Let’s get this out of the way first, I’m a terrible comic book fan. I don’t mean this as in I like terrible comics but more to do with the fact that I don’t read nearly as much of them as people think I do. Whilst I love Batman, Iron Man and X-Men I’ve only read the obvious titles that are out in bookshops. Human bookshops that everybody uses. Basically, I know people who are far more knowledgeable than me about the medium I usually fall into reading various comics books because aforementioned friends have recommended it or the movie version is on at the cinema and I have no time to go and see it. In 2009, this happened with Watchmen. Without the free time to go the cinema and see it the next best thing was to buy the book instead. It was probably my introduction to Alan Moore who, up until this point, I’d only had a passing knowledge of (see, terrible comic book fan). In an interview about Watchmen he had said that he wanted the comic to be ‘a tomb for the superhero’ and before I read it I wouldn’t have known what he meant by that. It all becomes perfectly clear upon finishing it.
When boiled down and held up to the cold light of day most superhero stories are complete nonsense. If Bruce Wayne were real then witnessing both his Mother and Father gunned down in cold blood whilst he was a young boy would put him in years of therapy. He would not be rushing to dress up as a large flying rodent whilst spending his vast fortune on various technical gizmos. The Batman comics are basically a deranged revenge fantasy and as far as comics go there’s nothing wrong with that but Watchmen certainly benefits from making the vast majority of its characters somehow normal. The story is based on people who acted as vigilantes and dressed up in superhero outfits in the process. It might seem a little ridiculous as an idea (although not to some people as today’s news stated) but it means that most of the Watchmen have some strand of normality in their DNA. These people are not gods, they live amongst us. They’re also well past their prime as the entire group, once defenders of justice, have no been sidelined by the public and even banned.
It’s an alternate 1985, the shadow of nuclear warfare hangs over and Watchmen begins with a murder as The Comedian is killed in his own home. At first you’d expect that there would be a need to generate sympathy for his death in seeing him as an all round good guy but there isn’t a bit of it. The Comedian is vile as a character. He is racist, violent and at one point in the story he sexually assaults a female hero. The Comedian might have fought for America in Vietnam but his attitude is selfish and self serving. He may have been on the side of ‘good’ but there’s hardly any good in him.
The death of the Comedian isn’t the first of the Watchmen to die so an unofficial investigation is carried out in which group member Rorschach attempt to fill in the blanks. His story comes across in the style of a 1950’s detective novel, a fact that his overcoat and hat assist. Rorschach’s upbringing, his mother a prostitute and his father one of her clients, has understandably given him a dark view of life.
Initially, Rorschach is the only one who believes that the heroes of the past are being killed off and he spends the first part of the book attempting to gather together the former allies into some kind of unit to put up resistance. He approaches his old partner Night Owl who is probably the closest thing Watchmen has to a Batman figure in that he has vehicles and gadgets. Alas, he does not have the mansion nor the piles of money Bruce Wayne has so therefore must do with a town house with a large basement. Night Owl ends up trying to relive the old days with Silk Spectre who only gained her hero alter ego after taking over from her Mother. This fact alone gives her plenty of problems concerning living up to her Mother’s billing.
If I had to pick one favourite character though it would be Dr Manhattan. His story of being a normal scientist who is caught up in a reactor explosion is one of the standard comic book clichés but the brilliant part about him is how he reacts to being given these god like powers. He may have the ability to manipulate objects with his mind, to teleporting anywhere he pleases and to win entire conflicts by simply stomping across the battlefield but it has removed him from being anything like human. There’s a magical part of Watchmen is which Dr Manhattan goes into hiding on Mars and spends a few pages explaining how he sees time pass and how, rather than being separate things, he sees the past, present and future together as one. It’s a complex idea to get your head round but this section is so well written it all makes sense by the end.
Watchmen’s big strength is that all of these characters are different and all are not typical heroes as we have come to imagine them. Watchmen gives us a small taste of what it would be like if real people started to dress up at night to go off fighting crime. In most cases it would lead to a rather lonely and paranoid existence which the book reflects. Alan Moore is also infamously against the 2009 movie version as he says it was designed to be a comic book and should be remembered as such. In a way he’s right, there’s just too much depth and too many interwoven strands of story in the book meaning any film adaptation was always going to be a cut down version of events. One character has written their memoirs which are glossed over quickly in the movie but in the book you are given full opportunity to read a few sample chapters. There’s a comic book within a comic in the book as one character reads a story based on piracy. It’s something the screen version simply cannot go into for fear of losing an audience. The film still works but there’s so much more to discover in the book.
I’m a rubbish comic book fan so I’ve probably just spent one thousand words preaching to the converted but if you come to this blog to read about amateur adventures in screen writing and haven’t discovered Watchmen’s brilliance then I suggest you pick it up.