Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review: Watchmen ~ by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons

watchmen soft cover

We have our first 5 star review from John for: Watchmen ~ by Alan Moore; illustrated by Dave Gibbons (1986)

A five-star classic graphic novel – flawed super-heroes, complex characters, spikey social commentary and an excellent plot make for a great read that questions our moralities.

About:  Set in the cold war era after the end of the Vietnam War, the golden age of masked crime-fighting heroes has passed in the US, and the remnants of the “Watchmen” are either working for the government or retired. That is, all except Rorschach, a totally uncompromising crime-fighter who continues to operate outside of the law (the superheroes’ activities having now been deemed illegal). Since their heyday, several have met tragic ends and now the cynical public sentiment is very much against them – even though they helped the US win the Vietnam War and their most powerful member, Dr. Manhattan, has helped the US gain the upper hand strategically in the global stand-off with the Soviet Union.

When a final showdown with the Soviet Union seems to be imminent, one of the Watchmen, the Comedian, is brutally killed. Dr. Manhattan is then vilified in public and promptly disappears. Rorschach investigates and becomes convinced that someone is trying to murder or sideline all remaining superheroes. Is someone out for revenge? Is someone trying to tilt the balance of power back in favor of the Russians? The Night Owl comes out of retirement to help and the Silk Spectre (disenchanted partner of the missing Dr. Manhattan) also dons her crime-fighting costume, despite detesting Rorschach. They try to persuade the super-intelligent Ozymandias to help as well, but he casts doubts on their conspiracy theories and seems to be too wrapped up in running his business empire.

As nuclear Armageddon fast approaches, some of the Watchmen struggle to untangle what is going on and try to persuade the troubled and emotionally detached Dr. Manhattan to return to Earth to help. This in turn leads to some unpleasant discoveries for the Silk Spectre. Meanwhile a youth is reading a gruesome comic book about pirates, Tales of the Black Freighter, which seems to have some uncanny parallels with what is happening in the real world.

The ending is full of surprises and really challenges the reader to think about what is right, what is wrong, and what might just be acceptable in a world that is anything but black and white.  

John’s thoughts:  Well, I never thought that my first five-star rating would be for a graphic novel, but here I am and this is most definitely worthy of five stars. If you have notions about the graphic novel art form being adolescent and unintelligent, banish them and read this book.

The characters are remarkably complex and interesting, especially Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan. The plot twists and turns all over the place and I had no idea how it would all end up. The ending is remarkably thought-provoking. And it’s nice that Moore doesn’t try to lay out what he thinks – in essence the various characters have extreme and differing views on what is morally right and what isn’t, and the reader is left to decide what she/he thinks.

There is so much more to enjoy about the book. It’s a wonderfully dark story; it lays bare the shallowness and venality of the world we live in; nothing is black or white; thanks in large part to the activities of the Watchmen, Richard Nixon is enjoying his fifth term as US president (truly scary); the graphics are excellent; and despite much of the bleakness, it’s actually a fun read.

I’d unequivocally rate the book five stars. If you like dark superhero stories or any books that are deeply thought-provoking, this one is for you. If you’ve never ventured into the world of graphic novels, this is a great place to start.

P.S. When the movie version of Watchmen came out in 2009, many Watchmen purists panned it. I don’t agree. A movie could never pick up all of the subtleties and intricacies of a novel like this, but the Watchmen movie was hugely entertaining, fun and, as with the book, very thought-provoking. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Whether you have read the book or not, I’d recommend giving the movie a go.

416 pages ; DC Comics (April 1, 1995); There is a new hardcover version available at DC Comics with a fabulous cover done by Dave Gibbons.

Watchmen was first published in serialized form from 1986 to 1987. It won a Hugo award in 1988.

For more on Alan Moore (he’s very intriguing) see his Wikipedia page; 

Can you believe after 3 years of reviews by John, this is his first 5 star?


David Halpin. said...

Great review, John. I agree with you about the movie version too.
Now, get your hands on Y:The Last Man!

John D said...

Hi David,

Thanks for commenting and for the nice words.

Now you have raised my curiosity - I will definitely have to seek out Y: The Last Man.

I'd never heard of it before, but after a quick Google it looks really interesting. Thanks for the tip. Cheers,


nrlymrtl said...

My man and I also enjoyed this graphic novel. It was unlike other graphic novels we had read - superheros age and get fat, cold war era, the heroes don't always make the heroic choice.

Definitely worth a reread.

Chris Thompson said...

This really is a great novel. The movie is great too, and it follows the novel almost exactly. I actually found the movie made a better decision about how to end the story. The alien in the book was a little too over the top for my tastes.

John D said...

Hi nrlymrtl,

I have read it twice, and I have to say that the second read was even better. I picked up on a few things that I'd missed the first time around. Enjoy the repeat! Cheers,


John D said...

Hi Chris,

I know what you mean about the alien. I too preferred the movie version for that particular element of the plot. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Cheers,


ediFanoB said...

Excellent review of my all time favorite graphic novel. One of my favorite characters is Rorschach.
I appreciate the consistency of his thoughts and actions.
And every time when I read it again I discover something new.

I love the movie too and I'm happy to have it on DVD. From time to time I watch it again. I know the discussion about the different endings of graphic novel and movie. I must say I like them both and both fit.

You hit the bull's eye John.
Thank you for that.

John D said...

Hi Edi,

A big "thank you" for the very nice words.

I'm with you on Rorschach - what a fabulous character Moore created. Incredibly twisted but pure; everything is black and white for him. I think the movie did a really great job of re-creating him too.

So - what is your second all time favorite graphic novel?


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