Thursday, October 30, 2008

Watchmen: The Official Haiku Review

I've still been too harried to spare two hours to sit down and watch a classic movie, but I did get through a work that Time magazine hailed as one of the 100 greatest English-language novels from 1923 to the present. (Nice thing about books: you can digest them a chapter at a time.) Entertainment Weekly recently ranked it as #13 on their list of the greatest novels of the past 25 years. Oh, and it helped legitimize a genre: before it was published in 1986-87, you called them "comics" and you found them at newsstands and specialty shops, not in the book store's "graphic novel" section. So here, without further ado, is my review of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 1987 classic Watchmen.

What is a hero?
Outlaw, steward, idol, god?
No, merely human.

I suppose today, after a decade of popular movies eager to explore their heroes' darker sides (the new Star Wars films, The Dark Knight), that Watchmen might not seem unusual. But it was groundbreaking at the time, and even now it seems to go further into exploring real flaws than anything else I've ever read or seen. The mostly-retired masked heroes in Watchmen include a violent psychopath, an attempted rapist, an impotent has-been, a self-serving businessman, and a woman with severe mommy issues. The only one with true superpowers (he is able to see and affect all quantum states of matter) has becoming emotionally divorced from humanity. The plot revolves around the murder of one of these heroes, which leads the rest to explore if (and why) there is a plot against them all. The conclusion (which I won't give away) is bleak—there's no justice in the usual sense—and yet it feels totally real and satisfying.

So, the subject matter and characterization aren't what you typically think of when you think "comics"; in addition, the structure is very complex. There are numerous flashbacks that reveal the characters' histories; there are "documents" appended to each chapter (some written by the characters themselves) which give more details; and throughout is a comic-within-a-comic that further explores the themes of heroism and villainy. As for the graphics, they contain all sorts of details that reinforce the story; I'm sure I would catch many more of them on a second reading.

Now, I have to admit I was a comic book nerd when I was a kid; I have very fond memories of my dad taking me down to the old Blue Front in Ann Arbor and letting me browse the comics (and candy) shelves. I grew out of them—I couldn't read them regularly, so I couldn't benefit from the longer story arcs—but I still love comic book movies and hit most of the big ones. (My favorite this year: Iron Man.) Still, I don't think I'm being a fangirl when I say that Watchmen has the depth and complexity of the best classic fiction. I hear rumors that the upcoming movie adaptation will remain fairly faithful to the original novel, if the current studio wrangling over its release doesn't end up getting it butchered or canceled. If so, I'll be in line opening weekend.

Oh, and having enjoyed one classic graphic novel, I decided to check out another. Coming soon: a review of Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-winning Maus.


  1. Yay! The Watchmen is so rich and a highly rewarding read - very glad you enjoyed, Diane. I'm also waiting impatiently for the movie - watching just the preview gives me chills for what promises to be a faithful adaptation. Great review!

  2. Hmm. Will have to check it out.

    My word verification is "lessessy." Sounds like it should mean something.

  3. Hey! I didn't know you were a Michigander! My wife grew up in Plymouth and we lived in Taylor for eight years.

    I enjoyed that review. Have you seen the movie, now?

    I love all of the ways Moore transitioned through the book. One particular moment that I always enjoyed was the soon to be Dr Manhattan wanting to be a watch maker, but his father throws out the watch and the pieces of the watch become more and more "detached" which brings us to the current Doc. Nifty storytelling there!