Who watches the Watchmen?

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?



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2 responses to “Who watches the Watchmen?

  1. Bronwen

    Surprise! You have a sixth (albeit inconsistent) reader!

    I completely agree with your assessment of the book. I read it recently too, and was unable (or not interested in taking the time) to put my finger on why I wasn’t blown away by it, but you’ve done a nice job here. It really just isn’t THAT spectacular. It may have been at the time of its release, but it isn’t anymore.

    It’s the Citizen Kane of the graphic novel.

  2. Joseph Watts

    Nice, Bronwen. “The Citizen Kane of graphic novels,” I like that.


    Yes. It’s true. Watchmen was somewhat underwhelming. I think it was the plot line, or rather, the numerous plot lines, all but one of which were dead ends. A comic book within a comic book about the ramifications of taking comic books too seriously was interesting, but ineffective. “The Dark Frigate,” or whatever, was kind of boring, as was the story around the newsstand (did Nova Express and the New Frontiersman need a recurring point of sale?).

    Remember “The Mousetrap,” Hamlet’s play-within-a-play. It was short, the reader knows nothing of it’s production besides a few short scenes with actors, and most importantly, it’s crucial to the plot. “The Dark Frigate” went on and on in it’s boring-ness. And all the back story? And the constant crossover of narration between plot lines? Like Kane’s Rosebud (and Benj. Button’s hummingbird), I thought I heard someone whisper loudly behind me, “…Symbolism!”

    What I did like was Moore’s character development. Here he used the medium to its fullest effect. Beyond the relationship between Silver Spectre and Nite Owl or Rorschach’s childhood, Moore focused on the difference between the man within the costume and the costume itself. Each had it’s own history independent of one another. Part of what makes the Comedian so heartless is that there was no differentiation; he was an asshole with or without the mask.

    And Doctor Manhattan. Wow. The character is an anthropomorphic atom bomb. What if what won the Second World War wasn’t a device but a man? Would he still be a man? Now that’s interesting. He provides the Watchmen’s greatest chance at success, both textually and visually. I urge you to reread his chapter(s) and see what Moore did right. If only he didn’t waste so time with the minutia (like Charles goddam Dickens) and put such power and depth into his plot, I would have agreed with Time magazine.

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