Sunday, March 01, 2009

Why You Should Read "Watchmen" Before Seeing the Movie

I loved comic books as a kid. My mom subscribed to the point of view that reading anything (within reason) is better than reading nothing so she'd buy us "Richie Rich" and "Archie" comics as fast as we could read them. I especially liked anything that featured superheroes like Superman and Batman.

 Once I hit high school I discovered fantasy fiction and tore through authors like Piers Anthony and Terry Brooks; I consider them my gateway authors. I kind of left my comic book collection behind because they didn't have the depth and detail of the full-length books I had fallen in love with. Little did I know that comic books weren't the only game in town.

For most comic book fans the transition didn't have to be from comic books to novels because, to those in the know, graphic novels had the depth and artistry that was lacking in "Richie Rich" and this found its way into deeply thought out and introspective books like Watchmen. Sometimes I am really slow to pick up on things, but I usually catch on eventually.

"Watchmen" was written by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and published in 1995. I only became aware of it after the movie was already being made and I heard so many people talk about it's brilliance. Despite being almost 15 years old "Watchmen" still resonates with people; possibly more now than ever. The Watchmen are costumed crime fighters who are active in an alternate history in which the U.S. is on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. However, unlike Superman, most of the Watchmen do not possess superpowers. The one exception is Dr. Manhattan whose allegiance to the United States keeps the threat of nuclear war at bay.

The story opens with the murder of The Comedian, the only government sanctioned superhero other than Dr. Manhattan. Rorschach, a rogue costumed "hero," (vigilante would be more accurate) believes that someone may be targeting costumed heroes who had been active prior to 1977 legislation that outlawed their activities. The story unfolds as Rorschach tracks down each of the Watchmen and we get some insights into the character of The Comedian through the memories of those who knew him.

Dr. Manhattan, or Johnathan Osterman, was human once but was transformed when he was caught in an "Intrinsic Field subtractor." He lives under government supervision with his lover Laurie Juspeczyk, who was known as The Silk Spectre (her mother created the character and was the original, lone female hero that belonged to the Watchmen). Dan Dreiberg--the Night Owl, also a second generation retired Watchman, used owl-themed gadgets to fight crime while Adrien Viedt was once the superhero known as Ozymandias and has since become known as the smartest man on the planet.

"Watchmen" is as complex as any standard novel you might pick up; perhaps more so. I have often heard it described as nihilistic, and it is, but I don't think that's the bottom line where the story is concerned. But is that why you should read the book rather than just watch the movie? Since I haven't yet seen the movie I can't honestly say whether or not the film will manage to pick up on the subtleties of the book-- but it's probably a safe bet that it won't. How can a comic book (pardon me, graphic novel) be that complex you ask? Let me tell you...

 The fact is that only a comic book can ask the questions we've always wanted to ask regarding our superheroes. We don't have a Superman in our real lives so we don't question the plausibility of the a costumed hero running around solving crime. Well, us geeks do ponder that question, but average folks probably don't. "Watchmen" does ask the questions though. Moore and Gibbons look at the costumed heroes of the novel and ask out-loud what propels a man (or woman) to don a costume and attempt to fight crime. Are they truly driven to do the right thing or are they simply bullies who couldn't pass the psych test to become police officers? And if so, why would they be tolerated by civilized society? How long could we tolerate them before we questioned their motives? And even supposing they had the best of intentions, what checks are there to make sure they don't cross certain moral boundaries? Makes you think doesn't it?

 "Watchmen" is like the grown-up version of "The Incredibles" without the natural assumption that our heroes are particularly heroic, honest or noble-- and yet still leaves some room for them to do the right thing. Those who appear the most incorruptible on the surface may surprise us with their depravity while other, normally apathetic individuals discover lines they cannot cross. I'd be surprised if all of this can come across in a movie-- though I hope I am surprised.

Ultimately, if "Watchmen" is a movie that looks interesting to you, or even if you just like comic book heroes, you will likely find it to be thought-provoking and engrossing. And if that doesn't pique your interest, then read it simply because you will know what it means when someone asks who is watching the Watchmen?


ediFanoB said...

I think there are a lot of advantages when you read WATCHMEN BEFORE you watch the movie.

Anyway I'll watch the movie, will reread the graphic novel and look forward to buy the WATCHMEN DVD and also the BLACK FREIGHTER DVD.

Avery DeBow said...

This is the third I've read some very interesting stuff about this graphic novel. I must admit a serious lacking in my comic/graphic novel literacy, but this one seems to be the one with which to educate myself. I'm going to add it to my TBR list.

timpoirier said...

I used to collect and read comic books, but I never picked up Watchmen.

Eventually, the wife (now my ex) got me to stop collecting. !4 years later, I started picking up the Dark Tower series (based on the Stephen King Series).

With Watchmen coming out, I picked up the Graphic Novel. I am up to chapter 3. It is not what you expect from a comic, although it is interesting.

I suspect that mainly the comic book geeks will get the movie. Those heading out who know nothing of the story and expecting another X-Men style movie, will be disappointed. Encourage all your friends to put aside their fears of comic books and pick up this story before the movie comes out.

SQT said...


That is such a good point. "Watchmen" isn't going to me "X-Men" or "The Dark Knight." I've already read some negative reviews about the movie and I know it's because they don't know the book or understand where it's going. Mainstream audiences will probably be shocked.

timpoirier said...

With any luck, people will get it, after the initial shock that it's not your typical superhero movie.

Steve Malley said...

Glad you liked it!

Watchmen has to be one of the most structurally complicated novels I've ever read. You got your subtext, your metatext, your shifting POV, your shifting timelines, your parallel narrative subplot converging to hammer home the theme.

ANd as I see it, the theme of the Watchmen is this: we are the source of our own salvation, and of our own (more frequently chosen) damnation. Relying on God or Superman to fix your problems is a dangerous, often fatal mistake. It's even implicit in the title, from that old Roman question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Fab said...

Hey SQT, if you don't mind, I'm going to post a link to this post on my blog. I had discussions with a friend of mine. I love the subtleties in the movie (not having read the graphic novel, I imagine the movie doesn't come close to the novels), but she found it not enough action/exitement... I delighted in the difference this movie was, and these characters were. And I thought your post might add in putting a light on why Watchmen is different from other hero stories.