Genre: Graphic Novel
A Stronger Loving World
Watchmen is the single greatest achievement in the comic book medium of all time. The brilliantly layered story, told through the eyes of the characters, news articles and books, and the fictional comic Tales of the Black Freighter is stirringly relevant. Alan Moore’s writing is astoundingly beautiful, and his ability to capture the voices of humanity makes the book breathe life into a tale that begins as a simple murder mystery, but becomes an unflinching and morally ambiguous discussion of our species’ self destructive nature. Dave Gibbon’s art perfectly blends with the narrative to create powerful, iconic imagery that makes almost every panel totally unforgettable. If you ever read one comic, read this one, as it is not only the greatest superhero story ever told, but also one of the greatest pieces of literature of the twentieth century.
When Superman rose to fame in the 1930’s, I’m sure many Americans wondered what it would be like to don a costume and roam their towns and cities looking for wrongs to right. The idea must have been wondrously intoxicating, as it most assuredly is today. But what if? Alan Moore tackles that question with eloquent grace in his limited series Watchmen. Yet, there are many other questions that Watchmen asks, and each one has a relevant and totally morally ambiguous answer that might just leave you asking questions of your own like, “How much evil does it take to move someone to do good?”
Taking place in an alternate reality where after the booming success of Superman’s run in Action Comics, citizens actually took to the streets in elaborate costumes to fight crime, the story itself actually picks up forty years after the first wave of heroes died out. With costumed vigilantes now outlawed by a bill called the Keene Act, the world is almost completely devoid of the dozens of costumed crusaders who once inhabited it. Very few remain active, and most who do are in the employ of the United States Government. One such hero, Dr. Manhattan, actually acts as a walking nuclear deterrent against the U.S.S.R. as he is the only hero with actual powers. Born in a freak lab accident, Physicist Jon Osterman became the super powered being capable of bending the very properties of atoms and time space to his will. Another one of the legally allowed heroes is a violent maniac called The Comedian, who thrives on conflict. Besides those two, the Keene Act neutralized all but one other hero, a vigilante who calls himself Rorschach. One night Rorschach stumbles across the crime scene of a vicious murder. The victim, a man named Edward Blake, turns out to be The Comedian and Rorschach begins to formulate a theory as to who did it.
As Rorschach warns his fellow “masks”, most either dismiss his theory as paranoid or simply pander to him to get him to shut up. He continues his investigation in spite of everyone, and soon he’s discovering disturbing links. As more heroes are captured or leave the public eye, a vile conspiracy begins to unfold and the world becomes less and less safe by the second.
The narrative plays out like a perfectly paced novel. As things build to the epic conclusion, the story jumps from character to character and occasionally through time. Rorschach certainly takes the center stage for a good majority of the book, however, each of the remaining heroes also gets a fair amount of coverage, and between all of them, a brilliantly layered story slowly fleshes itself out like a bird slowly breaking out of its egg. At the end of most of the chapters is a piece usually written by one of the heroes, that adds even more layers of subtext and backstory to the preceding events. Each one of these articles is brilliantly written and allows the reader to jump deeper inside the minds of the central figures of the story, while at the same time offering vital clues to the great mystery. This is a book that demands to read again and again, if not because of its sheer greatness, than because of the subtle building to the conclusion that many might miss the first go around. This book is like a fine wine, and ages gracefully every time you read it.
Also, within the book is a comic within a comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, that one of the tertiary characters reads. The story and art from the Black Freighter match perfectly with the surrounding events of the story and add, yet again, another layer of brilliance to this piece. Tales of the Black Freighter is exceptionally well written, and in some chapters wound up being my favorite parts. With so much building of metaphor and the world, Watchmen is like a living breathing entity that you watch through the lens of the page, a feat that no other comic I’ve ever read has accomplished.
The art throughout is also stunningly beautiful, and each panel is filled with a sense of mis-en-scene that would make Hitchcock blush. Dave Gibbons perfectly captures the action outlined by Moore’s astoundingly brilliant writing, as well as adding even more metaphor. Many panels and visual themes from this series have become pop culture icons, such as the smiley face with a drop of blood running down it, the comic’s version of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, and the god-like presence of Dr. Manhattan, and the ever shifting “face” of Rorschach.
This is a book that will amaze you with every word, and pull you deeper with every picture. Every fan of the medium absolutely must read this book, and anyone who was never into comics absolutely must read this book as well. This is the most important event in comic book history save the publication of Superman. The story will break your heart , but more importantly it will make you look at the world around you in a new light, and that is what only the greatest pieces of art can do.