Watchmen is a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It won a Hugo Award and is heralded as one of Time Magazine‘s 100 best novels of any medium. Like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (the only other graphic novels I have read other than a little bit of manga), Watchmen proved to me that graphic novels can be as literary and brilliant with as complex a plot and characterization as any novel – and even more so than many. It’s very impressive that a story containing so few words can contain so much detail and depth. Watchmen contains a mystery, character study, social commentary, and a love story, while challenging the traditional superhero comic archetypes.
The story takes place in an alternative mid-1980s in which costumed vigilantes formed the Crimebusters group and fought crime until this was outlawed by the Keene Act in 1977. Now most of the few former heroes who remain have retired from the business of saving the world, other than a couple who work for the government and Rorschach, who has a strong belief in his idea of justice and refuses to give up. The costumed heroes are ordinary people who have no superpowers with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, who gained godlike powers through an accident at the nuclear research laboratory he worked at. The U.S. government uses him to their advantage to keep Soviet Russia under control.
The novel throws readers right into the story with the investigation of the murder of one of the vigilantes, Edward Blake–also known as The Comedian. Once the detectives leave the scene of the crime, Rorschach does some poking around of his own and then proceeds to warn the other former Crimebusters that he believes any one of them could be next. Known for his general craziness and paranoia, the other vigilantes dismiss Rorschach’s warnings until one of them is attacked.
Watchmen is broken up into 12 chapters with each separated by an essay, novel excerpt, or newspaper clipping providing some further insight. The first chapter introduces the various characters as Rorschach visits them to inform them of the death of The Comedian. From there, the story moves forward but is interspersed with many flashbacks about the history of the various characters that fleshes out each of them with very vivid personalities.
- Rorschach has a fanatical belief in right and wrong and perceives the world around him as very black and white. He’ll take any measures to make sure his concept of justice is carried out, regardless of means. Excerpts from his journal tells a lot about his worldview and how he thinks.
- Dr. Manhattan is no longer fully human and is becoming more and more detached from humanity. What would you expect of a glowing blue guy who can manipulate matter and has no concept of linear time?
- Nite Owl is a middle aged, overall quiet well-mannered nice guy who took over after the first Nite Owl retired. Although he’s retired, he has a room for all his dusty gadgets and airship. Although he’s the most clearly “good” of all the characters, he was still well done.
- Silk Spectre II resents being pressured into becoming a hero by her mother, the first Silk Spectre, and being kept around by the military for the sole purpose of keeping Dr. Manhattan happy. (She is the one I felt had the least depth of all the characters even though she is present a lot and seems important, since she seems to exist mainly for interactions with the other characters. For instance, she often serves as a plot device to cause Dr. Manhattan to act. Much of the time she seems very angry and whiny, which is to be expected from someone harboring as much resentment as she does, but it does get annoying at times. However, I did enjoy her scenes with her mother and Nite Owl.)
- Ozymandias is a well-known, wealthy businessman and the world’s most intelligent man. His personal hero is Alexander the Great.
- The Comedian was obnoxious, arrogant, and ill-mannered, and even attempted raping the first Silk Spectre. Yet Rorschach muses that he’s the only one who really seems to get the joke that is life.
What I loved about the characters is that each had a clear motivation for their actions and never seemed out of character. Not only were we told that Ozymandias was intelligent but we were shown he was. Even the darker characters were not completely evil and showed glimmers of goodness and humanity.
Watchmen asks a lot of questions, some serious and some somewhat humorous. The most famous of course is “Who watches the watchmen?” but it also dwells on what type of person would decide to don a costume to fight crime and the impracticality of capes. Instead of the “heroes” being merely good people who want justice in the world, they tend to be mentally imbalanced or egotistical and flamboyant personalities. Are these really the types of people who should have power and be held up on a pedestal? Do the fair and right causes they take on justify the rough means they sometimes take to get there? Is enough good done by them to balance out the bad aspects of these flawed crimefighters?
Since the background of the characters and the important aspects of the story are slowly revealed, Watchmen makes more sense once you get to the end. For most of the novel, I enjoyed it but also found myself wondering what the big deal was. Once I got to the end, everything fit together beautifully and it’s one of those rare books that grew on me more and more after I was finished with it. Normally, the memory of a book fades over time and if I tend to feel differently about it later, I like it less than I did initially. This is one I could reread and probably come away with a lot more than the first reading.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel was the end. I do not want to give too much away but the ending was perfect and the revelation of the villain and his speech was such a great moment and a great twist on the stereotypical bad guy.
Watchmen is dark, cynical and amazing with excellent characters, a riveting plot, and some thoughtful themes. It’s a novel for the reread pile.