Posted by: Mark | November 14, 2008

“Who Watches the Watchmen?”

Warning: I spoil the plot of “Watchmen” in this entry. Alan Moore, author of “Watchmen,” has repeatedly said in interviews that the point of the book is NOT the plot, but various other elements. As such, by spoiling the plot, I don’t feel that bad.


I just finished reading “Watchmen,” one of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time, which is a good place to start since it was my first one. One of my students lent it to me in light of the upcoming movie release–it’s due out in March ’09–and I’m really glad I read it. Typically if I watch a movie like “V for Vendetta” (another Alan Moore graphic novel) then I tell myself I’d love to read the novel, but never actually get around to it. By reading “Watchmen” first, I have set myself up for a very anxious next few months as I anticipate the movie.

The book is awesome. It’s about a bunch of retired superheroes who are slowly but surely being targeted for murder. In that regard, it almost reminded me a bit of the Pixar movie “The Incredibles,” as superheroes reluctantly disappear into the shadows after public opinion rejects them. In fact, the heroes of “Watchmen” do not actually have super powers akin to Superman (with one notable exception, Dr. Manhattan, but his powers are accidental). Instead, they are all just vigilantes who have independently taken up masks and arms in the fight against crime, which definitely makes them a rather strange group. However, it also makes them have a vast amount of Awesomeness in the same way that Batman is bad-ass for just being skilled, rather than gifted with powers at birth.

The book is incredibly literary and makes vast allusions to mythology, history, and poetry, but the most striking reminder I could find of the “Watchmen” in literature is in Dostoevksy’s Crime and Punishment. In C&P, protagonist Raskalnikov comes up with the theory that some people are destined to help humanity, and as such can totally get away with doing “bad” things every now and then. Raskalnikov acts out upon this theory by murdering what he deems to be a meaningless old woman in the first 50 pages, and the rest of the book is a cat-and-mouse detective chase. The superheros in Moore’s novel are exactly like this, taking justice into their own hands, regardless of the means.

The end result is that one of the supeheroes, in the quest to rid the world of war and nuclear destruction, resorts to catastrophically fatal tactics. If the movie stays true to the story of the graphic novel, audiences will be shocked by the near-apocalypse at the end.

Reading this book at the end of the Bush era has emphatically underscored in my mind the pervasive question of the whole book, “Who Watches the Watchmen?” In other words, who keeps our authority figures in check? I am sure that audiences in March will also equate the attacks on New York from “Watchmen” with the September 11 attacks, and may do the same when thinking of Veidt’s stalwart utilitarianism in calculating that in order to do good for humanity, you need to be prepared to take away freedoms, civil liberties, and even lives.

The experience of reading a graphic novel was much more challenging, and consequently rewarding, than I had anticipated. While respecting graphic novels from afar, I had always harbored a suspicion that they were easy to read, which is far from the truth. The only written words are dialogue, but the drawn images replace the pages and pages of descriptions that you would find in a more traditional novel, and I found myself dwelling upon frames to try and fully understand what was happening. As a guy who likes to make movies, it felt quite nicely like a storyboard, and I can see why directors have been tempted to make the movie since the series first came out in the late 1980s. (In fact, the upcoming film is the third attempt to make “Watchmen” into a movie.) I really enjoyed the process of slowing down while reading and reveling in the actual visual depictions. Also, each individual chapter loves to feature multiple stories happening at once, whether it be a comic within a comic, or the loosely connected activities of main characters a la “Seinfeld,” adding to the complexity of the story and the accomplishment of unpacking it.

On the whole, you should read this graphic novel. Try and make it a priority before the movie comes out in March. That gives you a ton of time. If the hype over this past summer’s “Dark Night” is any guide, “Watchmen” will become a media frenzy blockbuster, and as the date gets closer you will wish you had read the book. So give it a try, and enjoy.

I’ve also posted the Watchmen Trailer here. It’s the official released trailer, and the PR guy at the end advocating the movie speaks volumes for why it is worthwhile to read.


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