(Originally posted August 2006. Tweaked and re-published in blog form December 2007.)
What’s The Deal?
Let’s get this out of the way up front : I’m a huge comic-book geek. I still make weekly pilgrimages to my local comic shop (Comic Relief in Berkeley, CA) to pick up waaay too many comics. I grew up reading the usual litany of Superman and Batman comics in the 70’s, but not surprisingly, fell out the habit in my early teens.
Then, my sophomore year in college (1986), a friend of mine showed me the first two issues of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Watchmen was a truly ground-breaking achievement in the world of comics. Originally released in as a 12-issue series, it’s since been reprinted many times in book form. It’s one of the few works in the comics medium (that I’m aware of, anyway) which can compete with “traditional” literature in terms of depth and complexity (and I’m not the only one who thinks so: Wikipedia reports that “Time Magazine placed Watchmen on its list of the 100 Greatest Novels from 1923 to Present.”).
It’s an absolute must-read for anyone who enjoys comics of any sort (or any science fiction or fantasy, for that matter)… but by no means should it be limited to that audience.
Watchmen has a multilayered plot that holds up well to repeated readings. It’s set in an alternate-reality world of 1985, but one only slightly skewed from ours: there are costumed “heroes”, but (with one exception), none of them have any superhuman powers. What they do have is the same set of drives, motivations, frailties, and general behaviors of normal human beings… meaning that there are no “good guys”, and not really any “bad guys” in the classic sense. This is all set against a backdrop of impending nuclear peril between the United States and the Soviet Union (which may seem like a dated plot device these days, but was extremely relevant in 1986).
Please note: the storyline involves an ongoing mystery that takes several curious twists and turns, including an extraordinary ending that should not be spoiled by advance summaries. If you are going to read Watchmen (and I hope you will), I strongly advise you to avoid reading the Wikipedia article (or other articles on it) in full, lest plot details be revealed. (I don’t think that my reconstruction of Marooned will spoil the main story’s plot, though, so feel free to go ahead and look at it here, even if you haven’t read Watchmen yet.)
I’d also like to advise that it’s best to avoid reading it in one sitting: try reading no more than one chapter per week, then putting it down. Feel free to go back and re-examine earlier chapters, but don’t read ahead. (If you can’t manage this, then please consider at least one chapter per day.) Why, you ask? Well, keep in mind that it was released in 12 chapters, roughly one per month. The authors skillfully reveal only bits and pieces of the mystery over the course of the story, and allowing yourself time to ruminate over just what the hell is going on here, anyway? will make the payoff that much more rewarding.
In addition to a superb script by Alan Moore, the artwork by Dave Gibbons is understated but brilliant. He defies some comics conventions (e.g., the near-total absence of “motion lines” and thought bubbles) while working in an abnormally restrictive and regular panel structure (at least by 1980s standards).
If you don’t have a copy, you can buy one from most good booksellers (including Amazon.com). If you have a local comics-specialty shop, please patronize them; if you like Watchmen (and I’m sure you will), they are a great resource to recommend other things you might like. (Don’t know if there’s a shop in your area? Within the United States, try this website to see what’s close to you!)
Over the years, there have been rumors of various plans to make Watchmen into a movie. Frankly, I hope this isn’t attempted, as I don’t know how it could possibly be compressed into a 2-hour film without losing the subtleties that make it so special. (I suspect that it could possibly be made to work as a Sopranos-style TV series, with an hour devoted to each chapter, but I happen to think it’s just fine as-is and doesn’t really need movie-fication.)
(Note added Dec 2007: filming is already underway on an adaptation, directed by Zack Snyder. Snippets I’ve seen so far look visually interesting, and he swears he’s going to keep the original ending. So maybe it will work after all…)
Tales Of The Black Freighter
One of the many subplots of the storyline involves a sidewalk newsvendor in New York City, talking with various passersby (some of whom turn out to be major characters). A boy sitting nearby is reading a pirate-themed comic book that he’s apparently borrowed from the newsstand, and as the story progresses, we see various panels (or text bubbles) from this comic interposed with the “real” storyline.
As we learn from the postscript to Chapter 5, this is intended to be from an immensely popular pirate comic series called “Tales Of The Black Freighter”, which is essentially a horror comic themed on the concept of a pirate ship captained by an evil figure, and manned by the damned. The specific story being read has the title of “Marooned”, and recounts the story of a sailor who survives an attack by the Black Freighter and is marooned on an isolated island; he frantically attempts to escape the island in order to warn his hometown of the impending assault of the evil ship, which he presumes is headed there to destroy his friends and family. It’s a chilling story that still gives me the creeps today, even given the dozens of times I have read it over the years.
One of the fascinating bits about this story-within-a-story is interleaved such that the action of the inner story reflects what is happening in the outer story. Consider the following sequence from Chapter 5, where the newsvendor is reflecting on news of a military invasion by the USSR: