Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Watchmen / Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons

3 stars out of 5
This Hugo Award-winning graphic novel chronicles the fall from grace of a group of super-heroes plagued by all-too-human failings. Along the way, the concept of the super-hero is dissected as the heroes are stalked by an unknown assassin.

A formative volume in the history of the graphic novel. My impression is that Watchmen is the title that took the genre from being the lowly comic book and elevated it to the graphic novel level, garnering more respect for the illustrated story. As a child, I read stacks of comic books—Batman, Superman, Super Girl, Spiderman, plus the more traditionally female comics like Archie and Classics Illustrated. We had an enormous stack of comics, which my cousins used to enjoy when they came to visit. But I’m pretty sure that no one at that time considered them to be “literature.”

Watchmen takes many of the early tropes and turns them on their heads. The costumed “super” heroes are far from being the uncontested good guys that I remember reading about. . Rorschach is arguably a psychopath, holding people to his very strict “letter of the law” standards of justice, not recognizing compassion or extenuating circumstances. The Comedian is cynical from the very start and prefers expediency over the law. Doc Manhattan is the only one who truly possesses what we would consider to be super powers—and they remove him so far from human concerns that he gets distracted by the inner workings of subatomic particles.

We are left to wonder (and the characters sometimes discuss) what inspires a person to dress in tights and go out in the dark to fight crime. Are they noble or crazy? Or both? What qualifies them to put themselves forward as crime fighters? I found the women’s participation in this world very disturbing, as they most seem to be playing dress-up, rather than being functioning super heroes and they get pushed to the side as appendages to the men almost immediately.

The art work is detailed and dark. The story line is shot through with the fallout from the Second World War (when society thought we could tell the good guys from the bad guys) to a Cold War reality where our former allies, the Soviets, are suddenly a huge threat. Underlying the main story line is a comic book story, read by a bystander in the Watchmen’s world—a tale which is maybe even darker and more desperate than the main story line (and very meta).

I can certainly appreciate the effort that went into the creation of this volume—the deconstruction of the super hero, the examination of the changes in society, and so on. A little too dark and violent for my taste, however.

No. 216 of my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

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