Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen cover  

Watchmen takes an offbeat look at superheroes as it deals with two generations of masked vigilantes. Although superheroes is probably not quite the right term: few have any kind of super powers, and most of them are far too morally ambiguous to be called heroic.

The story kicks off with the murder of Edward Blake, a.k.a. The Comedian. One of the original early group of masked crimefighters known as the Minutemen, The Comedian was still strong enough to hold his own in a fight against any normal opponent, despite being in his sixties. So whoever pushed him to his death out of an upper-storey window was either not alone, or had unusual physical advantages.

Rorschach, who wears a mask of constantly shifting black and white patterns, is the first masked vigilante to investigate Blake's death. He soon comes to suspect that someone intends to eliminate masked crimefighters. However, Rorschach is widely regarded as insane, not to mention unnecessarily brutal. Who will take him seriously?

Dr Manhattan has the most power out of any of the group. Following the result of a scientific experiment that went awry, he's more or less invincible. Whilst the other crimefighters hide behind masks and eccentric costumes, Manhattan frequently walks around without any clothes on at all. He is immune to the ravages of age and physically invulnerable, since he can manipulate matter on a sub-atomic level. What's more, he seems to experience the past, present and even the future simultaneously. However his awesome powers have left him increasingly distant from human concerns, abstract and uncaring.

One of Dr Manhattan's few remaining connections with this world is his girlfriend, Silk Spectre. The safety of mankind depends on her ability to keep him grounded. The American government have been using him as a sort of nuclear deterrent. He's a kind of weapon in human form, a stake in the international arms race. His presence ensures that world war does not break out. The Russians are too afraid to attack the West because of him, so he maintains the delicate balance of power.

Watchmen is an intriguing blend of ideas and motifs. One of the things that makes it so remarkable is the clever juxtaposition of different narrative threads. Whilst a boy reads a comic about a shipwrecked and desperate man, the lives of other characters such as the magazine seller and the people of the city parallel what is going on in this story-within-a-story.There's also a lot of imagery concerned with time and watches. With each chapter the hands of a clock move closer to midnight, like a countdown to oblivion. Alan Moore ties this to Albert Einstein's famous quote about the fearful impact of the discovery of atomic power:

"If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."

Another character concerned with time is Nite Owl. Now in middle age and starting to show it, he has retired from the vigilante business and hung up his hood. The writer plays up the absurdity of dressing up to fight crime, and the eccentricity of the characters who choose such a life. Some of the chapters end with extracts from the memoirs of Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, who brings up the subject with some embarrassment:

"I dressed up. As an owl. And fought crime."

Mason's successor finds that the costume can change the way he behaves, and is in itself a potent symbol.

With the help of quotations from famous people and literature Alan Moore has stuffed this graphic novel with many layers of meaning. It's quite a feat to take it all in in one go. Once you've read it you can keep coming back to find more things you didn't notice the first time around.

Dave Gibbon's artwork is clear and precise, yet full of detail. It never gets in the way of the story by being too hard to make out.

And what a story it is! This review is a little longer than most on Warpcore SF, and that's mainly because Watchmen is so hard to sum up. It's hard to do it justice in just a few paragraphs. The story poses questions about whether humanity is even worth saving, about the responsibilities of those who act as its guardians, and more. From the lives of street vendors and cab drivers to the heady lives of eccentric vigilantes and master criminals, it covers an impressive range of characters and themes. The way Moore ties everything together, making connections from the most obscure elements, is perfectly brilliant.

Book Details

Decade: 1980s

Categories: Books

  Science fiction
  Not For The Squeamish  

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