Thursday, November 10, 2011

439. Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

History: This graphic novel is a twelve-issue comic book limited series created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colourist John Higgins. The series was published byDC Comics during 1986 and 1987, and has been subsequently reprinted in collected form. Watchmen originated from a story proposal Moore submitted to DC featuring superhero characters that the company had acquired from Charlton Comics. As Moore's proposed story would have left many of the characters unusable for future stories, managing editor Dick Giordano convinced the writer to create original characters instead.
Moore used the story as a means to reflect contemporary anxieties and to critique the superhero concept. Watchmen depicts an alternate history where superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s, helping the United States to win the Vietnam War.
Creatively, the focus of Watchmen is on its structure. Gibbons used a nine-panel grid layout throughout the series and added recurring symbols such as a blood-stained smiley. All but the last issue feature supplemental fictional documents that add to the series' backstory, and the narrative is intertwined with that of another story, a fictional pirate comic titled Tales of the Black Freighter, which one of the characters reads. Structured as a nonlinear narrative, the story skips through space, time and plot. Watchmen has received critical acclaim both in the comics and mainstream press, and is regarded by critics as a seminal text of the comics medium. After a number of attempts to adapt the series into a feature film, director Zack Snyder's Watchmen was released in 2009.
Plot: In October 1985, New York City police are investigating the murder of Edward Blake. With the police having no leads, costumed vigilante Rorschach decides to probe further. Discovering Blake to be the face behind The Comedian, a costumed hero employed by the United States government, Rorschach believes he has discovered a plot to terminate costumed adventurers and sets about warning four of his retired comrades: Dan Dreiberg (formerly the second Nite Owl), the superpowered and emotionally detached Doctor Manhattan and his lover Laurie Juspeczyk (the second Silk Spectre), and Adrian Veidt (once the hero Ozymandias, and now a successful businessman).
After Blake's funeral, Doctor Manhattan is accused on national television of being the cause of cancer in friends and former colleagues. When the U.S. government takes the accusations seriously, Manhattan exiles himself to Mars. In doing so, he throws humanity into political turmoil, with the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan to capitalize on the perceived American weakness. Rorschach's paranoid beliefs appear vindicated when Adrian Veidt narrowly survives an assassination attempt, and Rorschach himself is framed for murdering Moloch, a former supervillain.
Neglected in her relationship with Manhattan, and no longer kept on retainer by the government, Juspeczyk stays with Dreiberg; they don their costumes and resume vigilante work as they grow closer together. With Dreiberg starting to believe some aspects of Rorschach's conspiracy theory, the pair take it upon themselves to break him out of prison. Doctor Manhattan, after looking back on his own personal history, places the fate of his involvement with human affairs in Juspeczyk's hands. He teleports her to Mars to make the case for emotional investment. During the course of the argument, Juspeczyk is forced to come to terms with the fact that Blake, who once attempted to rape her mother, was in fact her biological father following a second consensual relationship. This discovery, reflecting the complexity of human emotions and relationships, re-sparks Doctor Manhattan's interest in humanity.
On Earth, Nite Owl and Rorschach continue to uncover the conspiracy surrounding the death of The Comedian and the accusations that drove Doctor Manhattan into exile. They discover evidence that Adrian Veidt may be behind the plan. Rorschach writes his suspicions about Veidt in his journal, and mails it to New Frontiersman, a small, right-wing newspaper in New York. The pair then confront Veidt at his Antarctic retreat. Veidt explains his underlying plan is to save humanity from impending Atomic war between the United States and Soviet Union by faking an alien invasion in New York City, which will annihilate half the city's population. He hopes this will unite the nations against a perceived common enemy. He also reveals that he had murdered The Comedian, arranged for Dr. Manhattan's past associates to contract cancer, staged the attempt on his own life in order to place himself above suspicion, and eventually staged Moloch's death to frame Rorschach. This was all done in an attempt to prevent his plan from being exposed. Finding his logic callous and abhorrent, Dreiberg and Rorschach attempt to stop him but discover that Veidt had already enacted his plan.
When Doctor Manhattan and Juspeczyk arrive back on Earth, they are confronted by mass destruction and wide scale death in New York City. Doctor Manhattan notices his abilities are limited by tachyonsemanating from the Antarctic, and the pair teleport there. They discover Veidt's involvement and confront him. Veidt shows everyone news broadcasts confirming the cessation of global hostilities and cooperation against a new threat; this leads almost all present to agree that concealing Veidt's truth from the public is in the best interests of the world to keep it united. Rorschach refuses to compromise and leaves, intent on revealing the truth. As he is making his way back, he is confronted by Manhattan. Rorschach tells him that Manhattan will have to kill him to stop him from exposing Veidt and his actions, and Manhattan responds by vaporizing him. Manhattan then wanders through the base and finds Veidt, who asks Manhattan if he did the right thing in the end. In response, Manhattan states that "Nothing ever ends" before leaving the Earth for a different galaxy. Dreiberg and Juspeczyk go into hiding under new identities and continue their romance. Back in New York, the editor at New Frontiersman complains about having to pull a two page column about Russia due to the new political climate. He asks his assistant to find some filler material from the crank file, a collection of rejected submissions to the paper, many of which had not even been reviewed. The series ends with the young man reaching towards the pile of discarded submissions, near the top of which is Rorschach's journal.
Review: Moore creates an entirely original cast of superheroes who range from the mundane (e.g., Nite Owl) to the fantastic (Dr. Manhattan) to the disturbing (Rorschach). Moore's writing is flawless. He eschews narrative boxes or sound bubbles, so every word in the book is either spoken or thought by a particular character; but Moore does such a masterful job of keeping each character's voice distinct that I hardly noticed the absence of narration. And, as always, Moore's writing is never awkward, overblown, or cliched; his writing style is better than most non-comic-book authors I've read.
What is most remarkable is how much Gibbons does with a very conservative layout: although most pages are just nine equally sized panels, Gibbons manages transitions between scenes remarkably well, and he is capable of expressing subtle emotions with simple penstrokes (see Veight's smug expression in Chapter 12, page 9). The way Gibbons manages to convey the narrative both within and between panels is, well, cinematic, in the sense that every single panel has a purpose, and not a single frame is wasted. It is also remarkable to see how wonderfully Moore and Gibbons weave certain symbols throughout the book: every chapter starts with one central image, which is reflected over and over again both within that chapter and in subsequent chapters.
The writing, the artwork--and the story. Moore begins the book with a bang, and the level of suspense does not let up until the very end. Every piece of the rather convoluted plot makes sense, and the story wraps up with a satisfying close.
Opening Line: “Dog carcass in the alley this morning, tire tread on a burst stomach.”
Closing Line: “I leave it entirely in your hands.”
Quotes: “Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense.”
“A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?”
Rating: Excellent

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