Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

My Graphic Novel education continues with Watchmen. I'm not a massive superheroes fan, and haven't seen most of the DC/Marvel films, so wasn't really sure what to expect from this. As it happens I enjoyed it immensely and it leaves the reader with a hell of a lot to think about.

Watchmen is set in a sort of alternate future (possibly 1980s?) New York. From the drab, graffiti filled streets and the uneasy aura of depression and fear that infects the location and its inhabitants, it's not hard to surmise that it's not a happy place. In this reality, superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s to national fame and adulation, helpfully assisting the United States in its Vietnam victory. Nowadays tensions are rising once more and the USA are on the verge of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Hence the unease. Freelance, costumed vigilantes have been discredited and outlawed and many of the former superheroes so decorated and applauded in the past are either in hiding, retirement or working for the Government. Think the concept of Pixar's The Incredibles, but set in the oppressive world of Batman's Gotham City.

The plot starts with the murder of a government-employed superhero. His death pulls the remaining superheroes out of retirement in order to investigate and to prevent themselves or their colleagues from being the next victim. Each of the former heroes has to come to terms with their altered place in the world and many of them struggle with their responsibilities to themselves, each other and to the public. Some hanker for the thrill of the chase, some believe they were never truly themselves out of costume. The novel spends a great deal of time developing the unique traits of the characters, giving them motivations, heroes, backstories and inner conflicts. This is done in a variety of ways; through interactions with each other, flashbacks and most effectively through miscellaneous documents that are injected into the narrative. These include ephemera (favourite word alert) such as extracts from characters' autobiographies, newspaper articles, interview transcripts and so on. Watchmen definitely suggests that the life of a superhero is more guilt driven duty than heroism. Personally I found the fictional documents structure really added a great deal to the plot- it gave it more depth and really allowed the reader to understand the complexity of the characters and their seemingly impossible daily conflicts.

The way that the book mirrored real life, but took a few well selected alternate paths was excellent. I've no doubt that's why the tension and the unease was so strong and the fear so prevalent. Most noticably, rather than developing nuclear weapons during WW2, in this reality the US accidentally created Dr. Manhatten, a radioactive superhuman that can pare the world back to its elements and sees all of time at once. He's the main cause of the US/Soviet tension and the only true suerhero in the novel. It was genuinely interesting to see a character with all the Universe's secrets be so disillusioned and sulky.

I loved the structure of this book, its murky purple/brown/red palate and how clever and thought provoking its messages were. The recurring images (the blood soaked smiley face, the five-to-midnight clock, the intertwining of the narrative with the horrific fictional comic Tales of the Black Freighter) really effectively contributed to the sense of time ticking down. It always felt like there was some huge, disastrous even that everything was building up to, a nihilistic speeding towards the inevitable from the very beginning. It's rarely as simple as good versus evil, and I think that that awareness is perhaps what elevates Watchmen over much of its comic series contemporaries. It's having a bit of a dig at the superhero concept, as well as commenting on the ethics of scientific progression, weapons development and the cost and effect of fame. Questions are asked about the validity of war, and the price of peace and for that conflict alone it's worth investigating. Brilliant stuff.

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