Graphic Novel * Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons * Uh, Hmm * 1986/1987
If you’re a fan of Watchmen, and someone asked you to explain what it was about, and make it snappy goddammit we’re on a schedule here, how do you go about making that elevator pitch? It’s like an alternate-universe United States in which Richard Nixon is a heroic, three-term President and America basically won the Cold War because the U.S. has a literal atomic superman on their side but that’s mostly just background noise because it’s actually about… hey, come back. Watchmen is mostly about superheroes who actually aren’t all that super, and also functions as a takedown of 30’s and 40’s era comic books, which, incidentally, I know nothing about. Yet those old heroes are also just background noise because the real Watchmen are like a splinter group who come later, but they all suck too. It’s also a neo-noir crime drama. Um, and an insightful subversion of comic books in general. Oh, and also a subtle, nuanced commentary on the America of the 1980’s. By now the point of this exercise is evident, which is that there’s no easy handle on this thing to grasp it by.
So let’s break it down, sophomore year of high school style. Setting, character, plot. I’ve already mentioned the first bit. Watchmen’s universe is adjacent to our own, featuring similar broad historical strokes that our world has. Nixon exists, but instead of resigning in disgrace he’s serving a glorious third term. Vietnam was still a shitshow, but we won I guess? The story takes place concurrently with when it was published in the mid-eighties, and has the same vibe. Watchmen’s New York is every bit as grimy and crime-ridden as actual New York was back in the day. The story does jump around in time and space – there are many flashbacks – as well as side-trips to places like Mars and Antarctica, but New York is the focal point. The Cold War is still a thrumming tension in the background, even though in this alternate history the United States has a, uh, significant advantage over the Soviets that was lacking at the time in our reality (and I was about to use the phrase “trump card” there, but that phrase is ruined forever). The setting is suitably grim and apocalyptic, and a sense of mounting dread and tension ratchets up throughout the narrative.
The crux of Watchmen’s success is, of course, in its characters. The story is roughly linear, but there is no particular point of view. This is a broad overview of a wide array of fascinating people, most of whom are interconnected with each other’s lives, where even the minor characters are well drawn (heh) and considered. Obviously, the key characters are the titular Watchmen. There’s Rorschach, a sociopathic vigilante who fucks shit up real good. There’s Nite Owl, who’s like a sad Batman. Then you’ve got Laurie Juspecyzk, a.k.a. Silk Spectre, who reluctantly inherited the role of masked avenger from her overbearing mother, the original Silk Spectre. There’s the aforementioned atomic superman, Dr. Manhattan, who is Laurie’s weird blue boyfriend. Also he can reconfigure matter to any shape or place he wants so that’s neat. And then there’s Adrian Viedt, otherwise known as the smartest man in the world, Ozymandias. He’s turned his superhero antics into a flourishing multi-national corporation, so he seems fun. Anyway, all these characters’ lives intersect, both with each other and with their counterparts from the previous generation of masked vigilantes. And behind their interpersonal drama, that apocalyptic pulse keeps thrumming.
Finally we can get down to plot, but of course with something like this means we’re brushing up against spoiler territory, but we’ll do what we can before the break. The story begins with the murder of a man known as The Comedian. He’s a major character that spends the entire novel dead, but has an outsized impact on pretty much everyone else. The Comedian, it should be known, sucks. Watchmen wastes no time in relaying how badly he sucks, if only to complicate our reaction to other characters we might actually try to like later on. Anyway, The Comedian is dropped out of a window and splattered on a New York sidewalk, and it’s here that Rorschach takes up the case in his creepy, muttery way. He suspects that The Comedian was offed by someone out to murder old masked heroes even though their existence has been outlawed by the Keene Act. Rorschach then decides to warn his old crime-fighting buddies that someone might be after them. That’s the catalyst. Then Watchmen goes some places.
One of the things that impresses me most about Alan Moore is his ability to craft a hugely complicated plot and dozens of characters without losing the sense of dread and urgency. Every character is given enough space to imprint themselves on the reader without seeming like dull exposition. Of course the graphic novel format aides in this, since detail and action can be shown and not described, which is an efficient way of conveying character without having to spell everything out. Still, every bit of back story we get is just another layer added to this milieu of impending apocalypse. Time is very clearly running out throughout, and so while every side-story and flashback are important and vital to the characters, they also add to the fervent sense of impatience that the narrative is building. Tick, tick, tick. The story itself is so urgent that I very nearly skipped the excerpts of actual text that ends every chapter. There’s good stuff in those, which lend perspective and depth to some of the less central characters, but they’re speedbumps to the principal story, which meanders enough as it is.
Well, I say “meander,” as if it’s a bad thing, but it’s pretty clear that the various turns and detours the narrative takes add to the continual sense of time running out. From the onset, it is pretty obvious that the world is a terrifying place to be, and that something awful is impending. Part of this sense is international conflict. It’s the mid-eighties, which means the Cold War is looming above everything. For those of you too young to remember, consider this scenario. At any moment of any day, the sky could go brilliant white and you could be instantly vaporized. Or, perhaps even worse, the sky could go white and your home could be incinerated and you could be left staggering around a hellish radioactive wasteland for the rest of your short life. Nuclear apocalypse was a real threat, a tangible possibility that pretty much everyone just had to live with. We did so with the likes of Family Ties and Huey Lewis and the News. Watchmen’s tone and atmosphere is a more accurate reflection of the situation than just about every bit of popular culture created in the eighties.
Sometimes, the narrative structure seems to break down entirely, with various threads weaving in and out almost panel by panel. Seemingly incongruous details are juxtaposed with main story beats and are pretty much overshadowed by the broader character or plot strokes. The ending is foreshadowed fairly often throughout the story, but if you’re like me you skipped right past them because the panels seem like an insignificant distraction from whatever madness Rorschach is up to or whether or not Dan and Laurie are finally gonna make it to the bone zone. Then there’s the whole story-within-a-story of “Tales of the Black Freighter,” which some random kid is reading while society breaks down around him. I suspect that whole bit is a commentary by Moore about the comic industry, but the grim tone of the story also keeps prodding at the overall sense of dread conjured by Watchmen as a whole.
Eventually, time runs out and the apocalypse happens. When it comes, it’s somehow not as bad as one might have expected, but part of that might be because the apocalyptic event is so strange and convoluted. Ozymandias, in his endless hubris, has decided to save the world by destroying most of New York City. He manages this with science. I dunno, he teleports some genetic monstrosity into the city, destroying a good chunk of it and killing a few million people in the process. The idea is to distract the world’s nuclear superpowers from trying to one-up themselves (and us) into oblivion with the notion of an alien invasion. His homegrown monster squid-thing decimates a major American city, but might just turn the trick. All along, Watchmen has been pushing us toward this final compromise. Every one of these characters has a particular perspective, and all of them have one glaring flaw or another. In order to identify with any of them, there has to be some kind of compromise, and this is blown all the way out by Viedt’s horrific action. Rorschach dies because he refuses to admit shades of grey into his worldview. Everyone else, well, they come to their own conclusions. Watchmen, as a cultural statement, is less ambiguous, I think. Throughout the entire novel, each chapter ends with the image of a clock. As the story progresses, more and more blood slowly drips over the image. By the very end, the clock, now standing at midnight, is almost entirely obscured with blood, and that’s the last image Watchmen leaves us with. The actual apocalypse hasn’t even occurred yet. Tick, tick, tick.