Friday, July 18, 2008

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

I've read a few graphic novels over the years, like Matt Wagner's Grendel: War Child, Frank Miller's Sin City, and J. O'Barr's The Crow. I'd hardly call myself a graphic novel enthusiast. Toward the end of last school year, a colleague recommended that I read Watchmen. It looked long, and frankly I wasn't in the mood to read a "comic book." But as the summer got under way, no fewer than three other friends, in completely separate contexts, randomly mentioned Watchmen (and the soon-to-be-released film version) and what a great book it is. It started to sorta seem like karma, so I scored a copy of the book and last week began reading it. Just finished it this morning. And yes ... what a great book it is!

Told from several different perspectives, the story takes place in an alternate 1985, where Richard M. Nixon is President, caped crusaders are not only a reality but have been outlawed since 1977 for their vigilanteeism, and the world is inching toward nuclear Armageddon with Russia (each chapter of the novel, in fact, begins with a Doomsday clock progressing toward and eventually reaching twelve o'clock). The plot itself revolves around the mysterious murder of the Comedian, a one-time superhero who had long since become a government operative, and the efforts of some of his former superhero colleagues -- Nite Owl, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhatten among them -- to piece together the mystery and locate the killer as nations get frighteningly closer to nuclear attack.

Gibbons juxtaposes the vibrantly colored style of superhero comics with black-and-white inner chapters of supplementary "materials," such as autobiography excerpts, handwritten notes, medical files, newspaper clippings, etc., to create a narrative that is visually stimulating. But it's Moore's storyline, told from multiple (and often parallel) perspectives, that forms a narrative not only engaging but eerily relevant given today's headlines. (In this excellent interview with the film's director, he mentions how filmgoers are finally "ready" for Watchmen given the recent proliferation of superhero-based Hollywood films; if handled the right way, this film can also make a powerful statement on today's socio-political milieu.)

What I also like about the novel is its complexity and subtlety. What makes the book so "important" in the graphic novel genre is its attention to detail and its overall seriousness for the time in which it was published (1986-87). Moore wanted to create a work with a literary quality akin to a graphic novel Moby-Dick, and what I found interesting was that upon finishing the book, I immediately wanted to reread sections of it ... and as I leafed through the opening chapter once more, I indeed noticed things that had completely gotten past me on the first read. This is a book that rewards rereadings.

If you enjoy graphic novels and want to read something that's engaging, visually stimulating, and thought provoking, check out Watchmen. The film is due for release in March, 2009.

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