Another piece I recently wrote for the paper, this is a ridiculously gushing review of Alan Moore’s 1987 comic book classic Watchmen, with the occasional reference to Zack Snyder’s 2012 film nightmare Watchmen. You may notice that I am quite fond of this book…
Twenty-five years ago a shift occurred within literature, a shift brought about not by words, but by images; suddenly an entirely new medium had emerged as a serious form, one of true artistry, true inspiration. The man behind this shift was Alan Moore, the artistry, the inspiration, was Watchmen.
This tale of a supposed ‘mask killer’ in the face of imminent nuclear doom is still revered as the pinnacle of the very form it legitimised, Watchmen is simultaneously the apex of the Superhero genre and its antithesis, a reaction to everything it symbolised, a revolution. These were heroes that were very much in inverted commas, it was only grudgingly that one could concede there was anything super about them; most of them weren’t even good. Characters such as Rorschach, The Comedian, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan helped redefine what it meant to be a comic book hero, challenging every preconception about the notion of heroism. This was comic book writing like never before; gritty, angsty, assuming its readers would be smart enough to pick up on the cultural references sprinkled throughout, keen-eyed enough to spot the subtle symbolism tucked away in Dave Gibbons superlative artwork. Even the society it presented was a challenge, a reaction, Nixon in power after a decade, electric power ubiquitous, Vietnam a superhero inspired whitewash. Moore always had something to say about his society, V for Vendetta and the anarchist following it attracted are case and point.
This was no throwaway superhero schtick, this was writing to reflect serious contemporary issues, global concerns, the anxieties of the people, and how superheroes would fit into all this. Or how they wouldn’t. By crafting characters who were as deeply flawed as many of these were, Moore was able to both challenge convention and challenge the reader; weaved around a plot that jumped through time and space by way of every nook and cranny of the characters psyche and history, with room for a powerful allegorical tale within a tale too. These were narrative devices that brought a previously unheard of layer of complexity to the medium, complexity enough that it took almost a quarter century for it to make the translation to the screen, and even then in half-baked form. The Zach Synder adaptation pales in comparison to its source, dealing in archetypes and spectacle where its forefathers tore those very foundations up.
Watchmen is as dark and serious as any novel, as laced with symbolism as any painting and as suspenseful and masterly woven as any Hitchcock flick. The blood-stained smiley face, the doomsday clock, the shifting surface of Rorschach’s mask, these are images as striking now as they were twenty-five years ago. This is a tale as re-readable as it was twenty-five years ago, no matter how many times you’ve read it already. This is quite simply the greatest graphic novel of all time and one of the finest literary achievements of the century, of all time, a singular achievement that stands as the magnum opus of the very form it pioneered. Just read it already.