Favorite Book #14: Watchmen (1986)
Had a strange conversation with an older friend the other day who said he’d finally sat down and read Watchmen recently — and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. This is a guy well-versed in pop culture, history and comic books (heck, his
father-in-law apparently created ‘Archie’ wife’s late father was a writer for ‘Archie’ for decades), so it kinda surprised me: 1) that he hadn’t read it in the nearly 3 decades since it came out as a graphic novel, and 2) that he didn’t think it was the brilliant literary work that most readers think it is — including Time magazine, which put it in the top 100 novels of the 20th century.
It is true that much of the tension of the world-on-the-edge-of-Apocalypse that permeates the book was far more palpable when it was released at the pinnacle of the Cold War. It is also true that what made so much of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s dark and gritty deconstruction of the superhero genre so original has since been fully absorbed by the rest of pop culture — to the point where dark and gritty is a cliche to now be avoided.
“Watchmen,” however, is a layered work that rewards careful and multiple readings, that reveals character as much through design and layout as it does text, and, in the end, is a masterwork of stark existentialism. Zack Snyder’s 2009 big screen adaptation of the book, while polished and well executed, comes close but still fails to capture the emotional resonance of the original comic book — something, strangely enough, the second trailer for the movie actually achieves.
A thumbnail of the plot doesn’t do the book justice either, but it is a good selling point. Set in a slightly alternative universe (where Richard Nixon is still in office!), Alan Moore imagines what would happen if costumed crime-fighters a la Batman were real; if superheroes had to deal with getting old, with fame, with PTSD; and if such a group of people could make a difference in a world where the US and the USSR are about to launch a nuclear war. What good is being a hero if you can’t save the world?
When I was going to art school in Pittsburgh, Eides was THE place: half punk record store, half comic book shop, and the place where all my discretionary income went. It was where I first saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 and first heard Agent Orange, Black Flag and countless other bands. It was also where one of the guys behind the counter told me about “Watchmen” — and he said the store would buy back your copy if you didn’t think it was the best comic book you ever read. As far as I know, it was the only time they ever made this offer … and I suspect no one ever took them up on it.