Sunday, March 03, 2013

Watchmen (1986-1987)

I found out about Watchmen in, of all places, a fanzine for mystery enthusiasts called The Armchair Detective, for which I briefly wrote book reviews in return for free books in the late '80s (such as Rock Critic Murders by Jesse Sublett, which they sent me but I never managed to finish, not because it isn't done well). The Watchmen review was buried in a column I read there regularly, "J'accuse!" by William L. DeAndrea. He was an interesting writer with wide-ranging interests, but it was unusual for anyone connected with the magazine to acknowledge a comic book, let alone discuss one, let alone rave enthusiastically about it. By the time I read the column the comic book run was over and it had been gathered into the graphic novel most of us know it by now, truly one of the great comic books (or graphic novels, if I must) we will have for a very long time. As promised by DeAndrea's review, Watchmen is a huge one. Writer Alan Moore (it somehow seems insufficient to call him just the writer, but there you go) takes the same psychological starting point as the book's virtual companion in comic book history, which preceded it by about seven months, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. But where Miller's Batman is a near-future tale, Moore sets Watchmen back in the "golden age" of comic books, to the very point of the original imagining, circa 1937, and reimagines it as if it all really happened, a fad of the transitional times from the Great Depression to World War II when real people dressed up in colorful costumes and "fought crime." As Miller did, Moore also wonders what kind of people they would be, and comes to essentially the same (obvious) conclusion: damaged human beings, revenge-driven psychopaths, and such. Only one character in Moore's pantheon here has super-powers, a Silver-Surfer-like figure produced as a matter of nuclear technology in the mid-'40s who is practically omnipotent. Otherwise they are well-meaning thugs or insecure but handy dweebs with maximum brain power. Moore's storytelling style is allusive and fastidiously detailed, supplying backstory via appendices to the early sections, staged as excerpts from an autobiography, published histories, odd critical exegeses, police files, and so forth. It may be a little awkward, in terms of comic-book storytelling, but it provides necessary context, and one welcomes it. I welcomed it. Also—and I think everybody talks about this sooner or later, but it's still remarkable—Dave Gibbons's illustrations are deceptively generic. By the midpoint the style becomes uncannily appropriate to the story, down to sizing and sequencing the panels. I understand that Moore has much to do with this, that he is obsessive about storyboarding every panel down to the tiniest detail. That may be so, but Gibbons is nonetheless a great choice. Watchmen is a little slow and confusing in the beginning—it's a very big story. But it doesn't take long to see it's in the hands of people who know what they're doing. Not many are better than Moore at exploiting the punctuated rhythms of comic book panels. Rhythms and visual puns are on practically every page, even as they advance the massive plot inexorably. A masterpiece for one and all. Essential.

In case it's not at the library.

No comments:

Post a Comment