Monday, June 05, 2006

How superheroes fade: Alan Moore's Watchmen

Trying to formulate the many things I want to say about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's magnificent graphic novel (or comic book, take your pick) Watchmen, it occurs to me that it's so much easier to review a book that's all text. When both the subject of the review and the review itself deal entirely in words, the process is more straightforward: among other things it's possible to indicate what an author is trying to do by quoting passages from his work in context and commenting on them. But it's a very different ballgame reviewing a work where words and images act in conjunction (or in contrast) to create a very particular effect, or where multiple narratives converge in a single panel. Just describing some of Watchmen's denser passages can be twice as hard as reviewing a difficult novel.

Not all top-quality graphic novels pose this problem. Art Spiegelman's Maus, for instance, is easier to discuss because it has a fairly chronological narrative structure – and also because the visuals usually take second place to the writing (even though the simplicity of Spiegelman's drawings is often deceptive). But Alan Moore's major works (of which Watchmen and From Hell are pre-eminent) are much more complex beasts. Here is an author who delights in making all sorts of connections, both visual and textual, between seemingly unrelated things: running two or more narratives together, intercutting scenes so that the dialogue from one scene provides a voiceover for a panel that depicts another event. There’s a lot of prefiguring in his work, the casual incorporation of phrases and images that will acquire a deeper resonance later in the story. Moore has used all these devices in his collaborations with artists like Gibbons (who drew Watchmen), Eddie Campbell (From Hell), David Lloyd (V for Vendetta) and Kevin McNeil (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and these books demand to be experienced firsthand. The most effective thing a reviewer can do is to grab the potential reader by the scruff of his neck and drag him to the comic. Describing their effect can work only up to a point.

So now I’ll try to do just that.

The plot

Watchmen, originally published in 1986-87 in the form of 12 comics of approx 30 pages each, is among other things an inversion of the standard superhero comic format. It's set in an alternative America where real-life costumed heroes succeed in tackling minor crimes but find themselves becoming increasingly irrelevant in the face of the world’s more complex problems (most of the story is set against the background of the Cold War and the nuclear race between the US and Russia).

The story isn't chronologically told but here's a simplified synopsis: The novel's "present" takes place over a few days in October-November 1985 with a vigilante crimefighter named Rorshach investigating a murder and reestablishing contact with his former colleagues, most of whom retired eight years earlier when costumed heroes were outlawed. But we also learn of related events going all the way back to 1939, when the first band of masked adventurers (collectively known as the Minutemen) came together to fight crime. Through flashbacks and other expository devices such as excerpts from books and articles written by and about these characters, we learn of the tragedies that struck the original group and about their eventual disbanding; the formation in the mid-1960s of a new group of Crimebusters who, among other dubious achievements, helped the US win the Vietnam War; and the Keene Act which banned these crimefighters from operating independently though allowing some of them to work as government agents.

And we meet the protagonists, each with his or her own set of personal demons – including the amoral Edward Blake/The Comedian (a character about whom I would have liked to learn more) whose death sets the plot in motion and the two erstwhile Nite Owls who meet on Saturdays to reminisce about glories past. The only character in the book who actually has supernormal powers is Dr Manhattan/Jonathan Osterman, who developed extraordinary control over matter following a laboratory accident. While the classic superhero comic might have used Dr Manhattan to great effect in action scenes, his function here is different: he serves as a dispassionate observer/commenter on human affairs. (Of course, he is also being used as a weapon by the US – a dubious move, since his very presence in the world encourages the possibility of mutually assured destruction.)

One of the most interesting narrative devices is to include a comic-within-the-comic in the form of a story titled "Tales of the Black Freighter", being read by a young boy sitting outside a newsstand: this is a pirate thriller told in the voice of a man who encounters a ghost ship and hurries back to his hometown to warn his friends and family of impending doom. Though my first instinct was to not pay too much attention to this embedded narrative (so much concentration is required for the main story alone), I gradually came to appreciate the ways in which it comments on the main plot and helps us understand the personal conundrums of some of the characters. (Incidentally, I enjoyed the way the line “I will give you bodies beyond your wildest imaginings” in a bodybuilding advertisement on the back cover of the comic acquires a dreadful new meaning in the final chapter. Just one of the many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it tricks on view here.)

As usual, Moore repeatedly references works of literature and popular culture. Each of Watchmen’s 12 chapters has as its title a phrase or quotation that is placed in context at the end of the chapter. Among these are “At Midnight All the Agents…” (from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”), “Fearful Symmetry” (from William Blake’s “The Tyger”) and “The Judge of All the Earth” (from a line in Genesis) – each title alludes to at least two or three separate things mentioned or depicted in the chapter.

