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Friday, September 5, 2008

Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore
Reason for Reading: Graphic Novel Challenge
Rating: 4/5

Watchmen is set in an alternate 1980's where different eras of costumed adventurers have already risen and fallen. They are normal humans with the usual human limitations, but each for their own reasons, they all feel the need to dress up in costume and fight evil.

However, after the Keene Act outlawed adventurers, no one seems to care much about them anymore. Until the Comedian is murdered and his fellow adventurer, Rorschach, takes it upon himself to investigate.

As Rorschach traces the clues to find the Comedian's killer, we also learn about the complicated history of the adventurers. In Alan Moore's vision, the desire to dress up and fight crime comes from a variety of motivations, not all being noble.

When I mentioned before that all of the Watchmen are normal humans, I neglected to mention one character. Dr. Manhattan is a creation of a freak laboratory accident (you know that there had to be at least one character created from a freak laboratory accident, didn't you?). Coming back to life as a creature that can bend time, space and matter to his will, Dr. Manhattan is hailed as the "New Superman", and the American government uses him to balance the terse threat of nuclear annihilation that exists between the U.S. and Russia.

The problem is, that Dr. Manhattan isn't someone you control, and right at the height of nuclear threat, he exiles himself to Mars.

So even if Rorschach and his friends find the killer, will it mean anything anyhow if the world is ending tomorrow?

What I really found intriguing about Watchmen was the extensive character development of each of the adventurers. Each had their own motivations, secrets, histories. There were a lot of interweaving plotlines, a lot of events that we go back to from a different perspective. I also liked the fact it didn't simplify anything. Complicated questions were asked, and although the book was resolved, it didn't neatly tie a bow on everything.

However, I had some mixed feelings towards this book. I'll repost what I mentioned the other day about this book:

(Watchmen) was the first superhero comic I have read and about halfway through I began to suspect it shouldn't have been my first read in that genre. Now, that's not to say I didn't like Watchmen... by the time I got to the end, everything had been wrapped up the way it should be, and I couldn't have imagined any other ending for the book, but how can I put it... it left me wishing for some other more traditional superhero ending, maybe?

Some readers helped me out by giving me some of their thoughts and opinions to chew on before I wrote this review. Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness wrote:

Watchmen is a pretty difficult comic book to start with -- it isn't so much part of the super hero genre as it making commentary on the genre itself. I really liked it, but I was reading it in a class and had a lot of opportunity to discuss it with others. I think it's one to think about, not necessarily to just read and put away, if that makes sense.

She posted a great review here, where she worked through a pretty detailed analysis. I couldn't agree more that the book is a commentary on the superhero genre. Although I have watched plenty of cartoons and movies, I have not read a single superhero comic book, so my appreciation might be more limited. It's pretty awesome that she got to read it in class and get all sorts of perspectives, because even reading through Kim's analysis, I totally missed a lot of the things she pointed out in my reading of the novel. I just wasn't looking for them.

Susan of You Can Never Have Too Many Books wrote:

I'm picking up Watchmen shortly, because of the movie, and I want to read it first. So my questions to you about your reading of it are: Is it worth reading? I know from one of your commentators that this comic book is making a comment on the genre; however, I want to know: does it succeed in commenting on it? Is it a smart (intelligent) comic book? Did you like the characters, and were there any you related to?

Yes, I think this book is worth reading, and even if you are a newbie to the genre, like me, I think you'd find it intriguing. You will probably appreciate it more if you collected comic books as a kid, however. I believe this graphic novel did succeed in being a commentary on the comic book genre. It was a serious "what if?" look at what it might take to put on a costume and fight crime. What if the head of your superhero league annoys you? What if you like working alone and not with a team? What if you didn't care so much about saving people as letting out your aggression? And probably, the biggest theme of the book, what determines the line between hero and villain?

It is definitely an intelligent comic book, and if I ever get the chance to reread it there are probably a million more details I'd pick up. The characters were very vivid, but I wouldn't call the majority of them likable. That's not a bad thing, because trying to have all likable characters would completely ruin the tone of the book. If I had to choose one character I related to, I suppose it would be Laurie, the second Silk Spectre. Laurie ends up somewhat unwillingly in the costumed adventurer lifestyle because her mother was the first Silk Spectre. Living up to her mother's expectations, trying to come to terms with the choices her mother made helped Laurie to be one of the most human, the most sympathetic characters. I mean, who hasn't had to deal with the fact your parents are actually people... with like hopes and dreams and aspirations and mistakes of their own.

What is kind of funny about this book is that as I've been thinking more and writing more about it, I find myself feeling more fondly towards it. My immediate reaction after turning the last page was much more WTH??? So in conclusion, if instead of going into the book expecting that it is a pleasure read, but rather that the enjoyment of the book might come with more reflection and analysis, you will find this to be an enjoyable read.

10 comments:

Rhinoa said...

I really must read this. Alex my husband says it is his favourite book of all time, which means I should read it just for that. Glad you enjoyed it so much.

Debi said...

Very interesting review, Kim! I'm embarrassed to admit that I only first heard of this a few months ago. I am so uncultured...what can I say? Anyway, you've definitely made me want to pick it up and give it a try.

Aaron said...

Part of what I appreciate most about Watchmen (apart from its commentary on (and deconstruction of) the superhero genre and its historical position of helping move superhero comics to a more mature, adult medium) is its many layers. The level of symbolism -- visual and written -- is staggering, and the way everything ties back around to reference itself and outside elements is incredible. The metastory included (Tales of the Black Freighter) is a really interesting device, too.

Like you, I'm a bit jealous of the person who was able to study it in a class. However, I can say from experience that the second read (mostly due to knowing the entire plotline in advance) is even more enriching than the first, though I can understand how a basic understanding of the forms and traditions of the genre would be beneficial to an initial read.

Still...glad you enjoyed it! Today or tomorrow, I think I will link up your review at my blog. I'm hoping some of my readers will enjoy it or benefit from it!

Nymeth said...

Don't you love it when that happens? I mean, growing fonder of a book the more you think about it.

I plan on reading this soon, but I think I'll pick up a few more superhero comics first. Thanks for the review.

Chris said...

You have me dying to read this one now Kim even though you had mixed feelings about it. It's sitting on my shelf...I just bought it a few weeks ago. I've always been a big fan of comics and embarassingly enough, I've never read this one! Looking forward to it now!

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

My husband just read this one for his book club (not surprising, it is a book club made up of all men). He liked it but I have no desire to pick it up. I'll just wait for the movie, because I can guarantee that we are going.

grayskyeyes said...

Thanks for the link and compliments -- I agree with you that it's a book that I like more and more the more I think about it. I wish I had time to re-read it, because I think Aaron is right that it gets better when you know what's going to happen and can focus on what you're read. But, grad school is getting in the way of my ability to read for fun!

Kim

Andi said...

I've had this one on my to read list for ages, and I feel like I'll be getting to it soon because of the movie and a general craving for comics. I'm glad you liked it overall, and I can't wait to chew it over!

Great review!

Trish said...

I've been very curious about this one--especially with the movie coming out soon. And I know what you mean about feeling more fondly toward the book. Often when I think about a book after I've finished with it I end up liking it even more (of course, the gems are the ones you DO think about when you are finished with them).

Dan Connell said...

I have to say that this is a must-read, no matter whether you're a superhero/comic book fan or not. The attention to characterisation, plot and symbolism help it to attain a state of near-perfection - especially if you consider it in the context of the era it was written in.

Anyone who enjoyed the complexities of 'The Dark Knight' would enjoy reading this.