As discussed in an earlier blog Watchmen is the first graphic novel I’ve read. Whilst I quickly got use to the format, finding it much easier and engaging than I had initially expected, I did struggle with getting my head around the story. Unlike most novels there was no summary of the story available on the back cover and whilst my husband tried to give me a brief introduction I felt quite in the dark for the first few chapters.
So, having read it, what is it about?
Originally written as a series of comic books in 1986 and 1987 Watchmen is set in 1980s America, mostly true to the real world in setting but this one has superheroes who fight crime. Although referred to as superheroes all bar one of them, Doctor Manhattan, are in fact just highly skilled, trained and equipped civilians, think Batman rather than Superman. These costumed crime fighters together known as the Watchmen have in the preceding years to the start of the novel affected and altered the outcomes of key events in America’s history including the Vietnam War and presidency of Richard Nixon. However, over time they have grown unpopular with the police and public leading to the Keene Act which in 1977 outlawed them.
The novel opens with the murder of Edward Blake, known as the Comedian who along with Doctor Manhattan had been operating as government-sanctioned agent since the introduction of the Keene Act. Rorschach, who has been operating outside of the law believes there is a plot to terminate retired costumed adventurers and takes it upon himself to warn everyone.
Can he get to everyone in time? Who would want the heroes dead? And with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan threatening to start World War III is there a place once more for masked avengers?
I found this to be quite a complex story, there is a lot of movement between the past and present as we learn about the different members of the Watchmen and it wasn’t always clear where in the timeline we were. In the different chapters we jump back in time to find out more about how the characters developed their costumed alter egos, how they all met, what their relationship and friendships with each other were like. At the end of chapters we are given access to additional material, extracts from autobiographies, newspaper clippings, letters etc. I believe these are there to give depth to the characters to flesh them out but I don’t think they quite succeed. I felt that character development was lacking and I struggled to feel empathy or a connection with any of the characters.
Alongside the main story we have a young boy sat by a news cart reading a comic about pirates. At no point within the story did I understand the relevance of this sub-plot. I just found it frustrating and would often put down the book during those sections quickly losing interest. Since finishing the book I have read explanations about the story within a story, how the author included it to bring a subtext and allegory about the darkness within man but even on reflection I fail to see any greater meaning or impact within the main story.
The title of the series apparently refers to the famous question by Juvenal “Who watches the watchmen?” and the theme of power and the role of “superheroes” within society is very strong in the book. Power struggles between the heroes, US and Russia, between husband and wife, lovers, friends all of these are given a spotlight with the ultimate question being does power corrupt us or is manipulation and strength the only way to win in this world?