To comic or not to comic, that is the graphic novel?
This is the first graphic novel that I have had on my list. To avoid the issue (or stumble straight into?) I will use the terms “Graphic Novel” and “Comic” interchangeably in this review. If you don’t like it, lump it 🙂
As well as being the first graphic novel on my list, Watchmen was also the first graphic novel I had read for a very long time. It is a book that I only recently acquired for my birthday in June 2016 and I pretty much instantly promoted it to the top of my reading list! I have read and very much enjoyed graphic novels in the past, most notable of these previous adventures was The Crow by James O’Barr. I re-acquired that for my birthday too, so it will be re-read and reviewed at some point in the future 🙂
To start this review I need to at least touch on the comic *thing*. I could waz on about the relative merits of comics and graphic novels compared to scripts and books for ages, but I’m not going to (Ha!) Others have and are doing that ad infinitum and it really isn’t overly relevant to this review. Suffice to say that all literary and visual art, books and comics included, allow their creator the latitude to deliver sublime beauty or a hideous pile of shite, sometimes at the same time.
All I will say is that I think graphic novels provide a very interesting way to bring image and word together. I touched on the subject of efficient, tight prose in my review of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. As a medium, the graphic novel provides a spectacular way to allow the text to concentrate on dialogue and story, while the pictures provide a wonderfully powerful symbiotic support. If a picture paints a thousand words, then Watchmen is longer than Anna Karenina (which I still haven’t finished!)
The actual review
Watchmen is, quite frankly, an excellent story told in an amazing, very deep and considered way. It is obvious that the original spark for this book was huge, but every further consideration, every extra detail of the whole story is etched into the quality of the characters, their floors, their heroism and the events that unfold in such a perfectly orchestrated way. You can see the quality of that creation process. Moore wrote a forward for the version of the book that I have. In it he suggests that the story is somehow weaker in its early stages as they had not developed the whole story arc and the characters. I never noticed!
The complexity of the various stories and the layers of characters, events and background is almost overwhelming. I found that you drew as much as you could from the text and images and still felt the rich reality of life sat behind what you gleened. There are so many oblique references and throw away observations that allow the the book to be of its time and timeless all at once.
If that wasn’t enough of a success, in multiple places, two separate storylines are told together and this device is used to infer deeper meaning in one or both. There is a pirate story, a comic within a comic, which is an obvious example. Sections of a person reading a pirate zombie comic interleave with a conversations and events in the real world. The medium conveys the reality of what is happening in an unambiguous yet extremely subtle way. It truly is sublime storytelling. This technique is also used in other parts of the book where two parts of the main story overlap and complete each other, or where one person is talking and the other is thinking. It is nothing short of astounding when I look back and think what pages of paper managed to do! (OK, pages of paper and a pair of extremely talented people!)
Watchmen is also a perfect example of the “show don’t tell” writing rule. Intelligence is expected of the reader (yeh yeh, and I managed to struggle through!) You have to join the dots you put two and two and two together and you get what you can out of it knowing there is more you missed. That’s it’s beauty.
A final example of the exquisite subtlety of this otherwise very un-subtle story is the way that you relate to the characters. There are two very distinct sides to some of the characters; mask on and mask off. Watchmen feasts on the fallibility of people. I have managed to get to this point without mentioning the Watchmen unique selling point. The Superheroes are real people and far from detract from the whole history of superhero comics, it adds its own layer of realism without causing damage to the original format (it might be naivety and the healing passage of time that has given me this view?) Watchmen has however spawned a wealth of sub-culture. The likes of Mystery Men, Kick Ass, Super Bob and maybe even Scot Pilgrm if you squint (there’s also an Ex Machina reference in there as well.) were all conceived from the much more serious, more grounded and grander story that is Watchmen. I can only imagine being into the comic/super hero scene and reading Watchmen when it came out.
Found heavier text at end of each chapter hard going against the fluidity of the comic sections. But they provide the depth, the background.
So, that’s it. Read Watchmen. I haven’t scratched the surface of what it has to offer. I was never going to succeed, so I didn’t try 🙂 I’ll end with a quote from the book that I loved.
“Whether tales are told by the light of a campfire or by the glow of a screen, the prime decision for the teller has always been what to reveal and what to withhold…”