Monday, September 20, 2010

Changing Minds About The Medium, Watchmen Is A Superb Graphic Novel!

The Good: Interesting characters, Engaging plot, Clever concept, Well-written
The Bad: Narrative structure, Editing/Censorship
The Basics: A fairly incredible graphic novel, when retired superheroes are hunted and discredited, it seems to relate to a plan to bring about nuclear armageddon between the US and the USSR!

I would like to talk, for a moment, about the penis. The penis; the organ with perhaps the most euphemisms associated with it - phallus, dick, prick, wang, johnson, and hundreds of others - this body part is found on almost half the world's population. There is, perhaps, no organ which is more feared (ask any young girl who has seen a real Greek performance of Lysistrata!) or shamed (women will always have men wondering if size DOES matter . . .) than the human penis. In art and literature, its appearance is almost always treated with fear, respect or utter mockery. Seldom is it simply treated with the callous disregard with which female nudity is, especially in movies. So, when I prepared to pick up Watchmen, I was especially surprised to learn that the graphic novel - originally released in the mid 1980s - had featured full frontal male nudity and that the current reprintings (I was told with much dismay by comic book aficionados) were editing the penis of the naked floating blue guy, Dr. Manhattan, out. Specifically, page 20 in Chapter 4 was cited by those in the know as having an image of Dr. Manhattan wearing a strange black brief (visible on many other pages as well) when none appeared in the original comics. This came in preparation for the Watchmen film. With Hollywood's fear of the wood, we had to expect modifications to Dr. Manhattan. It seems disappointing that something so simple would require so many editorial changes in making the comic books into a graphic novel like this one and that our society is so squeamish toward something half the population has.

I picked up Watchmen because when watching The Dark Knight I was blown away by the trailer for the film based upon the graphic novel. The preview was perfect; it told me nothing about the movie and made me want to see it more than any other film on the next year's docket. Reading Watchmen, I found myself all the more eager to see how the film would be pulled off (check out that review soon!). I have been picking up graphic novels of late (see links below) and Watchmen is another in a long series that appears to be an anthology of comic books rather than a graphic novel exclusively. This, unfortunately, works against the overall narrative and is what keeps it from perfection in my mind and reviewing standards.

In the autumn of 1985, the world is falling apart at the seams. In New York City, a former super hero is killed, sparking a series of events which put the entire world in jeopardy. The militant right-wing government-sponsored mercenary known as the Comedian, thrown out the window of his apartment, inspires the last remaining masked super hero, an enigmatic moral absolutist named Rorschach to begin an investigation. After warning the other super heroes from their aborted group from the mid-1960s, the powerful Dr. Manhattan is implicated in a number of cancer-related deaths, billionaire industrialist Adrian Veidt is shot at in the lobby of his own offices and Rorschach is caught by the police after a decade of them pursuing him.

With most of the former masked adventurers taken out of action, it falls to the reluctant Laurie Juspeczyk (formerly the Silk Spectre) and Dan Dreiberg (who had previously taken up the mantle of Nite Owl when the original one retired) to pick up Rorschach's investigation. Soon, though, it appear that the end of the world truly is nigh and without the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan, Laurie and Dan's efforts forced them to rely on the world's smartest man, Veidt, to try to save the planet.

What works incredibly well in Watchmen is that it is clever, fairly well-constructed and it develops in a mature and clever fashion over the twelve chapters in the graphic novel. Like all great works, seeds are planted in the beginning and they develop, grow and are paid off near the end. The book requires patience, intelligence and trust in author Alan Moore. Fortunately, that investment is paid off.

Moore does not make this easy for the reader, though. First, the world of Watchmen is presented in many layers, rewriting history with a strong sense of storytelling that almost requires a chart to follow it. This is because there are two crime fighting organizations mentioned in Watchmen and Edward Blake was a part of them both. In the 1940s, there were the Minute Men, costumed crusaders who fought crime. Blake joined them as the Comedian and then was part of an ill-fated attempt in the mid-1960s by a new generation of costumed crime fighters to form their own league of super heroes. The Comedian was largely responsible for that effort failing. While there are members of the later group, notably Juspeczyk and Dreiberg, who bore the names of retired super heroes, this is not terribly confusing. What is a bit more problematic is the somewhat pointless references to retired Minute Men who serve only to distract some from the main plot - though the Sally Jupiter story is integral to Laurie's character development.

