19. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986) 416 p.
I didn’t intend to include a graphic novel (read: comic book) on my list of 50 books, because it’s not really my kind of thing, but Watchmen is no ordinary comic book. It is widely regarded as a masterpiece, hands-down the most critically acclaimed comic book ever made, and was listed on Time Magazine’s 100 greatest novels since 1923.
Watchmen is set in New York City in the 1980s of an alternate world, in which masked “superheroes” are real and have altered society and politics in some very thought-provoking ways. It follows the trials of a group of mostly-retired superheroes who are drawn back into a noirish world of crime, conspiracy and danger after the murder of one of their former colleagues.
Like all good storytellers, Moore and Gibbons do not spoonfeed the reader. Many small details about this intriguing world are minor images hidden in the background. In the first chapter alone, the astute reader will note that Vietnam has become the 51st state, Richard Nixon is still the President, the USA is building missile silos on the moon and the doomsday clock (a recurring motif in a book overflowing with them) stands at five minutes to midnight.
Watchmen is about superheroes in the same way that No Country For Old Men is about cops and drug dealers. It deconstructs one of the most iconic images of America, developing flawed heroes with complex psychological profiles. All but one lack superpowers, they all have deep problems, and some have nagging doubts about the ultimate purpose of fighting petty crime in a world threatened by nuclear annihilation.
This is the overall vibe emanated by Watchmen, a Cold War text down to its very bones. I’ve always found superheroes to be a laughable, childish, outdated element of pop culture, but Watchmen treats them realistically and examines the effects they would have on society: the police strikes, the swaying public opinion, the inculpability of vigilantes and the aforementioned failure to address society’s real problems. Early in the novel, in a flashback to the 1960s, we see a USMC-lieutenant turned crimefighter discussing the problems America faces, among which he includes “student protests” and “black unrest.” The very awesome character Rorschach, dressed in 1920s tweed pants and overcoat, executes both a serial rapist and the average mugger without remorse, while his diary reveals the workings of a disturbingly warped mind. A major character who is employed by the government and held in high regard by the people of America also has a history of sexual assault. The world of Watchmen is like our own: everything is uncertain and relative, and morality is hard to pin down.
Flipping through it at the bookstore, I found Dave Gibbons’ artwork to be relatively bland and generic, the typical American comic book style familiar even to someone who never reads comic books. When I started actually reading it, I discovered that there were much deeper layers to it than I thought. Apart from the minor details found in every frame, the way the frames themselves move is beautiful, resembling film techniques in the way they segue into a flashback, create ironic contrasts or suggest deeper symbolism to images in nearly every panel. I did not even realise until after finishing it that the chapter entitled “Fearful Symmetry” is itself perfectly symmetrical through its dark and light coloured panels. Just as the story redefines the traditions of the comic book narrative, the artwork redefines the traditions of comic book illustration, with a particularly welcome relief from motion lines and transcribed sound effects. (I would have loved to link to a YouTube video of the Simpsons episode featuring a campy Radioactive Man beating villains up to colourful splashes of “SNUH,” “BORT” and “MINT,” but the Fox Corporation is excessively rabid about its copyright. The fuckers.)
The ending – which is foreshadowed like crazy, and which I was sure I had predicted – was both what I expected, and completely not what I expected. I like that.
Anyway, I could talk forever about this awesome story, but it’s difficult to do so without giving away a lot of plot details. Suffice to say that it’s a richly thematic masterpiece of symbolism, philosophy and humanity, with beautiful artwork, a great story and deeply memorable characters. It’s the best book I’ve read this year (granted, it had the unfair advantage of pictures) and the pinnacle of 20th century comics. It can be bought from the Book Depository for just over 20 bucks. Buy it.