I have been meaning to write another graphic novel for a while now. As a result I have decided to write another favourite of mine, Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Winner of the Hugo Award and listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels, Watchmen is arguably one of the most famous graphic novels of all time. It follows an ensemble cast of characters in an alternate version of the eighties where costumed heroes have been around since the eighties. After one of their own, The Comedian, is killed in cold blood the only active hero, Rorschach, becomes convinced that there is a plot afoot to kill costumed heroes, leading him to warn his former friends. As he continues his investigations events make him more and more convinced of his theory.
The plot is infinitely more complex than that, spiralling through a huge number of subplots that eventually add up to an epic climax. A lot of the subplots were interesting, particularly that of Rorschach’s origins. After his capture by the police a psychiatrist tries to examine why he is the way he is, leading Rorschach to discuss his origins including the incident which inspired him to abandon his civillian identity and become Rorschach full time. Not only is the flashback sequence great but it also gives the reader huge insight into Rorschach’s character and thought process. It also leads to the psychiatrist going through a mid life crisis of sorts, which is used to examine the book’s themes tackle the social apathy that plagues the world of the novel. This was a very interesting subplot to read, since ultimately it leaves the reader with a dark but ultimately positive message since the psychiatrist ultimately rejects Rorschach’s world view.
However there were a few lackluster subplots which seemed to get in the way. The most notable of these are Hollis Mason’s death, which serves no purpose but to give Nite Owl some grief shortly before the climax. Afterwards it isn’t mentioned again and the killers have no bearing on the overall plot. However the worst is the one that leads into the climax, namely the one involving artist who designed the creature used to trick the world during the final segments of the novel. The biggest issue is how in the background this is for something which becomes important later. Aside from a few fictional articles printed between the individual chapters and a bit of background dialogue in one scene, he isn’t foreshadowed until a few scenes later on.
Thus the subplot creates a weakness in the main plot since upon first reading the alien seems to come out of nowhere. Even on rereading it seemed very random and I still didn’t quite understand why people would believe an alien had attacked them since the notion would still seem quite outlandish. I would have preferred it if instead the perceived threat was more grounded. This is something the 2009 film did better, with the attack instead being made to look as though it was the work of Dr Manhattan. To me the alien ruined the realism of the novel a bit, since everything else seems grounded and logical, even Dr Manhattan is a grounded part of the setting due to the realistic way people treat a being of his level.
In terms of characters, almost all of them were strong and felt like real people. I have already gone into the reasons for Rorschach, though I should also give special mention to his journal which narrates over parts of the story. From the very start the journal gives you insight into Rorschach’s character and immediately suggests that he is slightly insane and might be an unreliable narrator as a result. Nite Owl’s struggle with his deep rooted desire to return to heroics is also easy to emphasise with. The Comedian somehow remains sympathetic even as you learn of all the horrible stuff he’s done through flashbacks. Dr Manhattan however is very interesting due to his alien nature. The extended flashback examining his origins is probably one of my favourite scenes in the entire novel, in part because of the narration within captions throughout the scene. In terms of function these captions serve a similar purpose to Rorschach’s journal, giving insight into Manhattan’s character. The only weak character is Silk Spectre, whose subplots don’t seem to interest me as much as the others but even then she functions reasonably well enough throughout the story.
Overall Watchmen is a very good novel and has every bit the quality you would expect from an Alan Moore graphic novel. Its flaws, if any, are that it tries to cram in too many subplots and at times forgets about them. It looks like a Superhero comic but it’s more than that. It’s a deconstruction of the superhero. It’s a commentary on life and politics. It’s a lot of things. For what it’s worth, Watchmen deserves the praise it has received over the years and to this day I still find myself going back to it and discovering new things which I never noticed before. For those who have yet to read it, do so. As a writer I have analysed this graphic novel many times, and will continue to do so for many times to come. Watchmen is timeless and there is no doubt that this book will always be a mainstay in my comic collection.
IN A WORD: BREATHTAKING