(Throughout 2011, every month CCLaP staff writer Oriana Leckert is looking at a different graphic novel from a "girl's" point of view, examining this notoriously male-dominated medium from a female perspective, and sometimes aided by her fellow members of a Brooklyn book club devoted to the same subject. For all of Oriana's J&C essays, please see her main article index here at the site.)
By Alan Moore et al.
Reviewed by Oriana Leckert
Oh my god you guys, Watchmen. Probably the most famous graphic novel of all time, if not altogether one of the most famous books of all time. It's such a hard book to even talk about, let alone review--I feel like everything I could say must have already been said, louder and smarter, over and over.
Oh but whatever, when has that stopped me?
So okay, let's start again. In case you've missed the movie and the comics and the book and all the scads and scads of hoopla surrounding it all, Watchmen is an alternate history graphic novel that takes place in 1980s New York City. It's pretty bleak days, at the brink of nuclear war, and for a few generations people have been stepping out at night in silly getups to play at being superheroes. Many of the "Watchmen" are caricatures of famous comic-book heroes (which everyone knows more about than me, so I'll leave it there). The point is, people got mad because what's really the difference between someone taking justice into their own hands and vigilantism? Not a lot, I guess. And so being a self-appointed superhero has been outlawed, and this is the story of a handful of people who used to be Watchmen and how they've adjusted (or not) to civilian life. Oh and also there's Dr. Manhattan, the only one who actually is a superhero, as in he has real powers, and is not really very human anymore, and so is kind of his own kind of basket case.
That's enough. Probably everyone already knew all that; even I knew, at least partially, what I was in for when I picked this up. And I will admit that I wasn't very optimistic going in; after being very disappointed with the totally dated, confusing, and uninspiring Dark Knight Returns, I had assumed that I just wasn't going to be excited by more masked crusaders and their moral dilemmas. But--let's have a big collective "Duh" here, please--Watchmen is so totally different.
It's a really difficult book, emotionally, situationally, morally, ethically, graphically, everything-ly. A lot of it is hard to stomach, be it the overt gore and horror and despair or the trickier emotional backtracking and ethical ambiguity. I was especially fascinated by the book's mind-bendingly complex morality, forcing constant second-guessings of flimsy concepts like "good" and "bad." And the characters, oh my god, these intensely real, consistent, and consistently surprising characters. There's Rorschach, the only Watchman who refused to retire, whose plaintive morality is so heartbreaking. He is so sure, so rigid, and so right, but so what? That doesn't matter if you're dead. And there's squeaky-clean Adrian, formerly Ozymandias, hero turned villain turned hero again, maybe, sort of, if glorified ends justify despicable means. And then Sally, once the Silk Spectre, the first Watchman to retire, whose whole life is an endless bitter argument with herself, hating the man she loves and hating herself for loving him. The breadth and development of all the characters was breathtaking. The only stereotypical, cardboard, one-dimensional face in the bunch was Laurie--daughter of Sally, girlfriend of Dr. Manhattan, and former dabbler in superherodom--but more on her later.
Getting beyond the intricate plot and multifaceted characters--essential components to any fine work of literature--let's talk about what makes this not only a phenomenal book, but a phenomenal comic book. Whenever anyone asked me why I was so impressed with it, I started babbling about how jaw-droppingly meticulously constructed it is. This is something that, stupidly, I hadn't yet considered about graphic novels. As a proofreader, I know a thing or two about line-breaks and the physical components of (prose) book design, like how you always have to start a chapter on a recto page, or how you're not allowed to have one lone line of text on an otherwise blank page. And with a graphic novel I'd just assumed that you drew the pictures you needed to get the story where you wanted it to go. But no way; there is so much more to think about! What do you do if you only have, say, twelve panels worth of story, but you need to fill eighteen so that you can have a full-page spread next? In prose, if you have a short line, you can squinch the paragraph before it to fit it all in, and I guess you could do that with drawings too, but it seems like a much dicier proposition. What I'm trying to say is that Watchmen made me much more aware of the mechanics of putting a graphic novel together. Not in a bad way, and not in a way that took me out of the story, but in an awestruck way, where every time I noticed two parallel storylines subtly or overtly augmenting each other, I was amazed anew by how much work must have gone into every aspect of the planning and execution of this tome.
This was the most striking in sections that had two stories being simultaneously told, alternating panel by panel. For example, in one such double scene we have Laurie walking through a back alley with Dan (formerly a Watchman named Night Owl, currently drying Laurie's adorable tears as she decides whether to break up with Dr. Manhattan) when they are surrounded by a group of muggers. At the same time, Dr. Manhattan is being interviewed live on ABC News. So watch this: A reporter asks Dr. Manhattan, "Doc, if the Reds act up in Afghanistan, will you be prepared to enter hostilities?"--just as the thugs draw their weapons on Laurie and Dan. Then another reporter tells Dr. Manhattan that one of his colleagues recently died of cancer, and he says, "I believe it was quite sudden and quite painful"--just as Laurie and Dan turn on their attackers and start breaking bones. Next Dr. Manhattan starts getting upset, and as his handlers try to rush him out of the auditorium, one tells the crowd, "Sorry about this, folks, but the show's over"--just as Dan and Laurie look around and see all the would-be muggers laid out on the ground. See what he did there? Incredible.
But you're not listening to me because I'm an art critic, right? You're listening to me because I'm a girl reading graphic novels from a non-fanboy perspective, and because I'm purportedly writing these essays from a "feminist slant." So let me bring it back to Laurie. Throughout the book, I found her simpering, insipid, self-absorbed. In a work full of complicated, original characters, I felt like she stood alone as a cardboard, clichÃ©d, brainless-but-hot, whiny bimbette, I couldn't believe that everyone was in love with her, that she was the one on whom it fell to save the world, that Dr. Manhattan's love for her was ultimately the single thing that would bring him back to earth to try to avert war. I don't think Alan Moore has a very high opinion of women generally (at least how they're painted in Watchmen), but his portrayal of Laurie as a vacant silly sex symbol bothered me like crazy.
But then a strange thing happened; just now, in fact. I've been putting off writing this review for days, and I still just couldn't do it, so I figured of course I'd think more clearly after a cigarette break's worth of rereading the book. And the scene that I randomly opened to was that one, the pivotal one, Laurie and Dr. Manhattan on Mars, where she tries to convince him to save the world by talking whinily about that one time when she got really drunk and yelled at Blake (the slimy fucker who once raped her mother) and threw a drink in his face. And I read it again, for probably the fifth time this month, and I waited for all the righteous feminist anger about her silliness and stupidity to come back, but then...it just didn't.
For the first time I kind of got why she would bring up those things; I kind of saw how she's not actually clichÃ©d, really; she's very true to the character she's been given. I don't like her, but I don't like Blake or Dan so much either. I think I'd confused myself, wanting so badly for the book to include an intelligent, noble female character that I insisted Laurie was badly written, when really she's just someone I find distasteful and a bit of a letdown. So what I mean is, yet again Alan Moore did a fantastic job of creating a nuanced, complicated, realistic character, who acted consistently with the way she'd been created to act. She's messy and selfish and preening, but that's who she is. Just one more astonishing aspect of this completely astonishing book. Just one more reason why it's upsetting, disturbing, challenging, and, yeah, brilliant.