Time Is Still On Their Side
Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its thirty-first choice, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, reviewed by Tripwire senior editor Andrew Colman…
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Colours: John Higgins
Considering that Watchmen is unquestionably the most sacred of sacred cows in wider pop culture, what else is there to say about it that isn’t redundant? The media at large made it quite clear at the time of its release (and forever thereafter) that this was graphic art’s (i.e. comic books) transcendent moment, and that it was a serious work of literature that belonged on middle-class bookshelves alongside novels with no pictures in them. And yet despite all of that barmy hyperbole, it’s a relatively conventional tale, albeit a carefully constructed, precisely delineated one.
Following the story of a group of outlawed and estranged super-heroes cast adrift in a gritty night time world, Watchmen’s noir study of super-characters is riveting stuff due to its wilful subversion of every trope in the book, with some cod-psychology and classical epigraphs thrown in. What makes it work for lifer fans is that everything is familiar yet alien, with the characters’ knowing, casual venality providing humanization while effortlessly sending up the genre. The hard-bitten monomaniac (Rorshach), the lapsed hero (The Owl), the gurning psycho (The Comedian), the demigod ex machina (Dr. Manhattan) and the mad genius (Ozymandias), mostly culled from defunct and long-forgotten 1960s Charlton comics, are all sly, sixth-form inversions, whose expository dialogue is not that far from Marvelese, but is skewed and truthful enough.
What makes it work so well is how the concepts and storytelling were thought through, combined with the ligne claire precision of Dave Gibbons’s artwork. Everything is tied neatly up in its twelve instalments, and no plot strands are left dangling, while each episode affords writer Alan Moore the opportunity to explore the pathology of long-underwear types. Despite the episodic, rigidly uniform panel format, the work brims with cinematic immersion, the characters all too real and believable in a starkly hostile world. Both Moore and Gibbons were not just at the top of their game here, they were having fun upsetting reader expectation while respecting history. Of course Moore isn’t just here to tell stories – he’s here to learn you stuff – so there’s subtext, contextualization at the end of each chapter and parallel shadowplays (such as Tales from the Black Freighter) mirroring the progression in the main event towards Def Con One.
If there’s one diversion from the traditional that jars, it’s the naturalistic violence – relatively mild for these times of course, but the emetically brutal bloodiness throughout (notably in Black Freighter and whenever Rorschach or The Comedian is spotlighted) was a departure. The general themes of the book, primarily the deeply flawed or megalomaniacal nature of super-heroes, along with society’s descent into atomically-induced annihilation, are obviously dated today, especially regarding Ozymandias’s plan to save humanity from extinction (how would Mr. Veidt save humanity from itself now?) but were certainly cutting-edge in the mid-1980s. These characters spoke naturalistically, were comfortable with their outsider-status, and were individualist archetypes rather than clichés.
Yes, it was ground-breaking, and opinion-formers jumped on it wholesale. Suddenly there were people reading something that they assumed had always been the province of children, the illiterate or arrested nerds. Doubtless it was likely to be the only comic-book they’d ever read, apart possibly from Dark Knight, which is a shame given that Moore and Gibbons had produced a definitive gateway to a lot of superb earlier works from forebears such as Eisner, Fine, Schomburg, Adams, Frazetta, Wrightson, Heath, Kirby, Wood, Ditko, Toth, Miller and so on.
So for the four-colour aficionado it’s a supremely obvious choice, even if it does merit, and reward, multiple readings. And if you haven’t read it despite being a comic fan I’m afraid that that’s simply not good enough. There are people out there who despise comics who have gone through it (I’ve met some of them) so there you have it. This is required, if not mandatory reading, and not just because of its hallowed place in the graphic novel firmament – its painstaking ambition, attention to detail and determination to raise the bar makes it as good as people say it is. Recommended!!
Watchmen is still available from DC
Here’s links to the other graphic novels reviewed so far