Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review of Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Here's an interesting scrap of personal trivia to throw to my multitudes of adoring fans: I'm pretty sure that Watchmen counts as my first voluntary book review. Back in the eighties, I got into comics for about as long as my best friend could afford to buy bales of them every month, which amounted to a span of a couple years in high school. When I was sixteen years old, he sent Watchmen along with me on a three-week trip to Spain, and I read it, and commented. I spent some time yesterday looking for what I wrote, but it wasn't in that diary, and so I think it must have gone into a letter sent back to old R.D.. The gist of my back-then review was that Watchmen really put the "graphic" in graphic novel, and even though years of desensitization still hasn't quite managed to erase that impression, I must have also missed a lot of the depth then. (I wasn't a very mature teenager, you see, not any more than I am a very mature thirtysomething, but at least I now have the ravages of youth safely behind me.) I caught the movie trailer recently, and damned if one of the images presented wasn't a beautifully rendered copy of one of the frames in the comic that I barely remembered. Was my memory accurate? (This time it was.) Does my impression stand? (Yes and no.) Should I go out and watch the flick? (Maybe.)

Watchmen, if I understand correctly, was intended to make the most of the medium, to show off the sort of story that a graphic novel is uniquely suited to tell. It pretty clearly borrowed techniques from film, especially this business of transitioning between scenes using a constant image, or at times splicing twin sequences together, switching back and forth between analogous settings while keeping the narrative constant. Moore (writer) and Gibbons (artist) mix these effects smoothly in print, and if the cinemtographers follow the existing storyboards, those borrowed tricks are going to look pretty classy back on the screen. The panoramic shots, and Gibbons could have added even more of these, will translate well, and the camera will also love the too-much violence and the sex. Often, Moore uses a textual trick similar that's similar to the visual one, and maps dialogue or action on top of exposition and prose, letting the two synchronous narratives unconsciously inform one another. This is a thing indiginous to the comic medium, which naturally puts text in boxes as commentary, and I'm impressed with the degree it was pulled off here. There are some parts where it has to be text. The elements of the story written in short graffiti and newspaper headlines can get their way on screen I guess, and Rorschach's journal entries (set against silent action) can be voiced over, but there are a few places, those involving the Tales of the Black Freighter (a text story spliced into the comic) and Doctor Manhattan's soliloquy on his perception of time (wherein he experiences all the moments of his life at once) that are going to get murdered, which is too bad.

He borrowed from pure text media too, but the prose sections, mostly spaced in between the chapters, although informative, tended to be a chore to read. The interludes are creatively formatted to support the recent narrative, and the less formal versions bordered on entertaining, but he veered purple at the drop of a hat. That his fictional comic book writer could go on to become an accomplished novelist defied belief. The dialog is unremarkable, but adequate (at least if you're comfortable with the genre's liberal use of bold and italics in the speech balloons).

Gibbons' art is decently done, and it's well laid out. I didn't much like the way that the thing was inked though: too damn many purples and oranges, filled too solidly into too large areas. And it might be a matter of technology is all--I'm used to the three-color newsprint format from my couple years of fandom--the one with all the dots--and I think that cheap texture actually allowed greater depth to show up in the coloring than this solid magazine style. The contrast of the printing techniques is made clear within the story. Black Freighter is a comic within the comic, and it's colored in that old newsprint style, and (if you ignore the subject matter) is easier on the eyes. Even when I used read these things regularly, I was always more impressed with the great pencil-and-ink work, and preferred the few books that left it black and white--the color always seems to cheapen the art underneath.

Of course Watchmen tackles the other thing that's only ever been done well in comics, the obvious one: men in masks and spandex that fight crime. There's been a spate of superhero "realism" done this decade, but here is the only case I've found that adequately addresses the underlying question of, even in a alternate world where circumstances better favored vigilante justice, what kind of nutbar would try to intimidate people with guns while dressed up in a Halloween costume. 90% of the heros in Watchmen are perfectly normal people dressed in tights...looking like world-class dorks and sporting cheesy nicknames. There are a range of motivations for the goofy vigilantism: altruism, publicity, lawlessness, government mandate, god complex, but all of these characters have the deluded/perverted/naive streak that's necessary to dress like a clown for a fight. And no one keeps up with it forever: if they're sufficiently warped (and actually effective), then their internal demons grow to maturity; if they're more decent sorts, they quit and get on with their lives like normal people.

There's a large cast of characters, and they're generally well done. Only one is really super, almost unlimitedly so, and he has been transformed so thoroughly beyond humanity that he gradually loses his connection to life, even while the (un)balance of world power centers around his existence. The alternate world of 1985, with energy independence but the looming threat of nuclear war, is thoroughly developed and convincing, and enough bit characters are filtered in and out to make you believe there's a context for all of this. Dr. Manhattan's atomic creation is the big pseudo-science mulligan that you can allow in something like this, and I consider it bad form to pull out another pair of silly tricks (cloning and ESP) at 11:58 to support the conclusion.

The plot that gets us there moves around Rorschach (and here's the exception to the superhero look: a great costume, a mask that's like a disturbing pshche test mood ring) who's investigating what looks to be the serial murder of former costumed crime fighters. He's a great character--a right-wing animal, simple but crafty, violent, difficult, unlovable, inflexible--and the authors get you to sympathize with him, deeply so by the end. All of these heroes are on the creepy side of moral purity, and Rorschach's investigation leads to the most capable of the normals, polymath genius Ozymandias, the man who's convinced himself that the world needs to be remade by his design and may be uniquely talented to pull it off. They're monsters, all of them, compromising lives for their version of the greater good. The wrong people win here--even though they believe otherwise, even though it's outwardly presented otherwise--and if their victory looks appealing on the face of it, the purpose of the whole graphic novel is to wrap it in ten clever layers of ambiguity. It's the story's biggest success.


Unknown said...

You might enjoy this Mr. Media podcast interview with Dave Gibbons, co-creator and artist of Watchmen, as he discusses the Warner Bros./Fox dispute, being on the set during production, and what he thinks of the trailer and the rough cut he saw of Watchmen. He also talks about the possibility of working with Frank Miller and the message he took to Alan Moore from Will Eisner. Here's the link!

Keifus said...

Thanks, I certainly might. Link seems to be busted, but I'll try and follow it up.