I used to read comics when I was a kid. First stuff like the Beano and Dandy and later 2000AD. Being into all things SciFi I thought the later was really cool, but at some point, for some reason, like watching Dr Who, I grew out of it.
Then when I was 21 someone I was working with told me about something called “a graphic novel” which was, so I heard, a kind of grown-up version of a comic book. The particular book under discussion was Dark Knight Returns about the return to cape-dom of a middle-aged Batman. I borrowed it from my enthusiast friend and did enjoy it but I remember thinking that whilst it wasn’t for kids it was still more adolescent than adult, like action movies and heavy metal. (I suspect if I re-read it now I’d be kinder to it. At 21 I was still too young to enjoy things that others might have thought of as childish.)
I don’t think I picked up another graphic novel until after I’d become a Buffy fan. It was from other fans recommendations that I bought Watchmen. Of course when I saw that it had big stretches of actual text in it I gave up on it.
What can I say? I’m lazy.
But then a few days ago I noticed that there was a trailer online for an upcoming Watchmen movie. I didn’t watch it, instead I pulled out my copy of the book and started to read. I couldn’t put it down and I finished it a couple of days later. And this is my review. I make no attempt to summarize the plot, nor to avoid spoilers. If you’ve not done so already, I strongly encourage you to read it.
So ok, I get it now. Because I read the Dark Knight, I’ve read various Buffy-related comics (mostly the origin one and season 8), and even the two League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ones and whilst they are all to varying degrees enjoyable, I never really got the whole “comic books as an artform” thing. Until now.
Watchmen really is on a different level from those other books. I think it’s because of the depth of it, the layers of story and the sheer density of concept. That and extraordinary visuals. Take for example the iconic cover-art image (above) and see how that’s used and developed on the very first page. This kind of thing — starting on a small detail and pulling back and back until a fuller picture (literally and thematically) is revealed — is done throughout the book. It’s no wonder people want to make this into a movie. It’s like a pre-drawn storyboard for itself.
But it’s so much more than that. It has great, intriguing characters. I guess most people like Rorshach – who’s morally ambiguous, possibly mentally unstable but badass in a way that fiction can’t quite resist. Personally I was quite drawn to Nite Owl. I liked that he was shy, fumbling, quiet man when out of costume and yet is so confident and competent with it. I love when he serves coffee and plays music for the victims of a building fire he rescues. Dr Manhattan, who is key to the entire plot, is fascinating too. He is to all intents and purposes an alien, even though his origins are human, and successfully communicating an alien point of view is something that’s done all too rarely, but it’s done beautifully here with the scenes on Mars in particular.
I think the thing I like most about Watchmen is the layering of different story elements in a way that complements or contrasts, but always adds to the overall thematic message. Take for example the sections with the excerpts from the fictional comic (“Tales from the Black Freighter“). I can think of a couple of moments where you go from an entirely different scene and we get the last line of dialogue from that scene, over a panel showing the kid reading the comic, the newsvendor talking about the events in the wider world, some background activity, perhaps the ongoing drama of the lesbian taxi-driver’s breakup, leading into a panel showing horrific scenes from “Tales” where a sailor is trying to reach his home on a raft made from the dead bodies of his comrades. When I first read this I stopped and not only thought how well done it was but wondered whether I’ve ever seen a movie or TV program intermingle so many different elements so successfully in such a short space of time. Then I wondered if it’s even possible and that’s why we need this artform.
Who knows? It’s very possible I just haven’t seen the right movies!
It’s noteworthy that this was written/drawn in the mid 1980s and whilst it didn’t feel dated it was “of its time” in the sense that one of the major themes is the ever present threat of nuclear war. I don’t have a problem with that, because I lived through that age and remember well that sense of impending doom bubbling beneath the surface. It was there in popular culture if nothing else. A younger reader might perhaps, not get those references immediately.
If it has a weakness I think it’s the ending. I’m not quite sure that I buy into the idea that a fake alien accidental one-off invasion would unite the world. At least I’m not sure for how long it would. There was also some stuff with an attempted rape that I was a little uncomfortable with at best. But that wasn’t a huge part of the story.
So overall it definitely deserves its high praise. 9/10
P.S. I have now watch the trailer and they seemed to have included all the main elelments that I’d expect. They’ve made the characters younger by at least a decade but that’s Hollywood I guess. Supposedly this is one of those unfilmable books but I’m not sure about that. I guess people have said that because a) it’s long, b) it’s got complicated effects scenes in it and c) it’s perhaps too adult to get a rating that will sell enough tickets. Well a) anything can be condensed – work out what the heart of the story is and make sure you tell that, b) CGI has come along way since 1986 and c) as has what you can get away with in a 15 (Dark Knight is a 12a!) plus some of the violence can be toned down without losing the tone.
It’s all a question of how good the movie makers are. We’ll see I guess.