Monday, February 23, 2009

WW: Watchmen (the "graphic novel")

Is this the best superhero comic book graphic novel ever?

No, it isn't.

There, I said it. Now, although it isn't the best, it is very, very good. And it is the cleverest graphic novel - or to be more correct trade collection of a limited comic book series - that I own and have read.

Produced in the mid-eighties by the near-godlike Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen changed the way superheroes were perceived, at least by the comic book readers of the time. Instead of being bright spandex-wearing beacons of goodness, costumed crimefighters were now shown as darker, psychologically disturbed individuals. More gore and blood was also introduced. It was the dawn of the grim'n'gritty superhero comics.

I never read the original comic books at the time. It was only after a number of years that, because of all the fuss, I decided to buy the collected "graphic novel" and read it. The first time I read it, I didn't like it that much. It was too dark and not superheroey enough for me. Even now I think it's a little too dark - although, because comics have somewhat followed this grim path, I'm somewhat more used to it now so I appreciate it more. And, also on that first reading, I wasn't aware how clever and brilliant it was.

Watchmen makes great use of the comic book form. It does things that you couldn't do in a prose novel or a movie. It overlays text (often "voiceovers") on images that appear to be unrelated to the text, which in turn contrasts, sometimes humourously, with the pictures. Symbols, such as the smiley face or the blood drop, often reoccur throughout the book. The whole of issue five, chapter V "Fearful Symmetry", is symmetrical - the individual panels reflect one another from front to back (the chapter number V itself is symmetrical). And so on.

Even now, when I've read this book a number of times, I notice new things. Like the way the speech balloons are different for the different periods (the Minutemen words appear in clouds, the Crimebusters words in smooth ovals whereas the 'current' period words appear in rounded polygonal balloons). Or how each flashback in issue 9 (I think) ends with spilled liquids, echoing the fate of the spinning Nostalgia bottle. There are many, many more interesting little facets like these - I'll probably post some links tomorrow to some annotations which cover some of these. But the overriding story itself, when you strip all the cleverness, back histories and flashbacks, isn't the greatest ever.

There's a big conspiracy afoot and, although at first it looks like the costumed crimefighters are the targets, in fact most of New York and the fate of the world in general are at stake. I'm sure you know the story. It's the way Moore weaves the stories together and fleshes out the history that makes this great.

Gibbons' art is also a joy to behold. Clean, restrained and detailed with an obvious style it tells the story well without, surprisingly, resorting the usual comic book traditions at the time of movement lines, irregular panels, and sound effects. At times the colours are a little garish and bright (especially considering the story is so dark) but this just gives it a surreal quality.

The book itself is a good weight, nice and thick. It's feels just the right size in the hand. The pages unfortunately aren't glossy but seem a reasonable quality. There's no extras other than those wonderful text pieces that ran at the back of the individual issues. It does the job well though not astoundingly.

So, overall this is a very good book but not perfect. Around 20 years ago, I probably would have said it was okay but wondered what all the fuss was about - and given it maybe a Fine grading. But, like a good wine, it's actually improved greatly with age and my understanding of it, and - for the sheer cleverness and Gibbons' lovely art alone - I'm going to give it the following grade: Near Mint.

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