Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of Alan Moore's Watchmen

WatchmenWatchmen by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"It doesn't require genius to see that America has problems that need tackling. An' it takes a moron to think that they are small enough for clowns like you to handle"  - The Comedian


I recently came across this engaging Podcast conversation between the controversial author Sam Harris and history buff Dan Carlin. Among other things, Sam Harris brings up the elevated threat levels in today's World thanks to terrorism. In his considered response, Dan Carlin proposes that it is only our perception of threat that has increased, and not the threat itself. He reminisces on growing up during the height of cold war in the USA, where people lived in constant fear of a nuclear showdown between two superpowers. A manufactured fear, implies Dan Carlin.

Imagining this fear helps us understand the bleakness of Alan Moore's Watchmen better. Watchmen is an epic, ambitious attempt, spanning a time period of more than sixty years from the end of the first World War to the fag end of the cold war in the mid 1980s. The backdrop is in an alternate history where the presence of Watchmen seems to have affected events subtly. Richard Nixon continues as the President of the USA, with a mention of a suspicious accident that kills two Washington Post reporters (there is a hint that one of the Watchmen, The Comedian, was involved in this, but it is up to us to draw our own conclusions).

To say Watchmen is dense would be an understatement. The writing and the artwork is crammed with details, and the radical temporal and spatial shifts demand unwavering attention from the readers. Dave Gibbons adds a lot with his art and the arresting visuals enhance the story. Reading the Watchmen is like watching a movie at times. Despite the predominantly dark tone of the actual plot-line ("Life's so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud, suspended in endless nothing"), Watchmen comes with a supplementary reading at the end of each chapter where Alan Moore shows off his range of writing styles. The supplements range from an academic report on birds to a staunchly right-wing newspaper account, and these supplements add a lot to the Watchmen universe. There is even a comic-inside-comic about a pirate ship that mirrors the narrative of, and is much darker than, the story.

The primary purpose of Alan Moore in writing the Watchmen was to subvert the superhero genre, and he pulls this off spectacularly. The Watchmen are unlike any set of superheroes we have come across. Most of them are neither super nor heroic. One fights crime to escape from his tormented life, and another to escape from his dreary life. One fights crime for the popularity it entails, and another for reasons no one can fathom. One, the most powerful of them all, is an accidental superhero and would rather be somewhere else (Mars, maybe). Their political positions vary too. Rorschach's journal has an entry that reads "New social evils emerge everyday : promiscuity, drugs, campus subversions"; a stance that is relevant for the far right even today. However the central idea of Watchmen is in elucidating the fascism of a superhero. Will you make decisions that affect millions of people without their consent because you think it is for their own good? What if you are wrong? An additional theme that constantly runs throughout is the incompetence of current political systems to keep people happy. If you think such abstract ideas are irrelevant today, you just have to listen to the very same podcast I mentioned earlier (and I have linked below the post). Sam Harris and Dan Carlin disagree on how injustice in a foreign country must be dealt with by the USA, and the parallels are uncanny (At this point, I must confess that I don't love Sam Harris. I had written about him earlier - Science, Morality and Sam Harris. On the other hand, I like what I have heard by Dan).

On the downside, if you try explaining the plot of Watchmen to someone who hasn't read it (or watched the movie), you are likely to struggle with it. The scope of Watchmen is so big that Moore falters a bit while dealing with the actual central plot-line. Additionally, the characters do not connect with us emotionally. I have never been a big fan of the superhero genre, and the tiny elements of Watchmen that actually deal with the stuff superheros do -- saving people and fighting enemies -- were underwhelming. I would say that these are trivial complaints. Alan Moore is clear on what he sets out to do, and he succeeds. Watchmen was the first graphic novel I read, and I am sold. The narrative technique, the level of detailing, and the moral questions raised by Alan Moore make Watchmen a very satisfying read. The Watchmen is more for the mind that for the heart.

Podcast link : Shouldering the Burden of History

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