Who watches the watchmen?
I recently read Alan Moore’s Watchmen for the first time. Initially, I was not impressed — the story didn’t immediately grab me; the artwork felt strangely muted; the fear of nuclear apocalypse antiquated. The quotes from various reviewers (“Watchmen is peerless”; “A brilliant piece of fiction”; “A work of ruthless psychological realism”) seemed overstated.
Time magazine included it in its list of “100 best English-language Novels since 1923”. I thought this curious. After all, Watchmen was initially released as 12 separate issues. Is it really any kind of novel at all? Deeper consideration had me thinking of Victorian novelists (Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and many others) whose work was published in serialised form* so my skepticism was overcome, at least on that front. What finally convinced me, however, is that the more analysis I have applied to Watchmen, the deeper I think about it, the more rewarding I found it. For me, only great books can have this effect.
Moore’s influences are varied and the references, both literary and pop-cultural are poignant. The story-telling devices also demonstrate Moore’s considerable talents at pastiche, as he moves from narration through the very traditional nine-panel-page, to a character’s auto-biography, psychiatric notes, academic work and fringe newspaper, among others. Watchmen tells of a world where relatively ordinary people don masks and costumes; “heroes” of a sort. The novel plays with the stereotypes, archetypes and tropes of comic book fiction. Hollis Mason (the original Nite Owl) wrote of one such costumed adventurer in his autobiography:
“Dollar Bill was one of the nicest and most straightforward men I have ever met, and the fact that he died so tragically young is something that still upsets me…. While attempting to stop a raid upon one of his employer’s banks, his cloak became entangled in the bank’s revolving door and he was shot dead at point blank range…”
There is no super-power at work here, no gadgets, no cave; no mutation, no radioactive spider. There is no origin story, explaining his need for vigilante justice. A college athlete, hired by a bank, to capitalise (or, more crudely, to cash in) on the costume fad.
The names of the heroes themselves, Dr Manhattan, Rorschach, The Comedian and Ozymandius, are evocative and plausible. The world they live in, more or less ours, resonates. The political dimensions, the moral ambiguity, the absence of any sense of “right” versus “wrong”, or “good” versus “evil” are delivered well. Although Batman might have his darker moments, Spiderman might have moments of indecision, doubt or self-pity, readers are never in any doubt about which side they are on. Watchmen operates on a different level — as the reader is exposed to the narration of each character (directly, or indirectly) it becomes more difficult to identify with only one point of view. How do you choose a side when both sides are as good (or bad) as each other?
The Tales from the Black Freighter story-within-a-story adds another dimension, offering a curious contrast. It works to make the familiar unfamiliar. It draws the attention of the reader to the fact that they are reading. To quote the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky:
“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.”
By including a reader of comics within his comic, Moore “lays bare the device”. Some interpret the story as a counter-point to the rest of Watchmen, but its relevance is deeper than that. The main character within this particular tale tragically mis-reads his own situation. It is only as the reader reaches the end of the story that this mis-reading is revealed, and the terrible consequences made clear. Precisely the same situation could be said to apply to each of the main protagonists within Watchmen, for various reasons. As the story unfolds, the reader becomes aware of the perils of mis-reading, or over-reading.
The strength of this graphic novel are also made plain in comparison with Zack Snyder’s film adaptation. The subtle changes to the ending (which I won’t go into), the increased levels of violence and the various editorial decisions which slightly alter the tone only serve to demonstrate the superiority of Moore’s vision.
I would encourage anyone with any interest whatsoever in mythology, storytelling, narrative and art to seek out Watchmen. I would urge them to persist, despite any nagging doubts. Immersing yourself in this world, holding it up to our own, and thinking on what it means to put on a mask offer offers insight and enjoyment.
No photos today. But a whole graphic novel awaits you all, go read it (or read it again!).
* “During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), in England, a publishing trend rose to popularity in the world of the novel called serialized fiction. The greatest novelists of the time, including Charles Dickens, George Eliot, William Thackeray and Joseph Conrad, chose to publish their newest works of fiction in installments.”