Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 5
Spoilers: Some, but not as many as you might think.
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: The Legend
Talking about this book is different than talking about The Killing Joke for me personally. I’ve been around comic books and graphic novels since I was a kid, and liked them, but I was never the sort to go down to the comic store and buy the new editions of my favorite series every month. I didn’t have favorite series, or even series that I followed. I acquired them at random, often not even realizing that they were part of longer stories. I knew Calvin and Hobbes and The Farside from their paperback collections, but there’s a big difference in style between newspaper comic strips and graphic novels.
Watchmen was kind of a turning point. It wasn’t the first graphic novel I read, but it was the first to introduce me to what the medium could deliver. I read it in high school, and set beside The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and A Farewell to Arms, a colorful comic book about superheroes is bound to garner some attention. Like most high schoolers, my reading of it wasn’t very deep, but the teacher encouraged me and the other students to look closer at the panels, the character designs, and pay attention to what the characters were really saying when they spoke. I was still entranced by the mere idea of being assigned a book people actually read for entertainment as an English assignment, but through this experience, I was also encouraged to dissect works. All works, comic books included. To some extent, it could have been any “fun” book, but for me, it was Watchmen.
I’ve claimed before that this was my favorite graphic novel. It was. My feelings about it have become far more complicated since then, especially as I’ve grown more conscious of other media and the complex narratives enmeshed within. Like any series, Watchmen is layered, but its innermost layers are less dazzling than the superficial ones. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that Watchmen attracts the same audience as Batman v. Superman and The Dark Knight Rises. It kind of has some of the same appeal and problems that those films have.
So, what is Watchmen?
The story itself is surprisingly simple. I think someone’s much more likely to remember the characters than the plot, especially if they only have a passing familiarity with it. That’s because it’s basically a murder mystery. The bulk of the story is based in the characters, of course, but the gist of the book can be summed up as a man is murdered, one of his former coworkers investigates and discovers it was an inside job, then New York gets squished by a fake alien squid.
I think it’s safe to say that even the book’s diehard fanbabies don’t think much of the ending, and the plot itself isn’t a strong point. To understand the appeal of Watchmen, you need to look at the eye candy.
The man who gets murdered is, like most of the important characters in the story, a superhero. More specifically, he’s a masked vigilante. The Comedian. The book opens with this man being thrown from a window, his smiley face pin speckled with blood the icon of the series. The jovial facade of the man’s pin and name belie his true monstrosity; he’s a rapist, murderer, warmonger, and just general asshole. No one has much reason to weep for the Comedian (though several do anyway). He’s mainly there as a device — both to set the plot in motion, and to show rather unambiguously that the superheroes in this story aren’t good guys.
Over the rest of the series, between disturbing anecdotes by a retired vigilante that end each chapter, we get to meet a host of other recurring characters. Notable among these are Nite Owl, a not-so-subtle facsimile of Batman; Silk Spectre, the daughter of one of the older generation of vigilante and a vigilante herself as per her mother’s wishes; Ozymandias, a retired vigilante of the new generation and oft-proclaimed “smartest man in the world”; Rorschach, a rogue vigilante wanted for murder; and Doctor Manhattan, a god-like being who is the only powered superhero in the book.
The plot largely revolves around Rorschach and his attempts to solve the Comedian’s murder. He interrogates the other vigilantes, visits old foes (showing the audience how decrepit they are), gets in trouble with the police, ends up imprisoned, and eventually uncovers a massive conspiracy involving a giant squid alien, a secret lair, a hidden villain, genetic engineering, and genocide. We learn far more than we ever wanted to learn about Rorchach and the other “heroes” along the way, soon realizing that each and every one of them is a right piece of work. As the author of the fake autobiography admits very plainly, they are fascists and Nazis. They get off on hurting people, using their disguises as a way to get away with murder (in some cases, literally) and feel justified in it. Several of them are openly racist, some admit doing vigilante work as a sexual fetish, others are paid, and the rest just do it for fun. They’re demonstrably a less serious threat to the people they claim to protect than the villains they go up against, and even the author of the autobiography excerpts admits to outright ignoring villains when they stop dressing up in silly costumes and get into actual crimes.
