Warning: Mature readers only.

tek's rating: ½

written by Alan Moore; illustrated by Dave Gibbons
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Caution: Spoilers.

There are a number of graphic novels that I would call "seminal," but this is probably the single most seminal of them all. And, as is often mentioned, it was selected in 2005 as one of TIME magazine's 100 best English-language novels (not graphic novels, mind you) from 1923-present (2005). It was originally published as 12 issues of a limited series comic book, from 1986-87. I picked up the collected trade paperback in 2007 (though because I'm so slow, and prone to procrastination, I didn't finish it til late July of 2008). I had of course wanted to read it for many years, but I finally got it in anticipation of the film adaptation that would come out in 2009. And of course, once I started reading it, I could plainly see its influence on any number of other comics (and other media). Perhaps the thing it puts me most in mind of is The Incredibles, which may well be my favorite movie ever. Oh, and of course Rorschach reminds me of a comic book character called The Question, though as of yet I only know him from the animated series Justice League Unlimited.

Anyway, hurm. What to say? I will start by mentioning that each chapter ends with some quotation, from literature, music, what have you. Something apt, after the content of the chapter you've just read. And then, between chapters, there is always some sort of bonus material, which proves quite helpful in further explaining the history of... you know, the world in which Watchmen is set, how the whole costumed hero thing originally came about, how it affected the world, and whatnot. And helps us to better understand the people who chose to engage in such activities. I think, though, that what I appreciate most about these various materials is how different they are from comic books, yet each thing seems to me to be believable as... whatever it is supposed to be. The first few chapters include excerpts from "Under the Hood," a book written by Hollis Mason, one of the characters in Watchmen, a former costumed hero of the 1940s. It was a sort of autobiography, but also it was about the whole costumed hero phenomenon, other heroes he knew, and whatnot. Later chapters include diverse bonus materials which may be specifically about different characters in Watchmen, like Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Sally Jupiter, and Adrian Veidt. There's also an article about owls, written by another character, Dan Dreiberg. A piece about a comic called "Tales of the Black Freighter," a supernatural pirate horror story, which... is something we see threaded throughout the Watchmen comic itself, perhaps rather paralleling the main story, in an odd way; though the fate of that comic's author also plays a part in the main story. And we see a bit of an issue of "New Frontiersman," a sort of independent, crackpot right-wing nationalist tabloid, which itself plays an important background role in the story.

And then finally, after each chapter's bonus material, we see a Dooomsday Clock, which advances by about one minute per chapter. At the end of chapter one, the clock stands at 11 minutes to midnight, so that by the end of the final chapter... well, it's midnight, isn't it? Doomsday.

Yes, well. That's about enough talk of things that aren't actually part of the main story, I suppose. I should say, I want to avoid spoiling too much, but it seems practically impossible to me to give more than the vaguest impression of what the story is actually about, without detailing practically everything that happens in each chapter. But I'll try. It all starts with Rorschach's journal, October 12th, 1985. (Though, mind you, this is an alternate history 1985.) And the story ends around Christmas of that year. Again, with Rorschach's journal. Sort of. But before I go any futher, I need to say that the story jumps around alot in time, with frequent flashbacks to various points in the past. It's a very effective storytelling technique, which can be a bit confusing, but also helps demonstrate the connectedness of everything.

Anyway, Rorschach is a costumed hero... sort of. A crimefighter, a vigilante, but he also seems to be something of a nihilist. He sees the world pretty much in black and white, and he's not happy with the state of the world. To be fair, the world in which he lives is swiftly approaching the possibility of nuclear war, which for the moment is only really deterred by the presence of another hero, Dr. Manhattan. But more on that later. Of course, it's not just global events that bother Rorschach, it's pretty much everything he sees around him, the way all the common people choose to live. Anyway, everyone considers Rorschach kind of crazy, including the police, and even his own friends (or rather associates, or more accurately, former associates). And, in fact, he is crazy, but he wasn't always that way. He's a terribly interesting and compelling character, and... learning of the moment when he truly became Rorschach, rather than simply using that as a secret identity... well, it's really something.

