With ever increasing influx of capeshit in theatres and in TV shows with costumed heroes, I was tempted to revisit the classic that was supposed to put the entire genre six feet under (and unwittingly contributed to a its renewed commercial success): Watchmen.
It’s been a good 10 years since I read it, immediately following “V for Vendetta” which was my introduction to the genre, and following the release of the Watchmen movie adaptation. There are worse ways to get acquainted with comic books, but I have read considerably more comics and books since then, some bad, some good, most of them mediocre. Inevitably this has informed this reread and I wanted to lay some notes on my current feeling on it. I’m no critic, I just want to solidify and articulate my feelings on the book, maybe to inform any subsequent reread.
Pessimism, Optimism and everything in between.
The art is more gorgeous, detailed and colourful than I remembered. With the slew of really mediocre comics I’ve read since then I slowly came to realise how detailed and crisp the line art is here. Far away from the depressing hues of blue, grey and brown that became a trend at the end of the 90’s, the art is colourful and almost warm, but never quite. This time I read it as revealing the enduring optimism of many of the characters, going on about their lives, even in the face of an impending nuclear holocaust. While lamenting the political climate, international tensions and the inevitable war, life goes on for ordinary people, there are papers to sell, research to be done, product lines to approve… I was ready to embrace the morbid pessimism and existential dread that I felt the first time I finished this book, but I was surprised to find this world to be more colourful than I remembered it.
The most sombre moments happen when Adrian Veidt exposes his master plan in the penultimate issue. In his arctic base marred with cold purples and blues, the shadows are ever present. While I found the opening of said issue to be the most clumsily laid out page it is also probably intentional. Ozymandias is taking the weight of the world’s sorrows on his shoulders and we as readers are crushed by the length and size of the speech bubbles, all the informations and analysis the character had done so far are dropped on us and appear heavy and overwhelming.
Like an Elseworlds
The mundane ordinary world is more alien than I remember it being. Just like in an Elseworlds or a What If tale, Electric cars and weird electronic cigarettes are everywhere. Many industrial design betray a Fallout-style alternative history treatment of everyday items. The movie adaptation having done away with these elements, it solidified the story as taking place in a realistic contemporary world in my mind, but the incongruity of weirdly shaped Juul pipes kept me on my toes here, looking at every single detail with renewed interest to find what other otherworldly details I might have missed.
The pathetic nature of the costumed adventurers is much more clear to me now. The heroes are portrayed as psycho-sexual deviants, the Comedian wearing bondage gear, the sexual scandals surrounding Silouhette and Hooded Justice, Nite Owl only being able to get it up while in costume, Dr. Manathan unable to understand the basic concept of sexual intimacy; all these elements point to heroes as being inherently psychologically deranged. These troubles are either the cause or the consequence of mask adventuring, but end up drastically altering their relationship with the world and with other people.
This sad statement of fact is only enhanced by the laughable appearance of all the costumed freaks we see. Dan Dreiberg is fat and out of shape, Walter Kovacs has basic hygiene problems, Hollis Mason and Sally Jupiter and old and decrepit, most of the other older costumed adventurers died gruesomely… All the costumes look garish and weird, someone comments on Silk Spectre’s costume being akin to a night gown, and Owlman looks more like a cockroach than an owl, perhaps likening its owner to the bug from Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”.
These people are not role models, they are the unfortunate relics of a bygone fad, inside the world of the story, and probably in the mind of the author as well. Caped crusading is done. The golden and silver age have passed, time for something else.
Embracing the goofiness
The only character embracing his position as a costumed weirdo seems to be Adrian Veidt, enacting a convoluted silver-age plot, dabbling in science and mysticism like the old comic book villains. The movie adaptation changed said plot, removing the artists, the psychics, the pseudoscience and the aliens to make it more streamlined and straightforward. For the longest time I thought that to be a good idea, but I clearly see now that that it goes against the whole thesis of the book. When the subject is the incongruity of caped adventurers and their tales in the real world, you cannot omit their ludicrous antagonists.
New York, centre of the world
One other change the movie made to the plot is the destruction of multiple capital cities instead of just one. While this makes more sense and makes Veidt plan more believable in the adaptation, it removes the (maybe unintentional) strong focus on New York, its cosmopolite, decadent and gentrified culture and the different social classes inhabiting it. During the course of the story we are acquainted with several of its inhabitants. Even if their characterization is made in passing, their lives and behaviors recall the most pathetic aspects of the main heroes, sexual deviance, political polarization and blindness to the obvious clues plain for everyone to see.
The clues are all there
As readers we are privy to a lot of little details, and we can see more of the world than the characters can, but a second reading shows how much of these details are in plain sight of the heroes all along. The artists, scientists and mediums going missing are reported by the same journal Rorchach reads every day, Laurie Jupiter’s filiation with Edward Blake is plain for her to see, made evident by their hair colour and implantation,
Nothing ever ends
With the upcoming release of a Watchmen inspired show on HBO, a new adaptation being worked on at Warner Brothers and the inclusion of all the characters of the book into the mainline DC comics canon, it seems that what was intended as a stand-alone piece to deconstruct a genre is going to keep on keeping on more or less indefinitely, the necromancers and ghouls running DC comics having decided to turn everything that original work stood for against itself.
While I won’t be consuming any of it, it’s good to take solace in knowing that the original story stays a fascinating piece and only appreciates with age.