It's the cornerstone of Alan Moore's reputation, and one of the most popular, successful and critically acclaimed comics ever made. Whether you're reading it for the first time or the one hundredth, Ninth Art discovers that it's still worth watching the WATCHMEN.
21 November 2003

Writer: Alan Moore
Artist/Letterer: Dave Gibbons
Colourist: John Higgins
Collecting WATCHMEN #1-12
Price: $19.95
Publisher: DC Comics
ISBN: 0930289234

"I am ready to begin..."

"A world grows up around me. Am I shaping it, or do its predetermined contours guide my hand? ... Which of us is responsible? Who makes the world?"

The common and widely held opinion is that WATCHMEN constitutes one of the finest works of sequential art to ever be published - the very pinnacle of the form. It is a complex, multi-layered narrative, populated with well-realised characters and set against a background that is simultaneously believable and unfamiliar. As well as having inspired a multitude of imitators, WATCHMEN raised the standard at which mainstream comics should be held, and represents a career peak for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

None of which is really news, especially given that I've referred to WATCHMEN often enough in previous articles and reviews - most pointedly in 'Learning to Drive' . But while that essay was about the after-effects of WATCHMEN (of which there were many), here I have the pleasure reviewing the book itself. I penned a brief review for PopImage circa 2000, in which I wrote that "[it] broke new ground... [but] ultimately has a lot to answer for". I still stand by that - but since then, my understanding of the book has improved a great deal.

I first read WATCHMEN in 1995; I bought the collection, took it home, and read it in one marathon sitting (something like four hours, I think). The next morning, I went through it again - re-reading the text articles, marvelling at the breadth and complexity of the plot. More than eight years on, though, I still find details that I missed - subtleties and nuances that enhance the reading experience. Just merely dipping in and out of the book, as I tend to do these days, I find it to be immensely rewarding.

That is the beauty of WATCHMEN, in my opinion: It works on several narrative levels at once. On the surface, it's a political thriller with science-fiction elements; and/or a detailed examination of how superheroes most likely would work in the real world. The main plot deals with the attempt by the vigilante Rorschach to investigate the murder of fellow crime fighter, the Comedian. However, what seems at first to be a senseless homicide soon threatens to expose a far deeper conspiracy.

The subtext - and there is plenty - encompasses manifold strands in its own right. There are insights into various psychosexual neuroses (cf. Dan and Laurie) - and WATCHMEN can also be read as a treatise on the metaphysical gulf between science and religion (Osterman's metamorphosis into Dr Manhattan). It's certainly a long way from the 60's Charlton comic characters WATCHMEN derives its inspiration from; note the divergences between Rorschach and The Question, for example.

At turns, WATCHMEN can be challenging and frustrating, but also enlightening. The drive of the story rarely flags, courtesy of the rigid storytelling structure, but the tempo is unhurried. With so much going on, this is a definite boon, with the careful pace easing readers in to the world these characters inhabit. The story doesn't so much unfold as unpack, like a Russian doll. The beginning of each chapter ties in with its close - as does the opening of the storyline proper and its finale. That deliberate use of narrative symmetries is just one of the many narrative devices Moore and Gibbons employ to great effect.

While Alan Moore penned some excellent work before WATCHMEN, such as his 2000AD contributions, MIRACLEMAN, V FOR VENDETTA and SWAMP THING, and has produced many great works since, including FROM HELL and parts of his America's Best Comics line, for better or for worse, Moore and WATCHMEN will forever be synonymous in the minds of the reading public. It's certainly no stain on his reputation -Moore is admittedly and justifiably proud of his efforts, nearly two decades on - but by the same token, the success of WATCHMEN casts a long shadow.

Some of the inevitable criticisms levelled at WATCHMEN take Dave Gibbons to task over the typical superhero crudity of his art, coupled with John Higgins' colouring. However, the sheer technical prowess employed by Gibbons and Higgins is impressive; each complements the other, always advancing the plot and never showing off.

Motion pictures rely on an optical trick know as 'persistence of vision', and here, Gibbons comes the closest any artist has to replicating such fluid action on the page; each panel moves the story onwards, building on what has gone before. Higgins' colours embellish and delineate the reality the lead characters exist in, from garish reds and yellows, to muted blues and greys. Albert Einstein once remarked that "God is in the details" - if so, than whole pantheons must dwell within the panels Gibbons and Higgins illustrate.

WATCHMEN has been reviewed, dissected and examined over and over again, and one may ask whether there's anything left to be said about it. But of course, new readers regularly discover the book for the first time, and each reader can bring a fresh perspective to the text. Then there are people like me who have spent long hours poring over the book's pages, and who still find new things to enjoy about it. That any book can still maintain the interest of an audience after all this time is noteworthy - that such a book is a graphic novel is still extraordinary.

"The world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget... We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another's vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away."

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