First off, I have to admit that I’m kind of a comic book/graphic novel poser. I read a few when I was a kid, but like most people, I gave up the genre early on in life — probably by the time I got to middle school. A few movies rekindled my interest over the years (namely Batman), but it was Alan Moore’s Watchmen that really made me realize what incredible stories I’ve been missing out on all these years.
Like most people, my first exposure to Watchmen was the movie trailer (which I’ve probably watched a dozen times by now). I was so intrigued that I saw the movie the day it came out (not a simple feat for someone with two small children), then again about a week later with my wife. At some point, I ordered the book and added it to my fiction queue. Two weeks of business travel between the east and west coasts finally gave me the uninterrupted blocks of time I was waiting for to immerse myself in what I can honestly say is one of the most creative and riveting pieces of fiction I’ve ever experienced.
Before I get into the book, I should mention that I was surprised by the general reception of the movie. I thought it was one of the best action/hero/fantasy movies I’d ever seen, but in general, I’d say the reaction I witnessed in the theater, and then later saw online, ranged from subdued to negative. I thought the movie was extremely sophisticated and challenging in a way I’d ceased hoping for — especially in the hero genre — since the original Batman series got so bad (which was basically right after the first movie). Fortunately, movies like Batman Begins and Ironman kept my interest in hero movies alive, proving that the genre could still be done in a way that wasn’t insultingly sappy (yes, Spiderman, I’m talking about you). But I thought Watchmen took hero movies to an entirely new level.
As complex as the movie was (and I’m talking about character as much as plot), the book is an order of magnitude more complex. The graphic novel format not only provides the additional space the characters need to unfold, but it also provides additional dimensions for them to exist in, and devices for the writer and artist to use in order to create an incredibly rich and meaningful universe. For example:
- Multiple stories being told simultaneously. There are almost always at least two different stories being told at any given time. Sometimes we’re in two different geographical locations at once, sometimes the past and present are being woven together, and sometimes there are literally two different but complementary stories simply superimposed and intertwined (the most obvious example being the Black Freighter comic which we watch unfold between and amongst frames).
- Temporal fluidity. Just as Jon needn’t experience time in a linear fashion, neither must the reader. One of the best examples is chapter 4, “Watchmaker,” which is told entirely from Jon’s perspective. Events unfold completely out of sequence, but in a way that reveals a different, more interesting reality, and startling relationships.
- Excerpts. Between each chapter are excerpts which temporarily take us out of the immediate story, and into what appear to be tangential stories, but which ultimately add additional layers of meaning to the entire book. I especially like the excerpts from Hollis Mason’s book, Under the Hood. They are so well done, in fact, that they stand entirely on their own.
- Transitions and artistic detail. Even when the story gets riveting, make sure you examine each and every panel. No detail is random: newspaper headlines, posters, advertisements, graffiti, framed photographs, facial expressions — even the evolution of the heros’ costumes. And don’t just watch the frame you’re one; pay attention to the transitions between frames, and if something strikes you as meaningful (for example, a silhouette of a couple standing together, spray-painted throughout the city by gangs), it probably is.
I think what I like best about Watchmen is that the entire story, along with all the characters, exist squarely in the gray area between good and evil. I think this moral complexity is exaggerated by the fact that many of the characters are costumed heros or villains which traditionally have always been portrayed as moral booleans — either good or evil — or at best, perhaps slightly conflicted. The characters in Watchmen have such depth and complexity that even when they perform the most horrific acts, they seem worthy of redemption. In other words, they feel real.