Watchmen is a very complex work that needs to be returned to at least 3-4 times before you can fully appreciate the wealth of detail on each page and the magic jointly woven by Moore's writing and Gibbons' illustrations. It addresses too many issues for me to take stock of here, but a notable recurring one is that all idealism is eventually corrupted, or at least diluted. We've all seen examples (in every sphere of life) of how groups or organisations, even the ones that begin with the best of intentions, gradually change as they become bigger, more mainstream. Ulterior motives enter the picture and equally importantly there is imputation of ulterior motives where none might originally have existed – which creates a never-ending cycle of distrust and misunderstanding.

But what's even more poignant is the loss of idealism in individuals, which can be seen in the personal stories and disillusionments of many of the aging, pot-bellied "superheroes" in Watchmen. As youngsters they had fixed notions of right and wrong, they were clear in their minds about what they would and wouldn’t stand for. But as time passes they understand the importance of compromise, become more aware of their own failings and latent hypocrisies. Like most of us, they eventually become content with doing the best they reasonably can in a world where too much idealism is not just impractical but dangerous. (It’s interesting to note that Rorschach, the only crimefighter who continues to see things in strict black and white terms, is more unstable than any of the conventional “villains”.)

These themes repeatedly crop up in Watchmen - as in the scene where the aging Sally Jupiter (who masqueraded as the glamorous superheroine Silk Spectre decades earlier) is touched when a fan sends her an old porno-comic featuring her character. In her own younger days Sally would undoubtedly have knocked the "perv" out with a swift left hook if she ever ran into him. But to the lonely old woman that she is now, this reminder of her fame is something to be cherished. “Laurie, I’m 65,” she tells her indignant daughter, “Every day the future looks a bit darker. But the past, even the grimy bits of it…well, it just keeps on getting brighter all the time.” (Here the visual synchronises with the words "keeps on getting brighter" as the panel depicts a camera flash going on - the cue for a flashback to a superheroes' photo shoot from the good old days.)

A closely related theme is that each idea (and perhaps each manifestation of idealism?) has a short life-span, that it must eventually be replaced – and that the people who pave the way for a new world often find that once their part is played they themselves have no further place in it. (This is also explored in Moore's V for Vendetta, about a Guy Fawkes-like anarchist spreading terror in a totalitarian Britain. "Anarchy wears two faces, creator and destroyer," V tells his protégé Evey at one point. "Thus destroyers topple empires, make a canvas of clean rubble where creators can then build a better world. Once the rubble is achieved, away with our destroyers! They have no place within our better world.")

Everything is transient, Watchmen reminds us; it’s no coincidence that the most important character of the final two chapters gets his name from Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”, about the temporariness of power and hubris. But also, as Dr Manhattan cryptically says to Ozymandias in the closing pages, “Nothing ever ends” – which can be taken to mean that no one ever has the final word on anything. The two ideas are not as contradictory as they might appear to be, and both are vital to the Watchmen universe.

End of blah blah
Reading the last few paragraphs, I realise they make the book sound preachy and provide little sense of how dynamic it is – above all, what a great comic book it is. I’ve also probably focused too much on Moore’s writing without discussing Gibbons’ contribution. But then, like I said, I have no real idea how to review a work like this.

So to wrap this up let me just mention one captivating sequence among many: the passage where Dr Manhattan (who can simultaneously experience the past, present and future) reflects that the world is a clock without a craftsman. In a good novel this thought, not in itself exceptional, would be given weight by the context and the treatment, by the quality of the words used to describe it. But here it develops gradually over a number of pages where words and images combine and collide to create meaning. Dr Manhattan/Jon reflects on various incidents in his past, on the permutations of events that brought him to this moment – and all of this leads up to a crescendo at the end of the chapter (which incidentally is titled "Watchmaker" – derived from Albert Einstein's remark that if he had known about the consequences of atomic power he would have chosen to work in a watch manufacturing plant).

It’s a brilliant segment and a fine example, one among many in this book, of how visionary and far-reaching the comic-book medium can be. Like a watchmaker’s most intricate creations, Watchmen is greater than the sum of its interconnecting parts.

