Author: Alan Moore (writer), Dave Gibbons (illustrator)
Genre: graphic novel, drama, superhero
My rating: 5/5 stars
Publication date: September 8, 1987
There is so much to unpack in this book. So much happens, and so masterfully executed, that I really don’t know if I can do it justice with a simple review on this blog. I’ll do my best to keep this from turning into straight-up raving, but I have a lot to say. Sorry in advance for the length.
But first, storytime!
This book has been on my TBR for years. A good friend of mine (whose opinions on stories I value quite highly, especially since he majored in film and thus both cares about stories and works with them on a daily basis) loaned me one of his copies* of it, telling me he thought I would like it. So I, like a true mediocre friend, kept saying I wanted to read it and then put it off for one reason or another until this month. Having read it, I now fully understand why he, along with so many others, loves it so much.
* No, that was not a typo; he had two copies at the time. He loves it that much. Now he has a third one as well, though that does mean he still only has two total, since I haven’t been able to give his other one back yet.
Watchmen is about so many things that to summarize it is a monstrously difficult task. It’s set in 1985, and tensions between the US and the rest of the world–especially the Russians–are running high. The Keene Act has legally prohibited masked vigilante-ism and any other superhero-like behavior. But when the murder of Edward Blake, formerly known as the masked hero The Comedian, sets off a string of incidents that seem to specifically target former heroes, things get dicey. Some former heroes want to ignore the threat. Others–namely, the enigmatic Rorschach–want to investigate. And the truth might be bigger than just those who used to fight crime in costume. It just might be the fate of the whole world in the balance.
I do my best to keep my reviews spoiler-free unless spoilers are absolutely necessary (and I do mark them if I need them there), so forgive me if some of these things I mention are a tad vague. If you’ve read the book, you’ll probably know what I’m referring to, and if you haven’t, hopefully it won’t ruin the (many) plot twists for you.
There are three primary elements that make this book so incredible:
1. The Characters
There is a level of psychological complexity to everyone in this book, where opinions and motivations are often conflicting from person to person, making the story more realistic, more painful, more significant, and more relevant to our world even today.
Perhaps the biggest example of this is visible in the contrast in morality of the person behind all the problems (whose name I won’t disclose) and Rorschach. The former takes on a mindset that tends to be very common: the ends justify the means. Though this person does horrible, horrible things on an unprecedented scale, they do it in what they perceive to be as the interests of humanity as a whole, a much loftier goal than any other appalling act needed to reach that conclusion. Rorschach is the complete opposite, for whom you might even say the means justify the ends. Rorschach’s morality is clear-cut, straightforward, and black-and-white. If an act is bad, it needs to be stopped and/or punished. Period. End of sentence. The reason why doesn’t matter; all that matters is stopping the individual evils of the world, no matter what that means on a larger scale. Neither party is completely in the right, of course, because morality is a tremendously gray thing, and there are inherent horrors to both of their ways of operation, and yet each is convinced that they are wholly correct in their approach.
The idea of personal identity comes up many times as well. Dan Dreiberg, formerly known as Nite Owl, struggles to define himself as he wistfully remembers his days as a hero, a life he is now forbidden to live out. Laurie Juspeczyk, formerly the Silk Spectre, longs to leave behind that part of her past, knowing that her life as a hero was chosen largely by her mother, another former hero who wanted her daughter to carry out her legacy. Laurie also refuses to feel sorry for The Comedian, knowing that he did a horrible thing to her mother years ago, before she was even born. Doctor Manhattan was once human but now is not quite, and he grapples with what the value of a human life is when he himself is not really a human anymore. Adrian Veidt, previously Ozymandias, has rebranded himself as a business mogul, using his heroic past only to fuel present-day financial gains. And so on, and so forth.
Even though we live in a very different world and climate today than what existed when this was first written, some things remain the same. The emotions these characters go through, the significance of past events and traumas to them, are so realistic, no matter where or when you are reading it.
2. The Storytelling
This was masterful. Each chapter was originally a single comic issue, so each one does have its own internal stories and structure. There are so many interwoven stories here, the lives of two generations of heroes intersecting and diverging in unexpected ways, with secrets revealed little by little that cast past scenes in entirely new lights. But two narrative elements seemed especially significant here:
First, though this may sound weirdly specific, I loved the fourth chapter. The whole thing is narrated by Doctor Manhattan, the only true “superhero” of the story, a man with glowing blue skin who can manipulate things on an atomic level, teleport, and see the future. Because of his curious relationships with time, space, and the concept of humanity, he sees events in a more detached way and is able to seamlessly bounce back and forth from past to present to future and back again, unraveling the story of his past and where he foresees things going. Frequently, he has to begin pages or panels by stating what year it is and what he is doing, because though he is talking to himself, he is also sketching a picture for us of everything on his mind. As a storytelling device, it is creative but potentially difficult to execute; however, in this case, the final product is seamless and mind-blowing.
Second, the story-within-a-story element. A recurring side plot involves a man who owns a newsstand, worried about the end of the world, and a young man who sits nearby, reading stories from a comic about a man being forced to make terrible choices in a quest for revenge. In each panel, we have juxtaposed the text of the comic book being read and the words being spoken by the newsstand owner, occasionally with dialogue he holds with others. Fine, that’s normal. But every single panel also manages to line up either literally or thematically what is unfolding in the fictional revenge tale with what is happening in the streets of New York and around the globe. Both narrative arcs are complete and full of their own respective horrors, and they are wholly unique, yet they also tell two remarkably similar stories. I can’t even imagine how they managed to make it work on such a minute level of detail, but I was blown away.
3. The Thematic Concepts
Some of these, I’ve touched on previously, so I’ll keep it brief. The questions that the book raises about morality and the importance of humanity are big philosophical issues that don’t get any simpler as time goes on, and it explores them in big and meaningful ways. It questions the nature of justice, repeatedly suggesting the question, “Who watches the watchmen?” That is, when we trust people to keep us safe and protect our best interests, how do we make sure that they are actually doing that? And what do we do when the answer isn’t easy? What about when we ourselves are the only ones poised to help?
The book also very subtly brings up some ideas that, in retrospect, are pretty forward-thinking. It touches on the problems with homophobia, both external and internalized. It critically brings up casual racism, like when people assume that all black people know each other. And, most significantly, it delves into feminist ideas including rape, general sexualization of women, consent, and underestimation of women’s abilities. There are others, of course, but these were a few that stuck out to me.
Final Thoughts (and a meme)
There’s an HBO show that just started a few weeks ago, following these characters several years after the original graphic novel concluded, and I am so, so curious how it is going to play out. Definitely count me in for watching that (at some point, anyway).
Would hugely recommend this book for anyone, whether you’re a fan of graphic novels or not, and even if you aren’t typically one for comics or superheroes, because it is less about the action and more about the dramatic, moral, and psychological elements. It’s pretty long–text-heavy, lots to take in on every page, very hard to skim–but it is well worth the effort.
Lastly, I saw this meme online the other day, and regardless of whether you’re familiar with Watchmen, it’s pretty hilarious:
TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNINGS: rape, sexual assault (on-page), blood/graphic violence/death, homophobia, mention of pornography, some cartoon nudity