Nov 16, 2005

Alan Moore's The Watchmen

The Watchmen is fairly long for a mainstream comic miniseries, especially one that focuses on masked heroes that readers have nothing invested in. But Moore needed this space to craft characters and a story rich enough to reshape how we read comics. I’ll admit that I wasn’t much into The Watchmen from the beginning. It wasn’t until chapter four (“Watchmaker”) that I became immersed in the narrative structure and Moore’s poetry, which I swallowed by the handful in Saga of the Swamp Thing but found sour in V for Vendetta. It took me almost three months to get to that point (during which time I finished a novel and several other comics and tp’s).

Unlike Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which is often paired with Watchmen as the dynamic duo of modern superhero storytelling, Watchmen doesn’t instantly grab for his reader or use an immediately accessible structure; although an overall style is easily seen. Instead, Moore uses visuals to give Watchmen a cyclical narrative, often found in contemporary fiction, and alters his style to fit the theme of each individual chapter, which could easily be read individually, although it would leave the reader painfully ignorant. For example, in the above-mentioned chapter, Moore exaggerates the narrative timeline into a kind of chutes-and-ladders hopping to portray the world as Dr. Manhattan experiences it.

The next chapter adopts a punchy, sequential rhythm as the author turns his focus towards the analytical Rorschach. Named for the ink-blot tests used in dated psycho analysis, Rorschach’s obsession with logic and worldview as black-and-white as his mask doom him throughout the story. Most of Watchmen’s characters suffer from tragic flaws, but Rorschach’s inability to evolve with a culture too complex for terms like right and wrong is apparently the least forgivable. Appropriately, the chapters that focus on him are more straightforward and, therefore, least indicative of Moore’s genius.

Like DKR, Watchmen utilizes a variety of viewpoints, including television and first-person narrative. Unlike Miller, however, Moore realizes the importance of the micronarrative. By assembling the increasingly parallel storylines of a local magazine seller, a pirate comic, and other side plots, Moore succeeds in what other graphic tour-de-forces, such as Marvels, Maus, and Kingdom Come, only partially accomplished: he perfectly blends the main storyline, tales from the margins, mass media, and cultural artifacts into a cohesive work.

In addition, the prose pieces (book excerpts, essays, etc.) that accompany each chapter give the reader a more comprehensive experience. Although sometimes distracting from the reader’s immersion in Watchmen, the best appendices, namely the interview with Ozymandis, are as important as the rest of the book. This article had me completely convinced that Ozymandis was a real person, something that his surgical efficiency and cold demeanor never accomplished.

I don’t wish to detract from the greatness of any of the above mentioned graphic stories, but as far as narrative style is concerned, I have yet to meet Watchmen’s peer.

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