Sunday, 26 May 2013

Watchmen - Alan Moore


Picture a world where superheroes are real. Really picture it. Pretty cool, huh? Now really think about it. A world where anyone can put on a costume, fight crime with complete anonymity, take the law into their own hands. Where these costumed heroes - for they don't have any superhuman powers - play judge, jury and executioner all at once. Where groups of masked vigilantes are the terror of the underworld. What sort of people would choose that lifestyle, and should they be trusted with the responsibility?

These are just some of the questions posed by Alan Moore in his masterpiece, Watchmen. The title, of course, is a reference to the age-old question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen? - Juvenal, Satires) Interspersed between the chapters of the graphic novel are pages supposedly from historical documents, charting the rise and fall of the superhero. The world is not quite the world as we know it, and it is indicated that superheroes had a lot to do with altering the course of history - and not for the better. In the 1985 of Watchmen, America has won the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon is still President, and the world is on the brink of nuclear war.

Superheroes are now outlawed, having arguably done more harm than good. They came into being after the comic books soared in popularity, but the reality was something quite different, and now the costumed heroes have disappeared from the public eye - both from the streets and from the comics. But one remains, if one can call him a hero by any stretch of the definition. Rorschach: bitter, repellent and hate-filled, but driven by his unswerving moral absolutism and crusade against the murkiest specimens of humanity, fighting them on their own terms. The story opens after the death of a former masked crusader, with Rorschach warning his old comrades of his suspicions: that a serial killer is targeting them one by one.

Watchmen is an incredibly dark novel, the two characters with the strongest voices having contrasting but equally bleak views of the world. Rorschach is bitter, violent and horrifying, not at all a likable character, and yet almost sympathetic. His journal entries form part of the narrative, giving a fascinating but unsettling insight into his mind. On the other hand, Dr Manhattan, the only "hero" with superpowers, has a gods-eye view of history, with past, present and future equally visible. He has also all but detached himself from the human race to whom he used to belong. It seems that Manhattan's extra knowledge of Earth has caused him to give up on the planet and those who inhabit it. The two anti-heroes provide a sobering commentary on humanity, all the more so when coupled with the impossible moral dilemma posed in the final chapter of the book. But there are other, quieter voices in the to balance these two harbingers of doom, suggesting that all is not completely hopeless.

Despite the reputation of comic books as a genre, Watchmen is not an easy read, but it is worth taking time over. You benefit from reading the pictures as well as the words, and some mysteries can be figured out before their revelation, if you pay attention to detail. Watchmen is also an excellent deconstruction of the superhero genre. I did not find any of the characters particularly likable - as well as the anti-heroic Rorschach and emotionally disconnected Dr Manhattan, I found the more conventional heroes a bit insipid - and yet the storytelling and world-building kept me hooked. An exemplary work of literature, and one which I suspect will get better with every subsequent reread. I borrowed this from the library, but would consider buying my own copy.

There has also been a movie, which I found to be very faithful to the original work; although it differs significantly in one particular instance, I felt that this was more of a detail rather than a change to the plot or the spirit of the story.


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