For a story, this is actually some compelling material. It’s critical of superhero stories and out blind acceptance of the common assumptions they make. As kids, we think it would be unequivocally good to have magic men running around, protecting us from bad guys, In reality, powerful figures have wide-reaching influence and precious little accountability. Just look at where unregulated police authority gets us, especially when officers’ priorities are skewed.
We don’t have to like or empathize with all of the characters in a story to find them compelling; we can be horrified by their actions, transfixed by a series of horrible people dragging each other to hell. Some brilliant fiction has been created from this very premise, and it makes for a satisfying conclusion when the awful protagonists finally get what’s coming for them.
But here’s the thing: you can’t expect your audience to get through the whole story if none of your characters is compelling. Stories like Watchmen that rely on large casts of dubious characters usually have some sort of moral center to ground the audience. That character may be less awful than the others, less culpable, forced to go along with the others against their will, or otherwise morally complex. Even if they’re not the main character, we can rely on them to question the detestable things any of the characters do. They don’t necessarily have to be the most interesting character in the story. They aren’t there to be interesting; they’re there to assure the audience that the story understands the problematic actions of its characters are problematic. They keep the story self-aware.
Watchmen doesn’t have any characters like this. Well, okay, it sort of tries to paint Nite Owl and Silk Spectre as the moral centers, the two “good” characters who see the other vigilantes as cruel and have qualms about them. However, they’re still in it for the fun, and they have metatextual issues that prevent them from really juxtaposing the other vigilantes. I’ll get into that later. Suffice it to say, the big issue is not that Silk Spectre and Nite Owl aren’t good enough.
It’s that people cosplay as Rorschach.
Part Two: On Costumes
Cosplayers are wildly talented. Go to Comic Con or any similar convention and you’ll see plenty of meticulous suits and disguises that take people years, sometimes decades to perfect. What a person cosplays as is dependent on a lot of things, like the time and resources they can commit to a costume, the series they like, and which characters are most appropriate for them to dress as. One of the biggest factors in cosplay comes down to character design. You want the costume to look good, after all, and if you’re wearing it at a con to show off your artistry and support for a given property, being recognized isn’t a bad deal.
If any of you have ever cosplayed as one of the Watchmen characters, I’m not knocking you. Cosplay can be a lot of fun, and people dress as villains and morally ambiguous characters all the time.
Cosplayers are not the problem with Watchmen. Rather, it’s how the series devotes a lot of time and energy into character designs that it actively encourages its audience to take at face value. Watchmen characters are colorful and fun-looking. They all have unique designs that ape more sincere superhero conventions and are rooted in the histories of certain characters like Batman and Captain America, but stand out as Watchmen characters. We spend so much time getting to know these people and how their costumes relate to them that it’s hard to forget them.
There’s something a little disingenuous about selling harmless fun merchandise of, for instance, villains who murder and maim and blow up planets. Series like Star Wars and Doctor Who tend to create a disconnect between the text and the designs of their characters so that viewers don’t have to feel weird about buying Darth Vader or Dalek plushies (both of which are technically based on Nazis). They do this by ensuring the design or presentation of their villains are reminiscent of real-world monsters, but stop far short of employing recognizable imagery. Darth Vader’s helmet looks like a certain kind of German soldier helmet, but has enough features that make it a Darth Vader helmet first and foremost. Within the story, any reference to real-world monsters tends to be aesthetic, delivered through imagery, cinematography, allegory, symbolism, and cliche.
