"Laurie, I'm 65. Every day the future looks a little bit darker. But the past, even the grimy parts of it…well, it just keeps on getting brighter all the time."
-- Absent Friends
***Note: spoilers in comments following the post***
The Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, is the best selling graphic novel that gave us the recent blockbuster movie and defined an entire genre of adult superhero books.
To begin with, this is a great book. But despite the comic book format, it is not for kids. It's filled with violence, sex, and NSFW language. This is a dark book. By way of example, there is a subplot where one of the characters builds a raft out of the corpses of his friends and co-workers.
Pixar's, "The Incredibles" draws one of its main plotlines from the Watchmen. They both take place in a world where the government regulates superheroes. They are not allowed to practice their vocation and most of the them have retired to different lives.
The story takes place in and alternative history in 1985. Nixon is still president. Dr. Manhattan has brought a wealth of new technology and energy independence to the US, and made the US the world's premiere superpower. The story moves along as old heroes start dying or disappearing and the Soviets invade Afghanistan. The rest of the story unfolds against this background.
Had I read this when I was in High School or College, I might have been most caught up in story of the dark nature of the world. Or perhaps the equally prominent story about the importance of being true to your own nature.
"I've heard all the psychologists' theories, and I've heard all the jokes and the rumors and the innuendo, but what it comes down to for me is that I dressed up like an owl and fought crime because it was fun and because it needed doing and because I goddam felt like it."
-- Under the Hood Section II
Reading it before my recent birthday, however, it struck me more as a story about aging. The characters spend as mush time looking back as they do looking forward. It's about the choices they made in their youth, why they made them, and how they got to where they are today. Most the individual characters' stories began years before the book begins. The text references those old stories and draws is gravity from them, but rarely tells us more than they bare essentials of what happened years ago. The theme of loss, aging, and irrelevance is strong in the book. The characters wrestle with the world changing around them, and with their own life choices.
For many of the characters, the story in the Watchmen is a story of their own regret.
And that's one of the great things about this book. In addition to the solid plot and interesting characters, its themes work on several different levels. Readers at different points in their lives can get different things from it.
The characters are larger than life exaggerations, and lack the realism of characters in a traditional novel. It works in this format however. At times, though, the characters become parodies of comic book heroes. I think that's intentional, but it sometimes takes me out of the story.
The story moves along at a deliberate pace. It never feels rushed, and rarely feels like it's lagging. The ending ties things together nicely, but I found it unsatisfying. It's not out of line with the tone of the book though, so I suppose I shouldn't criticize that.
In addition to the main story, they intersperse additional tales in the main text. Plus, between each "issue" or chapter of the book, they inlucde additional pieces. Those pieces tell us more about the individual characters. One is an interview with a retired hero. One is psyche evaluation of a character. Another is an academic paper written by the one of the characters. These extras flesh out the characters and add another element to the book. But I don't want to deconstruct this book too much. As Nightowl says in his paper:
"I believe that in approaching our subjects with the sensibilities of statisticians and dissectionists, we distance ourselves from the marvelous and spell-binding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place.
"That is not to say that we should cease to establish facts and to verify our information, but merely suggest that unless those facts can be imbued with the flash of poetic insight then they remain dull gems; semi-precious stones scarcely worth collecting."
-- Blood from the Shoulder of Pallas
The Watchmen is a nice, compelling read. Even if the payoff isn't quite there at the end, it is still time well spent. While I don't have share the fanaticism of some readers, I can definitely recommend it to someone who wants to explore the dark side of superheroes, flesh out their geek cred, or see what graphic novels are about. Despite the mixed reviews the movie has gotten I look forward to seeing that, too.
The Watchmen is not for everybody, but if anything I've said here appeals to you, pick up a copy and spend some time with and important and interesting text.
You can find more of my book reviews here.