Off The Shelf - "Watchmen"

by Marcus Pan

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WatchmenOne must tread carefully when they delve into books of this nature. A graphic novel, Watchmen is something that you read secretly lest someone point and ask, "aren't you too old for comic books?" Rather than being a "comic book" per-se, I still stick to my guns with the term "graphic novel." The differences are subtle - at first glance the two resemble each other. But while a graphic novel utilizes illustration styles that might be considered comic in nature, a graphic novel continues to tell a real story and not some pulped up cliffhanger series that requires the purchase of the next fifty issues for resolution. One of the simpler rules of thumb to differentiate the two - has anyone died? If yes, then it's probably a graphic novel. The self-policing Comics Code is good for something, after all.

Graphic novels also tend to delve into plotlines and storylines that run deeper than traditional comics. And while Watchmen bear resemblance to Marvel and DC-oriented superhero forms, it does take it further and explores material and ideas that would set the Comics Code folk on edge. And there's a whole lot of dead people, in the millions actually, so it's not your average "comic" at all. The themes probed in Watchmen are perturbing. It may LOOK like a kid's story, but it isn't by far.

Watchmen begins as a superhero story, vigilante style. Those who enjoy the various Batman, Punisher or Crow novels would find this rather welcome. The main characters, however, are given more life and breadth than most comic superhero folk, as by the end you're familiar with the thought processes, dreams, ideals and morals of all of them from a personal standpoint. This is leant to by breaks between chapters where you are offered various other works besides the graphic novel, taken out of the world in which Watchmen takes place. Snaps of the dossier of Rorschach (incidentally, my favorite character - I was unhappy to see him die), excerpts from the autobiography of Night Owl and business memos from Ozymandium. This breathes a higher level of life into the people in the novel more so than your typical mystery surrounding a masked vigilante.

The novel moves quickly, opening with a murder that leads an investigation and uncovers a huge mad-scientist level plot. It then takes on the form of a mystery, a "who is the real bad guy behind all this" style that leads our heroes through a number of confrontations, culminating in an amazing twist at the conclusion of the novel with the discovery of the real perpetrator. The great mad scientist level plot succeeds - succeeds quite well. Refreshing when everywhere else the bad guy is thwarted with shades of Scooby Doo "those menacing kids!" prose. Not this time, and throughout the novel you'll find shades of gray where you're used to black and white. Thee isn't any him good, him bad cleanliness. Within the Watchmen everything is left in the gray, with moralistic ponderings left up to the reader.

I'm trying very hard to not spoil the novel for anyone who might want to read it. So rather than discuss the story any further, let's look at the creators. Alan Moore scripted Watchmen, tying in elements of the story until in the end you have a neat bit of string where only chapters ago you had a ball of flailing yarn. Nearly everything falls perfectly into place - seemingly small characters that were there as filler show up and provide a closing argument on many levels of moral and sociological value. David Gibbons is the illustrator of Watchmen, and uses Crow and Sandman similar drawing styles to illustrate the flow of the novel well and true, with facial expressions being a highlight to his style. His lettering is easily discernible between characters, therefore freeing his drawing to concentrate on other elements of background and screenplay without having to show all speakers within all panes. John Higgins, colorist, uses wash-out styles you might find similar to Sandman or Crow, using a style that shows some panes as if you were peering through a colored lens - a sight not uncommon in movies to darken the area and force your eye to certain brighter key pieces of the puzzle, such as the single bloodmark (ketchup mark?) on the smiley face that is used to both open and close the novel.

Watchmen touches upon the death-of-few-to-save-all argument - would the death of a few to save many be justifiable in the end? As such it can run pretty deep, moving into strange areas for something that's written not in prose but in panes. As such it's a great story, even if you don't like comics writing nor the whole superhero schtick. While it opens as such, Watchmen goes beyond the Batmanesque trappings and peers deeper into a world on the verge of collapse, and uses means that some might consider brutal and outlandish to keep that from happening. Justifiable? Well that depends on your point of view - but nonetheless, even if you had to scrag a few million, some might still say that the ends do sometimes justify the means.

But I wish they wouldn't have killed Rorshach, though I admit its necessity. Throughout the novel, he was the only one who saw things in black and white. There was no justifying anything for him, only right and wrong and the letter by which it is written. His death was clearly necessary - the world must move on from trying to define all things by a single code of justice. Things aren't defined as simply as you're made out to believe in kindergarten.

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"Watchmen" by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Coloring by John Higgins
Published by DC Comics, Inc.
Copyright © 1986, 1987 by DC Comics Inc.

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