The Watchmen characters are likewise disconnected from their moral failings as far as their character designs are concerned. Rorschach dresses like a pulp noir detective, complete with the trench coat and hat, his face obscured with a mask covered in shifting ink blots, as per his character name. The Comedian apes Captain America’s costume design with colors and shapes from the American flag, and wears the ironic smiley face button that is the book’s most iconic symbol. Doctor Manhattan is a muscular blue naked guy, designed to look alien, but also given a recognizable symbol in the hydrogen emblem on his forehead. Nite Owl’s costume, at the one used in the main plot, answers the question, “What if Batman had been into birds instead?”
The book doesn’t make any reservations about its audience liking these costumes. They’re cool. They’re supposed to be, both in the world of the novel and metatexually as part of its marketing. There’s a reason the Watchmen film trailers revealed the characters and recognizable imagery from the book the same way it would superheroes from any other narrative.
Watchmen is critical of the superhero genre, sure, but it still comes down more as pastiche than outright parody. For all the horrible things the characters do, the book still means for you to relate to them. Many of the chapters give us a look into their minds and motivations, and all of them are presented as sympathetic in some way. Even the villain presents himself as trying to save the world. The atrocities the characters commit are interwoven into the dystopian reality in which they live — a dystopia that’s not terribly dissimilar to our own reality, but which normalizes things like totalitarian dictatorship, eugenics, genocide, nuclear weapons use, sexual assault, pedophilia, and lethal force on dissenting civilians. All of the main characters live in this world and have for most of their lives. They shape it, but none of them is really capable of controlling it. As Doctor Manhattan puts it, he’s not sure whether he’s the watchmaker, the cog, both, or neither. Either way, even marginally more self-aware characters like Silk Spectre and Nite Owl still accept and engage in the activities that they condemn. They’re complicit.
Morally reprehensible characters can be engaging. Some of the most enjoyable characters of the past thirty years are absolute monsters. The trick is to provide some sort of grounding for a character’s actions, so that their reprehensibility is acknowledged by the piece itself. Stories like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones that call characters out on their horrible behaviors create compelling villains and antiheroes because those characters makes a conscious choice to step over the line. Stories like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Black Panther create more sympathetic villains by illustrating systemic reasons that characters are antagonistic, but like with the former series, they still emphasize that these characters are doing harmful things.
Indiana Jones is not an antihero, even though he ostensibly murders oppressed indigenous people and trespasses on their land to steal their sacred artifacts. Batman is not an antihero, even though he seriously injures poor people on a regular basis. The stories these characters come from find ways to justify their protagonists’ actions so that the audience can root for them without feeling concerned about the morality of what they’re rooting for. The reason isn’t necessarily because these stories want to encourage grave-robbing or physical violence, or normalize it in any way, but rather because the stories they want to tell have nothing to do with criticism of genre conventions. These elements work their way into these stories because that’s the norm; action stories have action in them, and if the plot is about finding treasure, it would detract the narrative to stop and force these protagonists to think more carefully about what it is they’re doing. Indiana Jones could just not do harmful things in his stories to start with, and the writers could find other ways for him to get the treasure. But if you want your good guys to participate in the spectacle that comes with morally questionable action scenes, you either have to shift the focus of the story so you can question Jones’ role in those action scenes, or you have to ignore the moral implications.
That, I think, is the fatal flaw of Watchmen. It wants to criticize, and it wants to explore the scummy nature of its characters, yet it still restricts itself to superhero conventions. It does condemn the violence, the sexual predation, the willingness of its characters to go along with the horrible actions of others, by way of building to a self-destructive ending. The superheroes ultimately lead to their own dooms. Whether they are responsible, complicit, or helpless cogs in the machine that makes their decrepit world, they are ultimately responsible for its destruction. We see a parallel narrative in the pirate story that pops in occasionally. But none of that offsets the fact that, in order to get through the story, you can’t completely hate any of the characters. The book wants you to understand their struggles and thoughts, it wants you to see them as complex people.