Second, with the sheer number of characters involved in the various flashbacks, the artwork has moments where it lacks distinction. This is not to disparage Dave Gibbons, who does a pretty spectacular job throughout the book, but some of the costumed crusaders look alike as do some of the characters out of their guises.

That said, there is only one serious problem with Watchmen; it follows too closely to its comic book origins. At the end of each comic book there were pages from other documents in the Watchmen world, most notably "Under The Hood," Hollis Mason's biography from how he became the Nite Owl. Thus, the story is broken up between past super heroes, recently retired super heroes (the Keane Act of 1977 made vigilante-ism illegal and all by Rorschach complied with that law), a comic book and outside references to various characters. And the last straw is that last one. The comic book - wherein a pirate story is used to mirror the moral decay of the world after the USSR invades Afghanistan and threatens Pakistan - breaks up several different narratives and that works all right. But when one has at least five main protagonists whose stories are broken up and intertwined WHILE weaving them between a pirate story with the same themes, external documents like the Ozymandias toy line memos just kills the momentum. While I tend to want to respect the original vision and presentation of a work, in Watchmen, this comes across as sloppy and further confuses the reader. A vastly better way to arrange the supplemental materials would have been as prologue ("Under The Hood" segments) and appendices (things like the Adrian Veidt interview) materials. Similarly, in keeping the integrity of the original comic books intact, Watchmen is numbered every thirty-two pages (page counts restart with each chapter).

Barring that, Watchmen is impressive enough that it is one of the few graphic novels I have read that I will be keeping on my shelves. First, the characters are interesting and the history is unique to this story. So, none of the characters from other DC or Marvel comics pop up, the Watchmen are unique to this book. Rorschach is a perfect morally absolute vigilante whose story actually makes the reader question what motivates him. He has an absolute sense of right and wrong and evil is brutally punished by him. Similarly, Dr. Manhattan is a floating blue man with the ability to reorganize matter with just his thoughts, inspiring him to flee to Mars when the apocalypse is at hand! And Laurie, his lover, struggles with her emotions in processing his inability to relate to her and all of humanity and her desire for him.

Dave Gibbons comes to the forefront of his craft when establishing Dan. In every scene that has Dan, long before his feelings for Laurie are revealed, are obvious by the way Gibbons has Dan postured. It's brilliant and an incredible use of the medium.

As for Ozymandias - Adrian Veidt - I salute Alan Moore. Far too often, heroes or villains are characterized with the superlative; in this case, Veidt is called the smartest man on Earth. As a result, the reader's expectation for such a character has to be surprise. In order for us to plausibly believe that Veidt is the smartest man on Earth, we expect him to put things together faster and in a way that surprises us. In other words, in order to believe that Veidt is as smart as he is billed as, we must not be able to reach the conclusions before Veidt does and in this regard, Moore does not disappoint.

But more than anything, Watchmen is a remarkably tight conspiracy theory story surrounding one dastardly plan to bring about the end of the world. It is clever, remarkably well-constructed and well-developed. The characters are rich and the layers, though sometimes complex, all add up to one solid story with clues peppered on every page. Like any good book, it requires patience and when I sat down to read Watchmen, I thought it would be a light afternoon's read. Not so. This book is densely written and attention must be paid to every plotline alluded to.

It is not surprising Time magazine named Watchmen one of the best 100 novels since 1923; it is clever, despite its structural problems related to maintaining its original presentation as a comic book. That said, it is easy to overlook graphic novels and Watchmen makes the case - and well - for the graphic novel to be considered more the "novel" than just a collection of comic books. And as for the graphic, Watchmen certainly is that, too. After all, not all of the penises are edited out.

For other graphic novels reviewed by me, please check out my reviews of:
Lost Girls
Who Is Wonder Woman?


For other book reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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