Hello, everyone! On the recommendation of one of my friends, I read Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ iconic graphic novel Watchmen this week, and I’m left feeling mystified. Ever since I was a tween and started to consume “classic” media, I’ve found it difficult to come to terms with the confusion and disappointment I experience when a revered item in the Western canon leaves me cold. When dealing with classics, separating the hype surrounding the media from the media itself is a painful process. I’m no tastemaker, but I have taste, and I don’t know how to explain my dislike for some pieces of media that society reveres without worrying that I’m missing some grand overarching theme because of my relative youth and inexperience. How do I come to terms with disliking Watchmen when Time included it in its list of “Top 100 All-Time Novels?” Does my lack of regard for the novel mean that I’m stupid? Or do even the quality and cultural relevancy of classics erode over time? Time didn’t include Lonesome Dove on its Top 100 List, so maybe that means that they’re the stupid ones. Regardless, here is a non-comprehensive list of my unpopular opinions about Watchmen, and here’s hoping the Alan Moore stans don’t find me!
The plot. What is Watchmen? A boilerplate murder mystery complicated by a non-linear timeline, pages of meta-textual character backstory, and a loosely related tale of pirate debauchery. The meat of the novel is a fairly straight-forward “whodunnit” about the murder of The Comedian, a.k.a Edward Blake. When the story focuses in on this storyline, it’s at its most compelling, especially as it highlights the problematic nature of trusting society’s safety to morally ambiguous super heroes. Our “good guys,” Rorschach, Nite Owl, Dr. Manhattan, and Laurie Jupiter, are all complicated characters with nuanced histories. Rorschach is violent and ideologically puritanical, Nite Owl finds fulfillment only in vigilante justice, Dr. Manhattan is out of touch with humanity, and Laurie is struggling to find her identity. Despite being morally complex, these four characters are the moral heart of the novel, and it’s their quest to understand themselves, as well as solve the mystery, that makes Watchmen worth reading.
Unfortunately, Watchmen is such a sprawling, almost byzantine narrative, that the heart of the novel gets lost underneath superfluous flourishes that add to the novel’s atmosphere, but detract from its central storyline. Through meta-textual interludes, such as one character’s memoir, newspaper clippings, or a magazine interview, we learn about these characters’ backstories. Visually clever as these interludes are, they don’t actually offer that much in the way of “new” information for these characters. Moore stuffs his dialogue with so much backstory that these extras become irrelevant to the actual story, and just serve to add more stuffing to the narrative. Additionally, Moore repeats information we’ve read multiple times, and through multiple perspectives, and while that provides us with insight into our characters’s heads, it clogs up the narrative, like a movie returning to the same flashback over and over again. It makes for a beautiful visual device, but a monotonous plot one.
Recalling writing the first script, Moore himself realized that despite being contracted for 12 issues, he “only had enough plot for six issues,” and consequently, he stretched out the plot by adding in issues devoted to character development. Overall, the novel suffers because of this. The book is over 400 pages, and yet it still feels overstuffed. In any given frame, the reader has to absorb the illustration and the jam-packed dialogue bubbles, as well attempt to keep up with The Tales of the Black Freighter, a secondary story-within-the-story that ostensibly mirrors the novel’s overarching themes, but really just feels like an attempt for Moore to pay homage to his favorite comic books. As a reader who likes to be able to pay attention to small details, I felt overwhelmed by the density of this novel, and slightly panicky in trying to absorb every minute aspect of the illustration, dialogue, and extraneous information. Moore and Gibbons did this intentionally, with Moore saying that the novel was meant to be read “four or five times”, and Dave Gibbons adding “[a]s it progressed, Watchmen became much more about the telling than the tale itself.” While I admire their intentionality in constructing a story meant to be deliberately re-read, I think it also shows the weakness of a story that is too complicated to be understood in one careful reading. If Watchmen is truly about the “telling” rather than the “tale,” then why does the telling seem to obstruct the tale?
