just like in stage magic: one hand distracts and the other one prepares the rabbit to come out of the hat.
In “Watchmen’s” case, I am glad to have it come across to me. I hope that you’ll have the chance to read it as well and marvel in the brilliance it has.