This week ticks off another box of my “books I’ve been meaning to read for a while” list: Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Confession: having now read it, I feel daunted by the prospect of talking intelligently about it as I’m still wrapping my mind around its conclusion. But here goes.
This influential graphic novel, set in an alternate 1985 where the world is on the brink of war, begins with a murder. Edward Blake, otherwise known as The Comedian, a former member of a vigilante justice group, has been murdered. The only remaining active member of the group, Rorschach (who narrates large portions of the story through his journal entries) investigates, re-establishing contact with the other members as it becomes clear someone has it out for them. The rise and fall of masked superheroes (culminating in the 1977 Keene Act which outlawed masked vigilantism) plays out on the pages, interspersed with other subplots that initially seem unrelated, like the pirate-comic within the novel being read by a peripheral character that increasingly begins to coincide with present-day events. It is difficult to concisely summarize this one, which is probably why many blurbs and reviews don’t even try.
This is a dense read, both in terms of word-to- image ratio and concepts. The watchmen themselves are complex characters; Rorschach’s nihilism is particularly intriguing, but so too are the others as they are revealed: Doctor Manhattan’s almost clinical awareness of things as they occur and have occurred and have yet to occur, simultaneously; The Comedian’s cynical militarism; the original Silk Spectre’s self-loathing; Ozymandias bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. They each have their own private motivations for acting as they do, and they do so consistently if not always altruistically.
The bleakness and heaviness of the subject matter do not make this a quick read; indeed, it took a good third of the way in before I felt I had a grasp on how the various storylines fit together, so this is not necessarily a graphic novel to hand to a reader new to the genre. Interspersed between chapters are brief sections containing book excerpts, memos, and newspaper clippings, each further developing backstories and current events. After some of the unmaskings and revelations, the desire to go back and re-read to catch the foreshadowing is strong.
Fans of conventional superhero comics will not necessarily automatically like this. If Superman and Captain America give the reassurance of black and white, good and evil, Alan Moore’s palette is more one of greys—many, many shades of grey. Squeamish readers may also be put off by the violence and mature content. Readers looking for something dark and thought-provoking, however, will devour this.
I’m curious to read some more Alan Moore now, perhaps some V for Vendetta… after a suitable interlude of cute, fuzzy animals and fluffy escapism.