DayBooks: 25-Nov-89 (Lowell, MA) Review of Watchmen

<The following is a review that I wrote on November 25, 1989. It describes a literary work called Watchmen. It was published a few weeks later in Beacon, the monthly newsletter of Boston Area Mensa. -=DAH=- 21-Jan-96>


[Comix HomePage] Watchmen: A Review
by Dennette A. Harrod, Jr

The first image you see is a yellow smiley-face button with a drop of something red crossing one eye. You soon realize that the button is resting in a gutter full of the red stuff, which turns out to be blood. By the time you reach the bottom of the page, it becomes obvious that someone wearing the button was defenestrated from a great height and landed on the pavement below.

Three panels from Page One

This is the first page of what most people would call a comic book, but with 384 pages and a $14.95 cover price, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is more of a graphic novel. It is definitely not for children. This is pretty strong even for some adults. As an introduction to the genre, it is a work of epic proportions that will keep you glued to the pages well into the late hours of the night.

It starts as a murder mystery. The victim was a "costumed vigilante" called The Comedian, whose career began in the late 1930's. In the first chapter, we meet several of his contemporaries, most of whom are in forced retirement. It turns out that society eventually rebelled against the plethora of "caped crusaders." Congress passed a law banning super-heroes after a nation-wide police strike to protest their activities. One of the "masks", a mysterious characters known as Rorschach, refused to retire. He undertakes the investigation of the death of The Comedian.

In a story that covers three weeks of October, 1985, we are treated to forty years of "alternate" American history through flash-backs, magazine articles, and excerpts from an autobiography. We meet Dr. Manhattan, a being with god-like superpowers that are the result of a nuclear accident in the 1950's. Thanks to his intervention, America won the war in Viet Nam, and the Soviets refuse to negotiate arms reduction until we include Dr. Manhattan as a "weapon". Nixon is in his third term. The Comedian single-handedly freed the American hostages from Iran.

The characters are anything but cardboard. The second Silk Spectre is a woman who is bitter about her mother having denied her a normal childhood by training her as a replacement. Confined to a nursing home, mom is vicariously attempting to continue an adventurous life through her daughter's exploits. Rorschach is the abused, bastard son of a prostitute, but his psychotic behavior is based on a noble value system. Dr. Manhattan is a bit like Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five in that he lives simultaneously in the past, present, and future.

The second chapter revolves around the funeral of The Comedian, and we see him through the eyes of different people who knew him during his career. It is not a pretty picture. For a "good guy," he is not what you would call a role-model. The flash-backs segue with the funeral in a fluid, almost cinematic way. It might take the reader a while to get used to the segues between action taking place simultaneously in New York and California. In another cinematic device, the words from one scene are frequently superimposed on the images of the other. This is actually preparing the reader for things to come.

There is a very interesting sub-plot which involves a kid reading a "traditional" comic book, a pirate story, in which the words and images fuse with the events going on around him. In fact, a lot of the story takes places in a neighborhood in New York City which centers around one intersection where an old man runs a news stand. Most of the characters eventually pass through this intersection and pass the boy reading his comic, although none engage him in conversation. It really takes a second reading to appreciate the importance of this corner, and the way in which the characters have been so long inter-related without being aware of each other.

This work was originally published over the course of a year, in twelve monthly installments as a "maxi-series" of comic books. At the end of each "chapter", there are a few pages of text which provide background for the characters and the plot. There are chapters from the first Nite Owl's autobiography, in which we discover that some of the men (and women) who wore skin-tight costumes and capes were closet homosexuals. There is an article by the second Night Owl from an ornithological journal. There is a Playboy-type interview with the first Silk Spectre and clippings from her scrap-book. There is a page from Rorschach's police blotter and psychiatric reports from the foster home where he was raised. The essay entitled, "Dr. Manhattan: Super-powers and the Superpowers," explores the geo-political consequences of having a real superman on America's side.

Alan Moore spent five years creating this story, and the beauty of it is that he has described each panel in such intricate detail that Dave Gibbons' pen makes us forget we are looking at static pictures on paper. There are several scene's involving Rorschach where we are treated to three or more pages of nine panels each where there is not a single word spoken, nor is any needed. There are other places where the segue between two scenes is like a cinematic dissolve, because the graphic elements of the two panels are identical. The words and pictures of the pirate story that the kid is reading are intermixed with the words and pictures of the story we are reading. The symbols of one matching the symbols of another form a kind of verbal/visual pun-manship which is delightful.

The title Watchmen is derived from the same source as the epigraph of the Tower Commission Report; "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes," or "Who watches the watchmen?" Watchmen starts as a murder mystery, and ends with a man killing half the population of New York City in order to save the world from thermonuclear destruction. One is compelled to ponder when is a heinous act not as heinous as inaction (Truman's dilemma in using the atomic bomb against Japan), and who has the right to make such a decision?

The last image you see is a yellow smiley-face with a drop of something red crossing one eye. This time, the red stuff is borscht.

-=DAH=- 25-Nov-89


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