August 22, 2008
Watching the Watchmen Watchers 04: How Do You Answer This Question?
Nathan Rabin's review
, the latest and maybe in comics terms the most high-profile of a burst of reviews of the decades-old Watchmen
series following its movie trailer debut last month, made me wonder something. When someone asks you, "So what is Watchmen
about?" What do you tell them? Because I'm not sure I know what the book is about, let alone how to politely communicate it in a sentence or three to a friend or family member. What would you say to someone that asked you this question?
joke answers, while appreciated in this cold and angry world, will not be included below
It's very simple, really. Watchmen
is about three things:
1) Like Stanley Kubrick, Alan Moore wants to infuse new blood into old, formulaic, genres. In this case the superhero genre.
2) He does this asking himself: what if superheroes were real, living in the real world (by "real" we must understand a fictional future here: Watchmen
is also political fiction).
3) As usual with Alan Moore, Watchmen
is all about experimenting with the form. This is underlined in the symmetry chapter.
I think Watchmen
is about gravity. That is, the traditional superhero comics show us beings who are able to defy gravity -- who exist in an idealized state, not subject to the laws of nature -- but Watchmen
gives us characters who are bound by the laws of gravity. The superheroes in Watchmen
(with one exception) look like normal people and have realistic, non-idealized bodies. They're flabby and sagging and scared and wrinkled. They don't strike poses: they just kind of stand around like normal people.
I was asked that very same question yesterday, and answered it as follows:
Watchmen examines the relationship between superheroes and society and the ways in which this relationship changes over time given a variety of real-world factors. What would happen when the shine wears off and things like politics, economics, racism and the knowledge of one's own abilities far and beyond that of everyone else come to the surface? The story examines all of this by way of a noir
-style murder mystery in which one of the former "superheroes" investigates the mysterious death of a former member of the superteam "The Watchmen."
That was my three-sentence answer that skips over so much of what makes Watchmen
great to comics fans, but is most likely to hook newcomers to the comics scene. In this case, it seemed to work, as the person I told this to called me up an hour later to say he'd watched the trailer again and now definitely wants to see the film.
is about the survival of costumed heroes in comic books. No matter what happens -- politically (Wertham) or financially (the '50s) as long as Superman exists, superhero comics will go on...
I tell people that it's about how it would be if superheroes actually existed in the real world. I know it's the obvious answer but in a nutshell, that's it.
For me, Watchmen
is a thoughtful, reality-based rumination on how America would have developed if superheroes had been a part of its history. The world turns into a darker, even more dangerous place than it did in reality. This warning against giving people the autonomous power that superheros need to operate gives the book a strong anti-authoritarian theme (i.e. "Who watches the watchmen?") It's very symbolically dense and thematically intricate, but is also a very entertaining adventure story full of fascinating characters.
I actually just finished a short article on how to use Watchmen
as a "gateway" comic for Newsarama
, so this is on my mind. I generally tell customers: "Watchmen
starts out as a superhero murder mystery and turns into a really dense rumination on the motivations behind might and right." Then when their eyes start rolling back in their heads, I backpedal and say, "Seriously, it's awesome. If you don't like it I’ll totally give you your money back." That
usually gets them.
is a meticulously-plotted and beautifully-drawn story about some superheroes who get old and caught up in a murder mystery, with some very clever, "meta" subtext on the history and the nature of comics as an art form.
Cole Moore Odell:
is about power: its trappings, its limits, and the consequences of its use. We see the USA and Russia as global superpowers; Dr. Manhattan with the literal power of a god; the power that normal people have to affect both individual lives and the course of history, and the power of writing to shape thinking. It is also about powerlessness -- as embodied by the child who would become Rorschach, or the inexorable slide toward war -- and the self-deception practiced by people (Ozymandias in particular, but all of them) struggling against that helplessness. It's only about superheroes to the extent that the genre allows Moore and Gibbons a multitude of ways to explore the theme.
is the ultimate mid-life crisis
is the ultimate mid-life crisis, only instead of a Ferrari, you buy Armageddon.
is the ultimate mid-life crisis, a counterpoint to the coming-of-age story, in which the characters ask what kind of man they have become, and where -- if anywhere -- they go from here.
is the ultimate mid-life crisis: like Fight Club
, but with giant blue balls.
is about a lot of things, many of which have been brought up in your round-up, but fundamentally it is about what all Alan Moore's comics are about: Order. The sense that there is a structure to the universe, and to existence, and how this structure starts in ourselves and determines our perception of the world. Moore exemplifies this in the meticulous structure of the comic itself, but also in the character of Dr. Manhattan who perceives the order we can only intuit.
