Saturday, March 28, 2009

Book Review: The Watchmen

My buddy Doc recommended that I read The Watchmen and see the movie that is based on it. Being a literary purist, I decided to read the comic book (ahem, sorry, graphic novel) first. Okay, so let's have it: what is The Watchmen all about? Well, if you've seen the commercials and haven't read the book, you know that it has something to do with costumed superheroes. Right. That's sort of like saying Star Wars has something to do with space adventure: that doesn't even cover the half of it. Just as George Lucas tried to reinvent the Saturday afternoon space opera matinee, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons took great pains to reinvent the costumed superhero story.

It is 1985, but it is a slightly different variant. Costumed heroes (regular people) and superheroes (people with superhuman abilities) have changed the world through their interventions in history. Eventually, they are hounded out of the business by the Nixon Administration in 1977, which passes a law all but outlawing "the masks." These are not the usual Batman, Superman, and other Justice League heroes I grew up with--sorry, fellow geek readers, I'm a DC guy, not a Marvel fan. These are just a new set of heroes that Moore and Gibbons created to show some of the silliness but also some of the outright danger of having costumed vigilantes on the street, fighting crime.

The golden age of the heroes in this timeline is from the 1940s to the 1960s. They fall out of favor despite helping to win the Vietnam War and bring down all the costumed supervillains. Some have become official agents of the U.S. Government, some have taken straight jobs, some have gone outlaw. The ones still operating are mostly right-wing sociopaths, extremely violent, and creatures to be feared rather than admired. I don't anticipate the movie being much different.

It took me awhile to realize how groundbreaking this book was until I started to realize how much impact it has had. Its habit of including newspaper clippings can be found in Batman: A Death in the Family and DC's The Golden Age. The licensing/agent provocateur status of the heroes can be found in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. The outlawing of the heroes can be found in The Dark Knight Returns and the Disney/Pixar film, The Incredibles. And so forth. So The Watchmen obviously changed a lot about how the traditional Marvel/DC comics portrayed their heroes, for better or worse. This new anti-heroic look at costumed superheroes can be traced to this book, which was originally a series.

Is it any good? That depends on your point of view. I found it dark, disturbing, and quite at variance with some comics I've read, very much the birth place of others. Do you want your heroes to be more "human," more "realistic?" I guess it depends on your definition of realism. Do I discount the dark side of human nature? Hardly. But what if you want your heroes to be brave, admirable actors for good? I happen to hold the latter view. In that case, The Watchmen is a paradigm shift, but it is a shift toward anti-heroism, which the comic book universes had, until the mid-'80s, tried hard to resist.

Perhaps I'm an idealist, but I still want my heroes to be good, to be people who, if not perfect, are at least a little better than myself to serve as an example of some better morality to strive for in life. After all, if your heroes are just as bad as the bad guys, why should you care if they win? What is protected? What is affirmed? What is gained? I might go see the movie, but I've already got a good idea of what it will be about--and it's not particularly least as we used to understand the word.

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