I’ve never read a graphic novel before but this, considered groundbreaking, seemed like a good place to start. With rounded characters, complex plotting and a fractured narrative style, it’s said to be one of the first graphic novels to show that the genre could be taken seriously. Graphic novel buffs can probably list a dozen titles that did all those things before Moore and Gibbons but that’s beside the point. Its reputation was what made me pick it up and I’m glad I did.
Watchmen is set when it was written, in the mid-1980s, but it’s a different 1980s than the one we know. In this America there have been super heroes, or “costumed adventurers”, since the 1930s. They were outlawed, by those who considered them “masked vigilantes”, in the late 1970s but not before the emergence of a genuine super hero, Dr Manhattan.
The result of an accident in a radiation chamber, Dr Manhattan’s existence profoundly altered the course of the Cold War, helping America to win in Vietnam and giving Richard Nixon the chance to alter the constitution and remain in office.
The story begins with the murder of The Comedian, a retired super hero who by all accounts was not a very pleasant man. His murder troubles Rorschach, one of the few super heroes who defied the ban and continued to practice his own merciless brand of justice. Rorschach begins visiting his old associates in an attempt to find out the truth.
What follows is a complex examination of power. Nobody should have unchecked power, the book demonstrates, least of all so-called super heroes. Some of the super heroes in this book border on fascist, some are megalomaniacs and others are simply troubled. Dressing up in costume and taking to the streets to fight crime, Moore seems to argue, just is not the sort of thing normal people do.
Moore presents several models of morality and holds them all up to question without really supporting any of them. He even uses a graphic novel within the graphic novel to cleverly underscore and parallel some of the book’s main themes.
The book was originally released as a series of 12 comic books, each of which forms a chapter in the final book. Each chapter focuses mostly on a specific character, fleshing out their backstory while advancing the plot. At the end of each chapter except the final one, are several written pages - excerpts from books, doctor’s reports and so on - that add further background.
The highlight is the chapter that tells the story of Dr Manhattan, revealing as it does so that he experiences past, present and future simultaneously. The combination of words and images used to convey this is very clever indeed.
Watchmen is far more absorbing and thoughtful than I expected. I’d recommend it.