Links: The Wikipedia entries on the book and some of its characters are among the most comprehensive and incisive that I've read on that site (an indication of how intense Watchmen's following is). Do read these articles for a much more wide-ranging analysis (though preferably after you've read the book – there are quite a few spoilers). Also, this excellent piece by Curt Holman for – mainly a review of From Hell but also a part-profile of Moore. And this dissenting essay from Slate magazine where the author, even while acknowledging that Watchmen was “unquestionably a landmark work, a masterpiece even”, asks the question: “Did the comic book really need to grow up?”


  1. Excellent post, Jai. And yes, that "Watchmaker" sequence struck me as remarkable when I was reading the book -- it's at that chapter that I realised I was reading something special.

    You know, I've always read comic books pretty fast, caught up in the adrenalin of their plot, just swept along. With books like Watchmen, though, I learnt to go slow, to savour every frame.

    You read "Ghost World" by Daniel Clowes? Just finished it recently, more moving than any novel I've read in ages. (I'm not going to see the film!)

  2. Watchmen is truly brilliant. one of the things that strikes you (not immediately) is that alan moore's style is also heavily influenced by film editing techniques.
    there is this site on the net which annotates the watchmen. As in, every single frame and piece of dialogue in the comic is dissected.

    Its here:

    depending on your point of view, its either extremely tedious or extremely interesting. :-)

    The annotations point out for instance, that the first piece of dialogue on the opening page is straight from 'taxidriver'.

  3. Anonymous: thanks for that link, very useful. I'm an annotation-junkie so I doubt I'll find it tedious.

    Amit: have been wanting to get my hands on Ghost World for ages. But the film is excellent, give it a try. (Incidentally it begins with the rockalicious "Jaan Pehchaan Ho" song from the film Gumnaam. Doubt that was in the comic.)

  4. very comprehensive post, jai. I haven't read any graphic novel at all (I mean, the ones meant for 'grown ups':) ), should this be the one that I should start with?

  5. i think the "watchmaker" chapter refers to the "blind watchmaker concept...ties in with the whole clock without a craftsman theme personal take on it


  6. Now do a "Vendetta" and link it to the movie.

  7. I don't know. I agree that Watchmen is in many ways a phenomenal book (I specially love the cinematic touches that the graphic novel format makes possible - overlapping dialogue, for instance, or that first panel with its zoom out to Blake's window high in the air), and I loved the first half, but I can't help feeling that the second half was a bit of a cop-out - I would have welcomed a little more nihilism. The Watchmaker section was stunning, for example, as was the Roscharch section, but what was with the whole thermodynamic miracle nonsense. I mean really. (I can't help loving Moore for the Nietzsche though. It's good to see the real Superman back in action).

    To me the key theme of the book is this: it's dangerous to extend 'superhero' ideologies of justice to the arena of international conflict. Vigilantism, no matter how well-intentioned, operates at an unacceptable human cost, and its 'idealism' is usually a front for some seriously psychopathic behaviour - the only people willing to engage in those kind of trade-offs being the ones who have no authentic concern for human life. The attempt to 'save the world' (essentially from itself) is a hollow megalomaniacal dream, whose price is paid by innocents - the parallels between the finale of the book and Hiroshima (Moore says it himself - the "weapon to end all wars") are too obvious to miss.

    Moore's book is set in the Cold War, true, but it's a Cold War where one side has attained strategic dominance over the other, and Moore is very good, I think, at portraying how that kind of power corrupts, creates the temptation to play God (or, if you prefer, International Policeman). Cowboys with power, in masks or otherwise, are dangerous.

    It's one of the finer ironies of the book that there's a point where Ozymandias quotes JFK (which is where the title of the book comes from) - but only the first sentence of the speech he intended to give when he was assassinated. The complete text reads:

    "We in this country, in this generation are -- by destiny rather than choice -- the watchmen on the walls of freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of 'peace on earth, goodwill toward men.'"

    The key bit, to me, is the part about exercising strength "with wisdom and restraint". It's a point that many people (including the current President of the United States) would do well to remember.

  8. It was 'From Hell' that taught me to read comics very, very carefully.

    And really, even Spiderman re-read with attention to detail can open up a whole new world. But first I'd read it quickly, skimmingly! (If I may make up the word)

  9. hi there,

    This sure was a good read.Got here as i wanted to know more about 'watchmen', as i am going to pick it up this evening. So i will definitely pick it up as i intended, and will savour it all the more because of what i have read. thanks.

    ~ Chandan Crasta

  10. I'm an avid graphic novel reader and I have read several reviews of the Watchmen. Kudos on such an excellent review. This is a very well thought out, well written and insightful review.