Review of Watchmen by Alan Moore
by Alan Moore
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
It's been several years since I first read Watchmen, so I decided to read it again in preparation for eventually seeing the film. Lauded on the cover as "One of TIME magazine's 100 best novels" and a "Winner of the Hugo Award" it's easy to get swept up in the love-fest that is Watchmen. While it's true I loved this book (as shown by the five star rating), I'm going to try to discuss aspects I didn't like or downright despised in addition to what I love about it.
Now, I'm too young to have been around in the real 1985 (I was born four years later). I didn't know the McCarthy era; I didn't see the moon-landing; and I wasn't around for Vietnam or Watergate. People who live through those times no doubt have a slightly different perspective on this book, since it's an alternate history of a period with which they are so familiar. For me, the real history may as well be fiction.
The issues and themes that pervade Watchmen remain relevant today. We have not escaped the shadow of Mutually-Assured Destruction, even if tensions between the United States and Russia have cooled off into an amicable simmer. Alan Moore successfully took a world far-enough removed from our own to have fantastic elements, like Dr. Manhattan, but familiar enough to make us shiver when we read the very ending.
My favourite character is Dr. Manhattan, which I'm sure won't surprise people. I find his non-linear perception of time fascinating. Discussing predestination and non-linear time is a great way to pass an afternoon. While the theme of fighting against destiny is by no means original, Moore treats it in a refreshing way by turning it into a side-plot. It's incidental to the rest of the story. Yet Manhattan's remark to Veidt at the end of the novel, that nothing ever ends, is as chilling as it is pithy. Veidt went to all this trouble to prevent Manhattan from interfering, even going so far as to try to kill Dr. Manhattan--and to what end? If Manhattan is correct, everyone's actions and reactions--his, Veidt's, Nite Owl's, and Rorschach's--were predetermined. It was all meant to happen this way, because it has already happened that way.
Reading this book for the second time reminded me how much I disliked the Comedian. I understand the point that Moore was trying to make, but Edward Blake was just an offensive person! Rape scene aside, the entire scene with Blake, Manhattan--again with Manhattan--and the Vietnamese women pregnant with Blake's child ... it makes me shiver. Amorality is so much scarier than immorality--the latter knows it's wrong; the former doesn't care if it's right or wrong. Both the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan are intrinsically amoral beings--and in this way, Moore's observing that to be a superhero, you need to be amoral at least some of the time--but to different outcomes. Does that make one "better" than the other? I don't know.
The moral ambiguity that suffuses the protagonists of Watchmen alone makes the story interesting. Superhero movies seem to be popular recently, and we love to glorify the superhero even as we attempt to make him or her "flawed." Yet Watchmen makes superheroes flawed not because they're human, but because they're trying to be superhuman when they so obviously aren't. Rorshach understands and accepts this--his amoral behaviour is the price for what he believes is "utter clarity" of purpose.
I never really got into the whole "Black Freighter" story-within-a-story. From a literary standpoint, I see that it draws a parallel between the main character and the protagonists of Watchmen, who in their attempt to save the world run the risk of losing their own humanity. I just found it somewhat superfluous, however; I question if the narrative would be less effective if "Black Freighter" weren't included.
Likewise, the disappearance of the author of "Black Freighter", Max Shea, and his subsequent involvement with the infamous squid didn't make much sense to me. I never understood why Veidt needed a bunch of writers and artists to get his squid idea to work properly. Then again, I always skimmed through those last pages (both the first time I read it and this time) because Veidt spent so many of them droning on about how he wanted to be a modern-day Alexander the Great. Too bad he made the mistake of nearly starting a land war in Asia.
Love the poignant, nostalgic attitude toward the superhero in Watchmen. Love the science fiction. Love the drama and the romance and the high-stakes action. Could do without Bernard the Newspaperman's two-dimensional opinions. Could do without the psychologist who wants to figure out what makes Rorschach tick. But let's not dwell on these things.
Watchmen is, like any great tale, the kind of tale you must read more than once in order to catch the details planted by Moore and Gibbons. And it's the kind of book you can have multiple opinions about at the same time--you can like it and hate it, just because it's so vast and profound that these mutually-exclusive states don't preclude each other within the context of the work. For that reason alone, it deserves the praise given to it as a pinnacle in the form of the graphic novel. Whether or not you enjoy the story or the themes ... well, that's up to you.