I suppose I should set up a bit of history here, though it might almost be considered a disservice to the story to try to lay things out in any sort of orderly, chronological fashion. But I'll do it anyway. The world of Watchmen was our world up until 1938. "Action Comics" came out that year, with Superman on the cover of issue 1, just as in our world. There would be a number of other comic books over the years, with fictitious superheroes, but unlike our world, superhero comics didn't last long. This is because in autumn of 1938, a real costumed hero, Hooded Justice, emerged. And he inspired others, such as a young cop named Hollis Mason, who became Nite Owl. Soon, costumed heroes became a fad. And in 1939, the Minutemen were formed: Hooded Justice, Nite Owl, Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre, The Comedian, The Silhouette, Mothman, Dollar Bill. Due to various circumstances, what remained of the group disbanded in 1949. But by then, they'd inspired a future generation of heroes.

Of course, there were never any heroes with actual super powers until Dr. Manhattan came along, in 1960... but more on that later. There were other new costumed heroes by the late 50s and early 60s, including Ozymandias (who was called "the world's smartest man"), The Comedian (who'd always been a bastard, but he's changed alot by this point, much more globally active and cynical), Rorschach, Silk Spectre II (daughter of the original), and Nite Owl II (a fan of the former Nite Owl). It was in 1962 that Hollis Mason retired as Nite Owl, to open an auto repair shop; it's also the year he wrote "Under the Hood." By that point he'd met Dan Dreiberg, who was soon to become the second Nite Owl, and who would remain friends with him up until the present. It's difficult to say just how much any of these heroes, those of the 40s or the 60s, altered the course of world history; other, of course, than Dr. Manhattan. A great deal changed because of him, including the acceleration of technological development, the winning of the Vietnam War, American superiority over the Russians; Dr. Manhattan's existence served as a deterrent from nuclear war, which also prevented the Russians from doing things they otherwise might have. But more on that later. I suppose it should also be noted that in this 1985, Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President. However, I also need to mention the passing of the Keene Act in 1977, which outlawed costumed heroes. Except, of course, those who worked directly for the government, which seems only to include Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian. Everyone else was forced to retire as heroes; Adrian Veidt had retired as Ozymandians two years previously, and was now an incredibly rich businessman. Rorschach was the only one who refused to retire from crimefighting, thus becoming a vigilante wanted by the police.

Well, as I said, it all starts with Rorschach's journal, but quickly the scene shifts to a pair of detectives investigating the murder of a "diplomat" named Edward Blake, who turns out to have been the Comedian. The detectives want to keep the case quiet, because they're afraid Rorschach might get involved. But he does end up learning of the murder, and the way in which he hears of it is pretty simple in retrospect. I mean, once you've seen him unmasked. But that's a ways off, yet. Early on, we only ever seem to see him in his costume: a trenchcoat, fedora, and a hood with Rorschach ink blots, which completely covers his face.

Anyway, Rorschach begins his own investigation into Blake's murder, and comes up with a theory that someone is out to eliminate former costumed heroes. So he warns them, not that anyone really believes him. The first one he shares his theory with is his former parter, Dan Dreiberg, who Rorschach resents for having quit when the Keene Act was passed. Later, he goes to see Adrian Veidt, and then Dr. Manhattan and Laurie Juspeczyk (the second Silk Spectre). Dr. Manhattan displays his typical inhuman lack of concern, while Laurie doesn't care about Blake's death, because she hated the Comedian, who had once tried to rape her mother. (This had been reported in Hollis Mason's book.)

Laurie is upset by Rorschach's visit, but also by spending so much of her time cooped up in a military research lab with Dr. Manhattan. They're lovers, but she's basically just kept there to keep him happy. Not that he really experiences particularly recognizable human emotions ever since... but more on that later. She's not happy, so she goes out to dinner with Dan Dreiberg, who is an old friend from their adventuring days. They have some fun talking about old times. Of course, Dan seems to be interested in more than friendship, but even if she wasn't with Dr. Manhattan, he doesn't seem the type to make the first move.

Chapter two begins with Laurie visiting her mother in her rest home. The two of them never really got along, largely because Sally had pushed Laurie into the whole costumed crimefighter business. Which leads to a flashback to the Minutemen days. Meanwhile, as Laurie argues with her mother, Dr. Manhattan and several others attend the Comedian's funeral. Which, naturally, leads to a flashback to one of the former Minutemen, Captain Metropolis, attempting to form a new group of heroes, the Crimebusters, in 1966. I suppose I mentioned everyone present at that meeting earlier (except for Janey Slater, who was Dr. Manhattan's lover at the time). Anyway, the Comedian by this point is more aware of global problems, and doesn't think the kind of small-time crimefighting these people do is of any significance. He believes that within 30 years, there will be nuclear war. So... the meeting breaks up, much to Captain Metropolis' dismay.