The conflict of the story arises from the way the individual deals with it, and the main characters each make their own choices: The Comedian absolves himself and becomes amoral, Ozymandias wants to control it, Rorschach has lost faith in it, Dan and Julie chose to make their way within it, and Dr. Manhattan stands back. The play's the thing.
Sean T. Collins:
"It's a very realistic take on superheroes -- like, what would the world be like if they really existed, how would society be different. And then what happens if some of them go bad."
Patrick O. Watson:
asks the reader the age-old question, "Does the end justify the means?" The novelty of it comes from using a world impacted by superheroes and a tightly-choreographed narrative.
is an expression of the dilema that arises when Truth is pitted against the Greater Good.
When people ask me "What's Watchmen
about?" (happens all the time, really) I tell them "It's about twenty bucks from Amazon, eleven if you catch it on sale."
But seriously, folks --
I tell them that it was British writer Alan Moore's update of several old comics characters that DC obtained from another publisher, and since they weren't SUPERMAN and BATMAN and WONDER WOMAN, etcetera, he was given carte blanche to redo them in a near-future world of his own imagining where superheroing has been outlawed, and portray them more-or-less realistically, like in the case of the Nite Owl, a Batman-like character (they won't know who the hell Blue Beetle is) who has settled down into a midlife sort of mediocrity, getting fat and complacent. Another refuses to stop hunting crooks, and is borderline nuts. It's also a murder mystery; when one of the group is killed, another takes it upon himself to find out who did it, eventually recruiting the other former members of the team -- and the answer lies in a direction that none of them expects. Then I just say, there's more to it than that, but that's the gist of it.
Don't know if that will convert any of the great unwashed out there, but that's what I'd tell them.
As to explaining Watchmen
... Since Nathan Rabin thinks that Frank Miller and Alan Moore are the modern architects of pop culture and that comics have somehow gone beyond Carl Barks' Uncle Scrooge
, I think you're going to have a tough time of it. I guess Rabin hasn't seen the Spider-Man
, or Iron Man
films, not to mention any of George Lucases Barks/Kirby influenced and reportedly profitable film output.
My neighbor, not a comics fan, read Watchmen
and came away loving the symmetrical chapter, the time and space perspective of Dr. Manhattan, and hated the ending -- so I'd say he got it. Since most people about to read it are movie fans who happen to be into superheroes, or people who actually read novels -- why not just tell them it's a superhero book? It's a fun read, and not that complicated, until you try to make sense of that ending.
I usually describe Watchmen
as "Using super heroes to explore what can happen when people have too much power." It's a classic piece of Cold War justified paranoia.
I tell interested readers that Watchmen
is like that old story about the Emperor's new clothes, you know, the one where a child points out the Emperor's nudity. Got it? Now imagine that same story but flash forward a decade and a half. Where's that kid? How does society feel about the Emperor? What became of the Emperor? That's Watchmen
is about the eradication and sacrifice of individual rights to further the agendas of the establishment. Ozymandias, as a corporate powerhouse, is the establishment in this case. It's about using fear to control the masses, and it's about lying about potential threats so everyone can get with the program. It's all that, with superheroes.
Sounds just as relevant today as it was two decades ago, don't it?
is about the way the world works: the fantastically complicated clockwork of human existence, as well as the aspects of humanity that can't be reduced to determinism. It's also about the superhero genre and the bizarre conventions it's accrued over time -- the denials of realism that make it enduring and powerful, and its peculiar attachment to the comics medium.
You've got some pretty great answers on the site already, but I'd thought I'd share with you one I read about after the Dark Knight
movie opened with the Watchmen
Someone on a movie message board (I think it was at CHUD) mentioned his friend whispered to him what Watchmen
was about at the end of the trailer; "They're like the X-Men, but stronger. I think at some point they wanted more power, so they try to take over the world. The blue guy is their leader."
Having read the book, if my friend told me that, I wouldn't have the heart to correct him.
I usually just tell people, "It's a murder mystery/thriller about superheroes." Once they start reading it, the formal elements are strangeness of it reveal themselves. Sometimes I add, "It's from 1985-6, so there's also a heavy cold war undertone."
I would find it a lot easier to introduce Watchmen
in a sentence than I would Cerebus
posted 4:00 pm PST
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