OK, I admit, I’m a comic book newbie. I haven’t been reading them very long and all but a handful of the ones I have read have been older classics. But you know what, more and more people are going to be getting into comics in the near future, and most of them will convert thanks to the upcoming Watchmen film. So, in an effort to blog about what I’m currently reading as well as maybe help a fellow neophyte out, I’m introducing my own mini-feature: Classics Corner. Each entry will be about an established classic in the medium: its historic importance, how well it’s held up, and just plain how good it is. Some will be more spoiler-ish than others, but all of them will feature at least basic plot discussion and analysis. And what better place to start than the graphic novel that is universally regarded as a masterpiece and has been (and, from the looks of it, will continue to be) a gateway for many into comic books?

Watchmen is a 12 issue miniseries from comics god Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons that depicts a realistic world that must contend with real masked men. It’s an expansion of an idea that Moore first toyed with on the seminal (and woefully out-of-print) Miracleman, and it ends up being a nice foil for his first great graphic novel, V For Vendetta. V posed socio-political questions, while Watchmen is more of a personal, psychological profile. It realizes that anyone who would put on a costume and mask to pummel thugs is inherently insane, not heroic. Over the course of its 12 issues, the book evolves from a whodunit about a killer possibly targeting former masked heroes into a commentary on the thin line between vigilantism and crime and how a hero’s quest to save others can ultimately turn him into the world’s biggest threat. It manages to be twisted, deep, thought provoking, suspenseful, thrilling, darkly funny, and tragic, often at the same time.

**potential minor spoilers and more after the jump**

"Hurm."

"Hurm."

The novel opens with a police investigation of a murder, which attracts the attention of one of the last active masked men, Rorschach. Clues are littered about from the start that Rorschach isn’t all there, and his journal entries, written in broken English, seem to confirm his mental ill-health (even on the first page). He learns that the man murdered was none other than Edward Blake, the Comedian, another of the precious few “heroes” still active, though Blake was actually hired by the government. As Rorschach investigates the murder, we are introduced to more and more characters and the plot unfolds in a way no one could guess.

In this world, masked men and women- all without powers- came to prominence in the 40s, helping bust gangs and the odd flamboyant criminal. However, the fad soon passed and the heroes stopped having any real work to do. Eventually a second generation came along, armed with better technology, but they soon found themselves redundant in the face of Dr. Manhattan. If you haven’t read this book yet, Dr. Manhattan is the big blue man blowing up Vietnamese in the film trailer.

Doc's feeling bluer than usual

Doc's feeling bluer than usual

Due to a scientific mishap, Dr. John Osterman was turned into the first true Superman, and his very existence has radically altered the universe. Historical events, technological innovations, and US-Soviet relations are all vastly different in this world, yet Moore uses this world to make highly relevant statements about our reality. The extent of Manhattan’s powers is never fully revealed, but that may or may not be because a limit does not exist.

It’s astonishing how swiftly yet subtly Moore moves from the introductory plot line to the bigger picture, and his fear of a nuclear holocaust pervades the book, giving it a sense of urgency that still resonates in a post-Cold War world. The opening page of each chapter displays the infamous Doomsday Clock, and even the seemingly arbitrary image creates tension thanks to Moore and Gibbon’s slow buildup.

The main outpouring of fear comes from the characters who hang out at the local newsstand. They form a sort of Greek chorus for the novel, though they comment on background tensions rather than developments in the heroes’ stories. Alan Moore is seemingly incapable of writing a throwaway character, and sure enough, every person introduced in the comic brings an interesting case study to the table: the newsstand vendor who personifies the mounting unease, the lesbian cab driver trying to live a normal life in an ultra-conservative America, the psychiatrist who is in it for the fame until he becomes consumed by his case, the aging “super-villain,” and the boy who reads the comic-within-the-comic, Tales of the Black Freighter.