It isn't until chapter three that we first see a newspaper vendor, who appears repeatedly throughout the rest of the book. There's also a kid there reading "Tales of the Black Freighter." The vendor talks about the state of the world. I don't know what else to say about any of that, it's all sort of incidental, but at the same time connected, to the larger story. So it's important. Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan gives a television interview, while Laurie goes out again with Dan, and some idiots have the misfortune of trying to mug the two of them, which rekindles their interest in crimefighting. As for Dr. Manhattan's interview... he's ambushed with an accusation of having given cancer to the people he's been close to over the years. This upsets him, so he teleports himself to Mars. And with America's deterrent gone, the Russians invade Afghanistan. And he world creeps closer to almost inevitable nuclear war. And of course, Manhattan's exile begins to lend greater credence to Rorschach's theory that someone's getting rid of heroes.

In chapter four, we learn about Dr. Manhattan's past. His name was Jon Osterman, and he was the son of a watchmaker. But when bombs were dropped on Hiroshima, his father pushed him to study atomic science, rather than follow in his profession. He meets Janey Slater, they become lovers. There is a lab accident. He is disintegrated. A couple of months later, he reconstitutes himself. But he's different. Blue. Powerful. Yes, he learns to do lots of godlike things. Teleportation, transmutation, and so much more. He knows the future... it's as if he experiences all time at once. Which is a brilliant parallel to the technique the story uses of flashing to different points in time, and of course the story makes good use of this parallel. But despite all his new powers, he's lost his humanity. He becomes a superhero, working for the American government. He and Laurie Juspeczyk become lovers. It all just keeps jumping back and forth through the years. He creates a watchlike glass... sort of palace, on Mars.

So, that's four chapters down, eight to go. At this point I really think it's best to cut back on the details, I've pretty much set up the plot for you, by now. But I could mention a few more points. Of course, the world is a mess. And without Dr. Manhattan around, the government kicks Laurie out, so she goes to stay with Dan, with whom she gets closer; they eventually become lovers. Rorschach continues investigation. Adrian Veidt gets shot at. Rorschach gets set up, and gets arrested. On Halloween there are some pretty big events, including an angry mob killing one character, who they... thought was someone else. Also, Dan and Laurie break Rorschach out of prison. Dr. Manhattan shows up, teleports Laurie to Mars. They talk, and both come to important realizations. Meanwhile, Rorshach and Nite Owl continue investigation together. We finally learn who's behind everything, leading to a confrontation, and an explanation of the grand plan and the purpose behind it. In the end, our heroes are forced to make a terrible decision, once they understand the whole truth.

Hurm. Rorschach's journal's final entry is November 1, 1985. By this point, he and Dan were pretty sure they knew who was behind everything, but this was just before they headed off for the final confrontation. So they didn't know what "everything" actually was, or why it was being done. Before they left, he sent off his journal to the New Frontiersman, not expecting to return from their impending confrontation. And... I really can't say any more. Obviously I'm not going to spoil who was behind everything, or what his plan was, or his reasons for it. It's not something I'd call a unique idea, exactly. I've probably seen stories with the basic reasoning before, and even had some ideas like it myself. But the reasoning, the concept, is one thing; the actual execution of it was pretty damned amazing in its scope, its audacity, the sheer... brilliance, madness, horror, and the massive improbability of it all. Those few who learn the truth, as well as the readers, are left with the question... does the end, however great, justify the means, however horrific? Should the world at large learn the truth? As for myself, I'm not sure I can answer these questions. Some came to an uncomfortable answer, while another came to a different answer.

Well... we see the aftermath of everything, around Christmas, 1985. There are both endings and new beginnings. But the final image is of a hand reaching for Rorschach's journal... or perhaps not. Depending on where that hand lands, what it actually ends up reaching for, everything could be completely changed. The truth could be served, and in so doing... an epic tragedy that seemingly saved the world could come to naught. I love the uncertainty of it all, which after all, is quite in keeping with everything we've seen in the story....

And that's it, kids. There's your story in a nutshell. I'm sure there's more to be said. The realism of it all (notwithstanding Dr. Manhattan) is astounding. The humanity, the characters, the nature of the whole damn universe from the microscopic to the macroscopic. It's all sheer brilliance, and there were even moments that made me cry, while simultaneously reaffirming the miraculous value of life itself. In all its ugliness and glorious uncertainty, and all its incomprehensible beauty and wonderment. What more can I say?

In 2019, there was a sequel TV series of the same name on HBO.

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