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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Alan Moore - Watchmen ****

It scares me that Alan Moore's Watchmen is now twenty years old. Not because it makes me feel dated--as old as I admittedly feel sometimes, I wasn't even alive when Moore published the first volume of his magnum opus. The reason it scares me is because of how horrifyingly relevant it still remains today, two entire decades after it was first put on bookshelves. The scary part about that--the reason why it remains one of the top-selling, top-reviewed graphic novels in the world, now on the cusp of a major motion picture from Warner Bros.--is because the crime and corruption that is dealt with in the book is still the exact same crime and corruption we see today. It frightens me to death that in twenty years nothing has changed. If anything at all, it has maybe even gotten worse. The reference to The New American (in the book, "The New Frontiersman"), the pseudo-White Power newsletter that was visible on the desk of one former VP hopeful, Sarah Palin in a picture leaked to the internet all but made my stomach turn. Twenty years ago, and here it is bubbling to the surface again. And no one remembers? I thought we were supposed to learn from our mistakes.

What is in store for the next twenty years? Will we still be reading Watchmen and sadly, knowingly shaking our heads? I hope we are not. I hope that the stories held within seem as outdated as Archie comics. Not to destroy Moore's work, not at all. He has created something so important with the Watchmen that it would be a crime to stop reading it. But I hope that we can read it in a different light. One of intelligent retrospect, of knowing from whence we came with a clearer vision of where we are going. I can only assume Moore would agree. From the lessons he tries to teach in Watchmen, I think he'd gladly allow his royalty checks to run dry if he could see some greater good come of it.

That's ultimately what I took away from Watchmen as I read it: an attempt at merging all the grey areas with those who can see only in black and white, molding them into some kind of moral beast, with which to fight what is wrong with the world. That's what the Watchmen themselves did--they attempted to pool together their talents and passions, but their beast was uncontrollable, too many heads and not enough brains. If you are to read the novel (and yes, it is truly a novel--the only thing "graphic" means here is that it is told primarily through pictures) like any other superhero story, you will be sadly left wanting. Perhaps not if you are a reader of some of the more modern superhero stories, starting with the X-Men and the modernization of Batman, ones that stretch beyond galactic battling in skin-tight leotards. But many of those comics themselves have been inspired by what graphic novels now represent. An emphasis on "novel."

The action here is not breaking down doors. David Gibbons' artwork is extremely dated and a bit shallow, the palate too full of oversaturated purples, yellows and reds. Not enough shading, no attention to how the story moves across its frames. Wordiness to wane even the interest of a bookworm like me. That's what kept me from buying the book for so long. A graphic novel is far more than just its story, and even the most intriguing books can be ruined by subpar artwork. By the same turn, some otherwise worthless stories can be turned around completely by artists like Ben Templesmith or Brett Weldele. Thankfully, I finally got past that judgement of mine and began reading. Within ten pages I was hooked, and I started carrying the book everywhere. Normally, I treat my comics with an almost anal-retentive kind of care, but Watchmen became like a novel to me, and for the week I spent reading it, took all kinds of abuse, from the weather, in my bag. I even read it on the toilet--a place where the glossy pages of Black Summer or Stray Toasters will never see.

And when I was finished... well, I was finished. The ending brought together disparate aspects of the story that managed to completely blow my mind once I figured out just what was going on. But the experience itself sort of fell flat. I really hate to say it, but ultimately I ended up just a wee bit disappointed. The drawbacks in artwork really hurt the hugeness of the climax for me, and injured the book beyond saving. I know I've just touted the thing as one of the great political and philosophical works of our modern era, and I still do wholeheartedly believe that to be the case. I learned more from Watchmen than I have in half of the regular novels I've read of late. But as a graphic novel, as a whole, I still don't know. As I said before, what I ultimately took away from the book was the lesson that was to be gleaned, not neccessarily a complete satisfaction with how it was presented. I am, however, excited for the movie. I don't know how they're going to shove all the necessary information into less than two hours of celluloid, but I think it will be amazing regardless. The book is definitely an excellent story board, and I can see this going down in history with Fight Club as being only my second ever Movie That I Liked Better Than the Book.

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