Monday, October 27, 2008

Book Review: Watchmen

(This review contains no significant spoilers.)

As part of my recent resurgent interest in reading, I finally got around to tackling Watchmen.  I purchased this graphic novel, which is generally regarded as the most significant example of its kind ever published, at least 3 years ago.  I never actually read it until now, however, because I couldn't get past the art, which is, in some ways, rather poor. As I shall explain, I was foolish to be so put off by the artwork.

The Setup

Watchmen takes place in an alternate-reality America where the US soundly won the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon is serving an unprecedented fifth term as the President.  The main story, the investigation of what appears to be the serial killing of masked heroes, occurs in October and November of 1985, but the book is laced with flashbacks reaching as far back as 1939.  Each of the 12 chapters---the  issues of the original limited run of the Watchmen comic---also features several pages on supplementary text.  This text is pulled from one character's autobiography, newspaper interviews with characters, documents from one character's history, and so on.

What I Liked
  • The main story, the investigation of the murders, is interesting, though it is not the most intriguing aspect of this book.
  • The extremely nonlinear way in which the story is told and in which the characters' history is slowly revealed is fascinating.
  • The characters themselves are interesting, especially Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan.  I think Rorschach is my favorite, though I wouldn't want to spend any time with him.  Or near him.  Or in the same city with him.
  • The composition of the comic panels is extremely well done.  Some examples:  the reader often must look through the foreground to see that the important content is in the background, some of the panels are echoed throughout the volume, many panels feature dual storylines that mirror each other, and the angles from which the panels are "shot" are carefully chosen to draw attention to elements within each panel.
  • The Tales of the Black Freighter, a comic-within-the-comic is an interesting idea, and it suggests that, in a world of masked adventurers, comics might not be about them.
  • The story is very realistic.  Only one of the "superheroes" in the book has any kind of powers, and the way society reacts to these vigilantes seems fairly believable to me.
  • Interpersonal relationships are a key part of the story, and they are well explored.
  • I enjoyed how the book explores the motivations and evolution of the masked adventurers

What I Disliked
  • As I said, I was turned off by the art when I first picked up the book The drawing is crude, at least by modern comic-cook standards, and the coloring is very flat and uniform.  (As I said before, though, the composition aspect of the art is excellent.)
  • The Tales of the Black Freighter, though an interesting premise, simply drags on too long, and mostly made me annoyed that I had to read that storyline before getting back to the "real" plot.
  • The exact mechanism by which the main antagonist intends to achieve his or her goal is, well, a little silly.


Overall, I give Watchmen 9.0 out of 10, one of the highest ratings I've ever given.  It's the best graphic novel and one of the best novels of any kind that I have read.  I encourage you to read this book.  You won't regret it.

I'm also looking forward to seeing the film based on this comic.  I'm worried about the movie version, though.  The extremely nonlinear means by which the story is told might confuse many viewers, so I'm not sure how much of it will be implemented for the film.  Additionally, since the book has far less "action" than the typical superhero movie, I'm concerned the the filmmakers will feel the need to punch up the flick with a bunch of choreographed fight sequences and explosions.  We shall see.


  1. I think I can sustain some of your concerns about _Watchmen_, but in regard to the art I've gone through a reconsideration of its "faults" myself. I didn't use to like it either and I still don't think it is especially pretty, but I do think it accomplishes a couple of important narrative goals. The foremost would be to defamiliarize the reader in regard to the book's genre and themes. As a critique of super-heroes and comic books about super-heroes, the book needs art that makes the reader aware of the object of its criticism. By avoiding the bright primary colors, improbably anatomy, and exaggerated choreography (for lack of a better word)of mainstream super-hero fiction, Moore and Gibbons force the reader to rethink what people in costumes are like and what they mean.

    What do you think?

  2. And this, of course, gives me more reason to worry about the movie since it seems (from the trailers) to attempt none of these things.

  3. Silencius,

    I wasn't complaining about the lack of bright colors, the realistic anatomy, or the ordinary choreography. What I'm saying is that I've seen many comics that made better use of shadows, had more gradations of color, and otherwise looked more...interesting. Of course, I'm not sure how much of that sort of thing was innovated between 1987 and 2008. Perhaps the art is Watchmen is just as good as what you find in other comics of that era. The only book I've read from that same time is the almost-as-famous Dark Knight Returns, which has such a distinctive and mostly unattractive style that it's not a basis for comparison.

  4. Ah, in that case you are in agreement with Dave Gibbons. As part of the production of the Absolute Watchmen edition he re-did a the colors, separations, and a handful of effects. And this edition is the basis for the current printing of the trade paperbacks. I'm not sure which version you have, but you might want to look into upgrading.

  5. Silencius,

    Ah, maybe I'll at least check it out at the brick-and-motor bookstore. I'm guessing there are plenty of new copies being printed during the run-up to the film.