Saturday, July 29, 2006

22. Watchmen

by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons

There’s this great documentary on comic book history that I’ve seen on the History Channel a couple times. It is the ultimate in geekdom (Comics and the History Channel? Yeesh!), but it was pretty interesting to learn how much current events affected the growth of the comic book industry, right up to affecting the creation of specific superheroes themselves. I didn’t notice until a later viewing that Alan Moore’s Watchmen was mentioned in the documentary, but while reading it I found it amazing just how incredibly intertwined with real life this story of erstwhile superheroes was.

The title Watchmen refers to the descendents of a group of crime fighters who called themselves the “Minute Men.” With the Minute Men disbanded, a second generation of crime fighters came together, including Laurie Juspeczyk, daughter of Sally Jupiter, Dr. Manhattan, a man whose exposure to radiation has rendered his skin blue and given him the ability to travel instantaneously in time and space, Rorschach, a psychopath, Night Owl, sharing his name with an original Minute Man, and the Comedian, who was part of that first group. When someone starts killing off superheroes twenty years later – the Comedian’s death in the first section leaves us with that splotch of blood staining the cover art – the reluctant vigilantes find themselves returning to their alter egos to get to the bottom of a plot far more nefarious than they could have ever imagined.

Of the characters, Rorschach is only one who’s kept up his superhero identity through the years, although he’s clearly the most demented of them. When he’s finally captured by the police and put under psychiatric analysis, we get to see how his abusive childhood led up to a grisly murder and the birth of his adopted identity. Rorschach is one of the most interesting characters because he’s basically a walking time bomb and you fear what’ll happen if he ever explodes. Except for Manhattan, who is physically incapable of returning to his former identity, Rorschach is the only one who wants no part of regular humanity and taking off his mask is akin to ripping off his skin.

On the other hand, Laurie wants no part of the superhero scene and is always a bit bitter towards her mother, Sally Jupiter of the Minute Men, who forced her into it as a teenager. Laurie is paired with Manhattan, stuck at the military base where he does his research. She finds a sympathetic ear in Dan Dreiberg, the second rendition of the Night Owl hero, and the two embark on a relationship that ends up being mutually beneficial to their stagnant lives. As the stoic voice of wisdom, Manhattan doesn’t grieve his loss of Laurie, having the ability to see the future and past simultaneously. His radioactive transformation is beautifully drawn and the story is straight out of the classic superhero genre.

I guess every superhero comic requires its non-hero characters to suspend their disbelief. They just have to accept that a man can fly around and dodge bullets or dress up like a bat and administer his own form of justice without questioning any of it. I haven’t read much of the superhero comics (or any really…I’ve never quite figured out where to start), so most of my knowledge comes from TV shows, movies, or general pop culture, but what I found interesting about Watchmen is that we aren’t required to believe that these characters have any special abilities, except Manhattan of course. Sally Jupiter is little more than the requisite sexpot and the Comedian is your typical testosterone-bolstered egomaniac. But this shows that these people who are outside of society are humans, too. They have their own set of problems and insecurities and when they get old they retire. They’re not that different or “super” after all. Each section of the twelve-part series ends with excerpts from a superhero memoir, newspaper clippings from their pasts, and, in Rorschach’s case, parts of his psychiatric chart. Moore gave all of his heroes a firm grounding in reality so it doesn’t take that much of a stretch to think that a group like this could actually form. It’s pretty inventive and Moore gives the genre an accessibility that I don’t think any other writer has.

I know this book is in the works for a movie and I’m hesitant to see that come to fruition. I’m still reeling from the bastardization that was the film version of V for Vendetta, so I can see how easily filmmakers might ruin this story. God knows what they’ll do with Laurie and Dan’s relationship because it seems that there’s always a sappy love scene in these kinds of movies to draw the female audience in. (Note to filmmakers: We don’t need that. We’ll see a movie just because it’s good, even without a trace of lovey-dovey, pappy crap.) I’ve heard speculation of Willem Defoe doing Rorschach and I can see that, but what of the other characters? This story just won’t do with a young starlet or the latest hunk. And, more importantly, who’ll play Manhattan? How will you pull off a big blue guy who walks around naked 90% of the time?

But I can’t worry about that because the movie will happen and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I can just say, get thee to a comic book store before it comes out so you won’t be at all spoiled for a truly engaging, intricately written story. The back of my edition reads, “If you’ve never read a graphic novel, then Watchmen is the one to start with,” but I’m inclined to disagree with that point. Get a few graphic novels under your belt, then tackle Watchmen. There’s something to be said for saving the best for last.

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