Friday, June 22, 2012

On the Coffee Table: Watchmen

Title: Watchmen
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons

Image via DC Comics

When I started nosing around for "the good stuff" in comic books, Watchmen was the title that came up over and over again.  By the time I got around to reading it, I was already very familiar with Moore's work and had come to see his name as a dependable mark of quality.  Watchmen is quite justifiably regarded as his masterpiece, indeed the seminal work of the era.  There is so much to like about this book.  The text is beautiful and the artwork stunning.  I've been eager for complex characters in the comic medium and here they are.  I almost feel I should read the book again just to catch the stuff I missed the first time.  If you have any interest at all in comics or graphic novels, I must concur that this one's a must-read.

Watchmen turns the idea of superhero on its head, playing on Nietzsche's concept of the √úbermensch just as it offers dark comic parody of the cape-and-cowl characters of the DC and Marvel universes. The story reflects all the anxieties of the late Cold War - a determinedly dark tale which somehow manages to end with a message of hope.

The character of Dr. Manhattan - the real superhuman of the story, a far more powerful entity than his "costumed vigilante" colleagues - is particularly intriguing in light of another story I'm reading: Asimov's Foundation series.  While the stories are far different from one another, Asimov's Mule serves a similar narrative function: an unanticipated anomaly with a profound impact on the course of history.  The Mule, a powerful mutant, disrupts Hari Seldon's plan and conquers most of the galaxy. The irresistible Dr. Manhattan, essentially resurrected in a nuclear accident, hires himself out as a weapon for the US government and thus alters the course of 20th century history.  The US wins the Vietnam War and Nixon is made President for life.  The story of Alexander the Great plays an important role in Watchmen and The Mule is certainly an Alexander-esque character.

I don't know if I have much interest in the prequels currently being released.  One of so many things that works well with the story is that it offers only a very brief glimpse of these characters, a mere slice of their history.  There certainly is plenty of room for expansion but for me, I am more impressed with the artistry of Moore and Gibbons than I am with their imaginary world itself. Neither man is involved in the current project.

I've told My Wife she has to read it.  For me, that's the real test of appeal to the general interest reader.  She actually read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen before I did.  She enjoyed it but wasn't overwhelmed. Watchmen is a cut above, I believe.  We shall see.


  1. Yeah I love that one. Love the movie too. But Nixon isn't really made president for life; they just overturn that amendment limiting him to two terms.

    1. Technically, I know you're right but by 1985, the year of the story, he'd have been starting his fifth term - amounts to much the same thing. I don't even mean this as a knock on Nixon but I think it's all part of Moore's point - having the ultimate weapon would have many unforeseen, and perhaps undesireable, consequences.