Thursday, 19 March 2009

Watchmen - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen in one tweet-sized chunk:
Startlingly ambitious, Watchmen proves what is gloriously possible in fiction. But sometimes the story is lost amid over-indulgence.

Without doubt Watchmen is one of the most incredibly ambitious works I have ever read. It is a spectacular feat of imagination, with multiple plots and characters and a philosophical conversation which covers a remarkable scope of subjects. Cold War international relations, classical history, technological development, contemporary politics, nuclear physics, free will, marketing, Vietnam, the nature of humanity. All these themes and more find a home somewhere in the vast sprawling mass which is Watchmen. And the overall plot is one of impending nuclear holocaust. It is rare see a writer set out to say something about so many different subjects, and on all these Alan Moore is able to sound learned, interesting, and persuasive. He is capable of distilling difficult concepts into one or two lines of dialogue, breaking them down so that they are understandable by all. At times, the simplicity of his statements took my breath away. There is little doubt that he is a great thinker and talented writer.

However, this ambitious style also crosses over into the narrative structure, and here it is far less successful. Alongside the standard graphic novel style narrative, the story of Watchmen consists of diary entries, chapters from memoirs, press interviews, ornithological investigations, comics within comics, newspaper columns, and more. And somewhere in the midst of all these different voices there is a plot trying to get out. It is an exciting one too: the age of superheroes has passed and an invisible hand guides the world towards cataclysmic rebirth. There is intrigue, mystery, adventure. It starts with a government sponsored ‘superhero’ being murdered, then another, and follows their former colleagues as they try to uncover the mysterious conspiracy. It is set in the midst of the Cold War, and ticks down a clock towards impending nuclear holocaust. It transplants and supplants history, showing the U.S. victorious in Vietnam and Nixon elected for a third term in office. In every way this is an enthralling plot. But this core narrative is consistently interrupted with the blending in of various complimentary back stories. And while these other plots broaden and explain the parallel world in which Watchmen is set, develop the psychologies and histories of the main protagonists, and offer counterpoint and allegory to the wider story, they are often difficult to read, over-indulgent, and have the effect of disrupting the plot arc.

It is for this reason – and here I run the risk of being chased out of town by a mass of loyal fans wielding torches – that the film is actually better than the graphic novel. What the film understands and the book never does, is that you can have all the vast ideas and great writing you want, but that equates to little if the audience isn’t engaged enough in the story to take it in. For all its faults – and they are many, including a differently cadenced ending which makes no sense – the film tells an exciting, romantic, human, and thought-provoking story. And it does so in a largely linear way.

Watchmen (both the film and graphic novel) is also beset by the wave of bleating, falling-over-backwards platitudes seeking to portray it as ‘still as relevant as ever.’ Well, hang on a minute, no it’s not. We are not still in a cold war world where nuclear destruction is a very real presence. More to the point, many people point to the books tag-line ‘Who Watches the Watchmen’ – a reference to quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, a Latin phrase from the poet Juvenal which literally translates as ‘who will guard the guards themselves?’ - and attribute this to be a comment on surveillance society and central authority. Well, if it was then this would be relevant. But Watchmen is not a comment on the police power, nanny states, or any other over used cliché. As Alan Moore has himself observed: “in the context of Watchmen [the phrase reflects the idea that]...they’re watching out for us, [but] who’s watching out for them?” If anything, Watchmen attempts not to subject the superheroes to further bureaucratic controls, but to present a human face to the superhero trying to protect the world and actively make it a better place.

This deconstruction of the stereotypical superhero is enthralling. The Superheroes who make up The Watchmen, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, possess no special abilities of their own other than ingenuity, fearlessness, and physical fitness. Everything they achieve is done with technological development and sheer guts (though how Veidt catches a bullet is not exactly apparent!) By questioning the indestructibility of superheroes, Moore is able to comment on human society in a more meaningful manner, questioning whether individuals become complicit in the state of the world simply by choosing not to act to change things. Perhaps this is a universal message, and therefore relevant to all times across all of humanity. Many of the other messages are similarly universal. But that does not mean Watchmen can be slimmed down into so glib a comment.

However, that is only my opinion, and one of the best things about Watchmen is how little is cut and dry. Ideas are presented in opposition to each other, thus filling the world with contradiction and uncertainty. From the ultra liberal, vegetarian, pacifist Adrian Veidt, to Rorscharch, the vigilante who sees social decadence everywhere, perceives law abiding to be a citizens prime duty, and views life in a starkly black and white fashion, Alan Moore presents the ideas tangled together, fleshing them out in the lives of the characters but never decisively coming down in support of one or another. Come then end, it is impossible to tell whether the moral high ground lies with Rorscharch’s refusal to compromise, Veidt’s desire to inspire good in the world, Dr. Manhattan’s godly ambitions, or the simple love between Night Owl and Silk Spectre II. Each character is strong and individual, with a carefully drawn psychology. They have good intentions and questionable actions. However, each of them is often thoroughly dislikeable. While this is impressively complex characterisation, it makes it difficult to identify with them. Even the very human story of Silk Spectre’s past and future doesn’t resonate with the cathartic power it might. It is difficult to thoroughly engage with a work of fiction when none of the characters is particularly likeable. But perhaps now I’m quibbling.

That I have prattled on for this long is testament to the thought process which Watchmen inspires. It enlivens the brain with its complex themes and theories, and challenges perceptions of history and the future. Sadly though, in the end, it is the narrative ambition which makes it a disjointed read which is not the engrossing and enjoyable experience it could otherwise have been. Ambition is a glorious thing for a writer. I hope it will not be perceived that I wish to knock the grandiose goals of Watchmen. I simply believe that if one has such grand thematic ambitions, the structure must be simple and precise. Above all else, telling a story should be about making the plot simple, straight forward, and readable. Watchmen is none of these things. And for me, that holds it all back.

6.5 out of 10

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