And in order to do that, it needs you to just assume their horrible actions are horrible, and then ignore them. Dr. Manhattan cheats on his girlfriend with a teenager, and the only indication we get that this is something we, as an audience, are supposed to be disgusted by is his girlfriend calling him “sick.” That entire chapter is from Dr. Manhattan’s perspective, and played for empathy, not disgust. The story has a similar approach to the Comedian, who we’re told is a shitstick of a man, yet are shown far more frequently as admirable, charismatic, self-aware, and tragic. You can make a character who the audience should be simultaneously averse to and interested in, but it’s hard to do that with all of your characters, and it doesn’t work if you give clear preference to one sort of framing over the other. Watchmen creates characters who are too disgusting to like, then throws the audience into a story where, if they want to see it through to the end, they have to like them.
Part Three: Eye to the Panel
If there is one thing I can almost unabashedly praise in this book, though, it’s the art. Watchmen is an excellent example of a graphic novel that makes full use of its medium, and I see that so rarely that I’d honestly recommend the book for its visuals alone.
Of particular note is how it uses panel layout to tell its story, being well-aware of the utility of the full page as a panel itself. This sort of thing is, to me, the mark of a good graphic novel, as no other medium can make use of a full-page layout of visuals. A common style within Watchmen is this sort of checkerboard pattern of contrasting colors, often used to juxtapose events happening at different times or places.
Panels that lack text and build to large splash images, or are themselves splashes, are also effective, if more conventional, the most famous probably being the opening sequence, which incorporates the book cover as a panel itself. Rorschach’s encounter with the dogs later in the book is another good example.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a comic that uses scene transition parallelism anywhere near as much as this one. If you’ve read my Preacher reviews, you’ll know I love when visual media compares and contrasts characters visually, especially when those comparisons are subtle or unconventional. Watchmen uses those techniques frequently between panels, making a radiation warning sign look like the ominous black flags of a pirate ship, a man pleading for help look like an assailant, cogs look like stars, and so on. There is some parallelism between chapters and non-sequential events, but the majority is in the transitions, which creates a Kuleshov effect that draws attention to how these elements are connected. Most of the time, it’s there to emphasize the main themes of the story and illustrate the meaning of the symbols — especially watches, the smiley face, and nuclear weapons.
Admittedly, the frequency with which the book uses this effect, and the generally weaker dialogue that runs a bit too wordy and pretentious for my liking, does drag the aesthetic down a bit. The introduction of the pirate story, for instance, tries a bit too hard to show the similarities between the in-world comic and the newspaper vendor talking over it. The book sometimes seems like it doesn’t have much faith in its audience to understand associations between text and visuals, which I could do without, especially considering the flaws of the plot and dialogue. I am willing to give it a pass, though, because it gives you a bit to think about, even if those thoughts are critical.
I quite like the general style of the book, which uses bold lines and shadows with careful attention to color, but a somewhat more simplified style than would be expected of a mid-80s highly artistic graphic novel. The poses of the characters are often somewhat wooden, but intentionally, mimicking the simpler action hero comics of the 60s, and also adopting the flat shading prevalent in older comics. Most of the panels are decently detailed, perhaps a little underwhelming, but with purpose. This is necessary, for when they’re set alongside panels with high-contrast colors and harsh lighting, it makes them really pop. Again, the overall page layout often helps direct the eye to the focus of the page, as well. This is especially remarkable given the general uniformity of the panels themselves. Almost all of them are squares or rectangles, with fairly rigid size restrictions — another way the series ensures the audience never forgets that this is a comic book about comic books.
Whether you end up liking Watchmen is largely down to how much you can handle of its flaws. It’s a gaudy thing at times, overpraised and hyped to the point that, if you haven’t read it by now, you probably won’t be terribly impressed. It is worth a read, though, as long as you keep an eye open to its flaws, and it has topical points about the dangers that come with reliance on nuclear weapons and violence in general. The piece is historical, and while I don’t think there’s anything in it that other stories haven’t touched upon in a clearer way, as a piece of art, it merits analysis. And, especially now, criticism.