Why a graphic novel? Not every graphic novel makes Time Magazine’s 100 best novels list, and there’s room for debate about that list anyway. A much longer argument could take place about whether graphic novels - basically comic books, don’t kid yourselves - belong in any discussion of literature, since they technically qualify as a different medium. The question of how much power the words would have without the pictures is in the same ballpark with that endless discussion of how good a poet Bob Dylan would be considered if he didn’t set his verse to music. But we obviously digress.
For the record, “Watchmen” isn’t my favorite Alan Moore work - that distinction would belong to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” a work dense and pleasing enough to satisfy after several readings. However, “Watchmen” is on tap for an eagerly awaited motion picture, and worth a look because of what it says about the nature of power and relationships.
“Watchmen” takes several tropes of the superhero genre and turns them inside out. The Watchmen is a group of costumed crime fighters like any other one might remember from a shared multi-media childhood. At a glance, some of them look slightly familiar - the Nite Owl resembles the Batman (Adam West vintage, given his middle-aged paunch) in hardware, though the masked Rorschach mimics the Caped Crusader’s dark vengeance.
But Watchmen isn’t about the reunion of a superhero group to fight some common evil. The only time the reader sees them together is in flashback, or on the cover illustration showing them all in some idealized past. Their heyday is over, and it’s at this point that the story starts.
Part of the genius of this book - and it is pure storytelling genius - is that everything that should normally be familiar in a comic book fantasy is rendered nearly unrecognizable. After only a few pages, one realizes immediately that the Watchmen is how a superhero group would be if such a thing existed - outsize egos, ancient grudges over real and imagined slights - in short, human, all-too-human ambition, naked and uncompromising. Imagine your favorite legendary rock group with unlimited power, carrying into combat all their old, selfish wounds.
The Comedian is the least funny of the group, and the catalyst for the journey the heroes make. The Nite Owl seems like an eccentric man with a curious hobby. The Silk Spectre, a heroine forced into “the business” as her legacy, flits between affairs as though looking for the father she never had. Ozymandias has cashed in on his past. Dr. Manhattan, the most powerful of the group, has grown detached from the affairs of men. Rorschach, haunted by the past, is determined to learn the truth at the brink of sanity, indeed to find any kind of truth.
Moore fleshes out each character and creates the towering personas, retracing their steps through a dystopian America (readers of Moore’s other dystopia, “V for Vendetta,” will recognize his anarchist sensibilities) and making you mourn the association they used to have - one which we are denied witnessing. Each hero is rendered less heroic and more human, more approachable and less sympathetic. And the heroes confront that question that predates the comic book - who am I? Am I who I grew up as, or what I grew to be?
Why do our costumed heroes fight in our stead? We know the familiar origins - Superman is a visitor from another world; Batman, an orphan; Spiderman, the wimp rendered omnipotent - but these “origins” only serve us as a catalyst. Only rarely do we see the hero question the quest, when crime, lawlessness and sin continue.
Costumed heroes were invented to give children and adults the surrogates for their deepest fantasies of power and empowerment - we all want to knock the block off the man keeping us down. That fantasy takes many forms - the man of shadows, the merciless killer, the hero living by his wits, the conjurer with gadgets, the discoverer of the dark secret, the captain of industry, the woman of power and beauty, the god on the mountaintop. We want to be them - or secretly, the one opposing them, just as we secretly pick which side we fight on each day. You gotta serve somebody, the aforementioned Mr. Dylan once reminded us, be it the devil or the Lord. And true to form, the villain is always closer to home, much closer than some external force that comes to destroy. The rot always begins within, Moore reminds us.
But as with all power, it corrupts, it changes, it curdles in the belly. Moore's heroes are filled with the kind of self-loathing we expect from our celebrities. And as the heroes are denied the chance to be themselves, (superheroes are either working for the government or have been driven underground) we see them doing what any normal person would do when they are denied their passion. The passions become aimless, and turn within.
As I said, this is not a conventional novel. Big deal, though. Along the way, the reader is also treated to several stories within stories, such as a pirate-themed tale and various prose pieces. These couldn’t have occurred in a novel. And "Watchmen" has had a decidedly dark effect on the comic book world, as Moore himself has observed. Everyone is trying to "out cool" each other by paying attention to the sordid world the heroes are trying to clean up, and the various writers and artists seem only too happy when the heroes inevitably fail. It has also given birth to an entire generation of politically charged comic fiction which shows the unfortunate limitations of the genre. It's hard to take seriously agitprop in tights. I did find myself slightly disappointed by the end of "Watchmen," but that is a testament to the quality of what led up to it.
But “Watchmen” shows us one of the possible futures of storytelling, though it is by no means the only future. And Gibbons’ art perfectly complements the moment when Dr. Manhattan, conversing with his unfaithful wife on the surface of Mars, contemplates the nature of life:
“But..if me, my birth, if that’s a thermodynamic miracle…” Silk Spectre says, “I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!”
“Yes. Anybody in the world. …But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget…I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”