There are plenty of brilliantly written aspects of Watchmen (i.e. the entire thing), but perhaps the single most inspired device in the novel is Tales of the Black Freighter. On my first read, I didn’t understand the point of this comic being read alongside the actual events of Watchmen, and I after a point even started merely skimming the bubbles pertaining to it. However, re-reading it with full knowledge of the outcome, it has transformed from a superfluous distraction into a masterful allegory of the events and mood of the events and characters. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say whom it’s ultimately about, though even then I couldn’t stick to just one name since it pegs so many characters on wildly different notes. Really, the best way I can describe Tales without giving too much away is that it’s the closest a piece of literature can come to having a film score. Also of particular worth are the blocks of prose at the end of chapters, all excerpts from fake interviews or novels. The sudden format of a “real” book threw me at first, but these excerpts hold a vast amount of importance, be it a deeper understanding of a character, an exposition of a theme, or a small seemingly insignificant tidbit that, in retrospect, is actually foreshadowing.

Not to be ignored is Dave Gibbons’ incredible art. David Lloyd did a magnificent job with Moore’s other masterpiece, V For Vendetta, but Gibbons takes Moore’s cynicism and fears to new heights. Gazing at the subtle intricacies of the panels it’s easy to see why Alan Moore thought this could never be adapted well long before he started seeing his work savaged on the big screen. The wistful smiles on the heroes’ faces as they think back on better days. The way the Black Freighter is set against a yellow sky to

Just a small, spoiler-free taste of the beauty within

Just a small, spoiler-free taste of the beauty within

make it resemble the radioactive trefoil. How it can be so vibrant and yet so dark and gritty at the same time. I routinely cop to knowing next to nothing about artwork, but compare this stuff to the primary colors, simple shapes, and childish tone of Golden Age and Silver Age comics and you’ll see that the penciling alone has matured, and the soft yet somewhat dirty palette raises the bar into the stratosphere. It might not be as gorgeous as a Jim Lee panel or an Alex Ross painting, but it’s a damn sight prettier than all that came before even if it isn’t nearly as bright.

I usually don’t care about spoilers; I am of the opinion that anything existing for longer than three years is fair game and you shouldn’t be reading if you want to be kept in the dark anyway. However, Watchmen is one of those rare items that I just cannot spoil; everyone should go into this without knowledge of how it ends or how the characters develop (though at this point everyone knows the basic premise, the inkblot psycho anti-hero, and the big, blue, nude dude). Ultimately, I could go on for thousands of words dissecting Watchmen, breaking down chapters, characters, and even panels; even in this lengthy review I have not permitted myself to truly delve into the issues brought up, opting only to name-check to let you see for yourself. Who knows, maybe I will post a more in-depth analysis sometime down the road; however, for now, if you haven’t read this yet, it should be first on your list. No one can claim to be a fan of comic books, or even a fan of late 20th century literature without having read this release.

If Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil and Dark Knight Returns and Moore’s own runs on Swamp Thing and Miraclemen showed the medium evolving, Watchmen reveals the finished product. It’s a quantum leap forward in the balance of gritty realism and old-school comic fantasy, and it represents the realization of comics’ potential to stand as allegories for real world issues. If you want to see it’s impact on the superhero world, simply read some of the more acclaimed comics made since its release (Batman comics in particular a good place), and watch films like The Incredibles, which takes a lot from this book.

The upcoming film has renewed interest in the novel thanks to its brilliant trailer, which is unquestionably the most exciting movie preview I’ve ever seen. I hear that copies of Watchmen are flying off the shelves of every LCS and even regular bookstore around. Good. I hope everyone on Earth buys a copy; hell, buy two copies in case one breaks down. I for one am hoping to replace my paperback with the beautiful Absolute edition hardcover when it gets a re-release.

Grade: A+, and that’s underselling

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3 Responses to Classics Corner Volume 1: Watchmen

  1. erikaszabo says:

    Impressive review! Can’t wait to read more by you, Jake.

    Look out for my analysis of Watchmen later this week.