I just finished reading Watchmen, the comic that, on the heels of a much-hyped movie trailer, became last year’s bestselling graphic novel – two decades after its release. (The same trailer rocketed a mediocre Smashing Pumpkins song to the top of the iTunes charts, a tune originally featured on, of all things, the Batman and Robin soundtrack. This is the movie that temporarily killed the big-screen comic-book adaptation, and it remains the worst thing I’ve ever seen.)
I read Watchmen shortly after finishing Dune and The Wire, and fairly or not, they’re all grouped together in my head; all three are supposed to transcend their respective genres (graphic novel, science fiction, and cop drama), but I’m not sure any of them do. Watchmen is still just men and women in capes and tights, engrossing as a Cold War cultural artifact, better than your average superhero fantasy, but an uneven comic book all the same.
Watchmen is novel, or maybe it was at the time; if I can call it self-referential without sounding like a hack, then that’s what it is. Comic books themselves inspired Watchmen’s superheroes to dress up and play vigilante. Then it all went to hell, and those heroes are now retired, washed up, bloated, dead, government playthings, simple thugs, business tycoons.
Watchmen is also politically ambiguous. The villain is a utopian socialist, the antihero a reactionary, and neither is wholly good or bad. The theme is loosely anti-war, but as in most major comics, “justice” is a legal idea, not a social one. There are ethical ambiguities, too: A rape survivor falls in love with her assaulter, and at the climax, the reader is left with a crude but unsettling dilemma. Meaning is layered: “Who watches the watchmen?” recurs, as do clocks and time. Afghanistan looms large – it did in the eighties, but it gives Watchmen some startling contemporary resonance anyway.
But. These are superheroes, after all. Muscles and tits are everywhere, the dialogue is stilted in that oddly-emphasized comic-book way, and those aforementioned ambiguities might just be cheap, easy vagueness. Where the movie goes will be interesting – Watchmen’s author, Alan Moore, disowned film adaptations of his graphic novels following the godawful V For Vendetta. Anyway, to my five readers: have any of you read Watchmen? Joe, you lent it to me – what did you think of it?