It is rare to read something and think to yourself, "Isn't it amazing that things like this exist?" Watchmen is one of those, a comic book of such epic proportions that I actually find myself wanting to read it again right after finishing. There are so many little gems hidden throughout the story, through dialogue and imagery, that it swiftly becomes clear that I could read this a hundred times and still find something new in it that grips me emotionally or makes me wonder intellectually.
It must have taken Alan Moore a long time to write Watchmen and to work with the artist on every level in telling the story, inserting every nuance and detail. Consequently, even though Alan Moore himself looks and sounds like a New Age hippy version of Rasputin (google that shit!), I have an enormous respect for him as an author. As an aspiring writer myself, it is stories like these that inspire me to go above and beyond my literary level. But, really, here I am gushing about it generally without going into the specific why of what makes Watchmen brilliant. The immediate reflex response is, "Where do I start?" So, instead, I will focus on just two aspects of what made the story amazing. For the rest, you'll have to read it yourself.
In literature, Chekhov's Gun is a technique that refers to an item, symbol, or thing that is shown to the reader that, while inconspicuous and irrelevant by itself, takes on a greater significance later on. The stock example is that of a gun shown to the viewer at the beginning of a film; it is not used or even talked about until the very end of the movie where the main character swipes it up to defend himself. By being shown in passing, the gun foreshadows events to come.
Watchmen is full of little things like this. But, unlike the typical use of the technique, Watchmen transcends it. In every panel on every page, you can find something which provides greater meaning to the story, the characters, or the environment that they live in. Every detail serves a purpose, providing a depth to the story that, I kid you not, is not surpassed by any story I have ever read. Here are some examples:
- While the story itself focuses on a group of heroes in the 1970s/80s, Watchmen continually provides background info on the first costumed heroes of the 40s/50s, a nostalgic golden age compared to the darkness of the comic's present. Through repeated glimpses into the past, we are granted a far greater understanding of the protagonists and their own journey to becoming heroes, as well as comprehension of how much the world has changed.
- Throughout the comic, there is a sort of counterpoint comic that is continually viewed and referenced to called Tales of the Black Freighter. While independently irrelevant to the plot, the events within this tale have an eerie juxtaposition to events in the story of Watchmen, providing greater appreciation of them. On top of this, the entirety of the Black Freighter story can be regarded as a metaphor of the journey of one of the characters in Watchmen. But I won't say who.
- The plot of Watchmen in its purest essence is a murder mystery. Subtle hints are laid out everywhere, through visuals and references, that, in retrospect, all point to the final answer and the conclusion of the story.
It is insertions like this into a plot that, in my eyes, separate the truly grand and memorable stories from those that aren't. By that standard, Watchmen is the pinnacle of achievement.
Characterization Beyond Measure
But what really clinched it for me was the characters. For those who know me, this is not surprising. Characters that have that breath of life, that spark that kindles a fire within your heart as if they were real, breathing individuals... This, to me, is the spice of what makes stories brilliant: being able to empathize with a person that does not truly exist. And I do not view this as escapism. Through understanding characters like these, I believe that we are better able to understand ourselves and the people we live with and encounter in our day-to-day lives. Through reading and comprehending great and moving characters we are provided a glimpse and appreciation of human nature itself, in all of its darkness and all of its glory.
But I'm getting way off topic here.
Watchmen is special to me because it has characters that have a depth to them unsurpassed. A big part of that is all the little details I just was talking about, details that Alan Moore put into the story that cause us to think about the motivations of the characters, their idiosyncrasies and their failings. An even larger part is how, in its true essence, Watchmen's plot is just a sideshow. As Alan Moore himself put it, "The plot itself is of no great consequence... It just really isn't the most interesting thing about Watchmen."
What is special is the characters. They are appreciated and regarded on a level that is intense, personal, psychological, and psychoanalytical. Every character gets his or her moment in the limelight, and we discover through flashbacks, actions, and dialogue the events that made each character into who they are today. None of them are perfect. All of them have issues. Even the most powerful among them, Dr. Manhattan, is himself paralyzed into inaction, not because of some physical failing but from an inability to move beyond his own memories and his own flawed understanding of human life. Rorschach is only able to see things in Manichean terms, fighting an endless, never-ending battle against evil that can never be won, a viewpoint that we see was directly brought about by earlier experiences and memories. Ozymandias' perspective is formulated by an idolization of Alexander the Great, an obsession so grand that he embarks on his own travels to follow in Alexander's footsteps.
Everything that these characters have done and do throughout Watchmen defines them, and it is truly impressive to see such attention to detail, especially in a comic book. They are not real, but I feel as if I know them. This is only assisted by the interim sections; between every comic there are fictional documents written by and about the characters. Again, while unnecessary to the overall plot, they provide windows into the characters' very souls. The average reader might be tempted to skip them since they aren't part of the comic themselves, but I would argue that you aren't getting the full picture without them.
It is hard for me to conclude this without sounding like a broken record. All I can really say is that Watchmen is truly one of the greatest stories I've ever read. It is dark, it is gritty, and there are a great many moments that may make you want to cry. But beyond all this is an optimistic viewpoint of the majesty and inherent goodness of human nature. This is one of the most depressing comics I've ever read. And yet it is also one of the most uplifting. The fact that a story, completely fictional, was able to bring this about and make me care for characters wholly unreal speaks to the power of its words and images.
Go into it with open eyes and you will not be disappointed.