And then, of course, there’s the novel’s depiction of women. Is there even a point in talking about a 1986 graphic novel’s depiction of women? There’s really no point in expecting anything better from 1986 than what Moore gives us, which is two women, Sally and Laurie Jupiter, whose primary functions are to give additional character depth to the men with whom they have sex with. Whatever. That’s just how it was in 1986, and I won’t ding Moore for this, even if he did include the egregious plot line of Sally Jupiter having consensual sex with her rapist, and then blaming herself for the rape. That’s just how it was, my friend, back in 1986. Women weren’t people in 1986.
The art. Like my other critiques, this is purely a matter of taste, but I don’t like how Watchmen looks. It’s ugly. The colors palette is composed of secondary colors that clash and are almost aesthetically painful to look at. I get that this is done intentionally, and that Watchmen is supposed to be viscerally uncomfortable to read, but damn it, it’s difficult to get through a novel that is so grotesque. I don’t think there is a single beautiful frame in the whole novel. Gibbons’ illustrations, and Joe Higgins’ coloring, are undeniably masterful and unique and innovative, but they aren’t one bit pleasant to look at. And for a comic book, that kind of sucks.
The main themes. While reading Watchmen, I couldn’t get over the sense that the book I was reading was something of a cultural relic. Which is weird, because a lot of the topics treated by the novel, like moral panic, fear of eroding Western influence, fear of nuclear war, fear of an unjust government, and fear of societal implosion, are all things that we still worry about in 2021 America. Hell, we’re on the brink of default because of one party’s failure to raise the debt ceiling, which is perhaps as close to economic collapse as we’ve come in decades, and still, Watchmen feels like a collection of overdone talking points. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Not if we think of Watchmen is an encapsulation of the emotions of a certain time. But if we think of Watchmen as an enduring cultural classic, then I think that the novel’s perspective fails to live up to that legacy.
The novel’s climax centers on the idea of superhero turned golden-boy businessman Adrian Veidt killing half of New York City by way of an alien explosion to end conflict between the U.S and the U.S.S.R, and usher in a time of peace. Upon hearing the plan, Rorschach and Nite Owl express their disbelief that Veidt would sacrifice 3 million people to end war, and in reply, Veidt answers that he already has. As a veiled reference to the atomic bombings of Japan (which killed between 129,000-226,000 people), the novel’s climax has a bleak resonance, showing that Veidt’s fictional evil is only marginally more extreme than America’s actual war strategy, but it’s also this climax that left me feeling so cold. As an American citizen in 2021, Adrian Veidt’s plan doesn’t seem incredibly far-fetched, or even breathtakingly evil. It sounds like our current reality, a reality in which more than 700,000 people have died from an infectious disease because of politicians who prioritize a bustling economy over human lives, a reality in which a 20 year long stint of retributive justice in Afghanistan left tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and American troops dead, and a reality in which 30,600 men died from police shootings in the past thirty years. Dealing with reality like that makes the “darkest timeline” aspect of Watchmen seem like reflections from another world. What was a once daring commentary on the “hidden” amorality of American government (a superhero committing atrocities in Vietnam!!), now seems mundane. Perhaps it’s because our political landscape is so transparently amoral, and the media market is so saturated with anti-heroes, that reading Watchmen feels derivative. And I know that it can’t be derivative, since it’s the original, the blueprint from which society’s favorite movies like The Dark Knight and Suicide Squad and The Joker were born. But nevertheless, it does. And that’s because the themes sketched in the novel no longer encompass the breadth of dysfunction in modern America. Is it possible to be jaded at 23? Reading a “ground-breaking” novel like Watchmen from this vantage point only emphasizes its faded relevancy.
Final consensus: Overall, Watchmen was a disappointment. After immersing myself in 300 hundred pages of paranoia, violence, and grandiose meditations on the human experience, I felt nothing. Perhaps decades of passing time prevent me from experiencing Watchmen the way it’s supposed to be experienced, or perhaps it’s just not for me. I still think it’s an important book, and I understand why it’s so commercially and critically beloved, but it’s not a book I’d read a second time, let alone a fourth or a fifth.