Sunday, November 23, 2008

Book Review: Watchmen


I just finished reading “Watchmen”.


I found it to be a brilliant social and political commentary on the world then, and of the world today. It raised the question, “Who watches the watchmen?”, and that still rings true to this day. The fact is Alan Moore is just way too much ahead of his time.

Comics for me were too expensive an investment. I realized this at a young age. I may have been jealous of my friends’ stacks of comics, but I knew that engagement had a price, and I was not prepared for it. So I kept a pragmatic arms’ length at comics, even as I started to work and earn money to afford it. Eventually, I bought the critical favorites here and there, and they were all graphic novels, such as Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series, Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, and Kia Asamiya’s “Batman: Child of Dreams”. And I loved them all. The graphic novel was a great comic innovation. Not only could people grow with the comics of their childhood. They allowed a form of insight and imagination that books could not. They showed a creative force that one cannot get from other literary works, a degree of fantasy rooted in something real. There was a visual to accompany your reading, and when it was done right, it became something amazing. The visual impact combined with the dramatic force that only words can give can astound.

“Watchmen” was no different. It was rooted in a reality that was both real and assumed at the same time. It was set in New York, during an uneasy political time. That part was real. But there were costumed heroes. That part was assumed. Then the whole premise becomes even more amazing.

These costumed heroes had no superpowers of their own, save for one Dr. Manhattan, whose backstory resembled that of Spider-Man’s powers origin tragedy. They were plagued with romance, backbiting, naivete, and immorality. Heck, even amorality. The Superfriends of old did not resemble the Minutemen, nor of the Crimebusters. The Watchmen costumed heroes were no different from vigilantes such as the Batman. They were cursed with the under-appreciated responsibility of looking after society. Their travails were the stuff of legends as well as villainy. The Comedian killing a pregnant woman without remorse. Rorschach living on the lawless fringe of society. Nite Owl committing a prison break. Heroes committing adultery, rape, murder, and torture, and living lies themselves. And Veidt… well, let’s not get into that yet.

In spite of every character's flaws, there is an innate likable quality about them. Murderous though he may be, I found Rorschach to be the most interesting of them all. And Dan's struggle to live the adventurer life again was amusing to some degree, and endearing at the same time. Dr. Manhattan's soullesness could have reached annoying proportions, and yet his tragic origins always lead you to sympathize. There is a ton of reasons to dislike every person in this story. Even the cops in "Watchmen" do not arouse our compassion. And the so-called villains are not entirely evil. Moloch was revealed to be just a pawn, AND he was dying of cancer. The "macguffin", Blake's death, is supposedly deserved, and yet at the end, we see Sally Jupiter still in grief for it. There is a lot of good versus evil, black-and-white structures in the story, and yet everyone is constantly changing sides and raises the question of who is really the most accountable in the very end. And that is the brilliance that lies in this story.

It’s not enough to say that “Watchmen” was a work of genius, made by geniuses in the format. It is a pretty amazing feat to complete a work that transcends the comic book genre, the literary field, and the sociological and political storytelling. Alan Moore creates firm foundations for fantasy, science fiction, realism, physics, genetics, and psychology in the narrative. There is a very creative use of a comic book within, the tale of the Black Freighter, which is both clever and vile at the same time. Even the cultural references titling each issue, and the literary samplings of each Watchmen character that end each issue are not immune to research. I am very impressed with the amount of work that Moore did here. (I have been impressed with the depth of Moore’s genius before, when I read his “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. I mean, who would ever think of creating comic book characters out of Victorian literary characters??? And hand over the villain’s ropes to Professor Moriarty?? A genius, I tell you.)

At the beginning, I thought the art in comic books were all flash and razzle dazzle. But in Gibbons’ case of the “Watchmen”, it had a visual impact to the story. There are visual surprises if you look closely, and there are random nods to continuity that kept me flipping back to pages I have already read. It was an art that allowed me to savor the story and not just propel it. And the structural innovation they did on issue five with “Fearful Symmetry” should be applauded as well.

It was definitely a page-turner for me. The storytelling structure of “real-time” alternating with the “psychology of the origin story” was carried out with ease. Nothing seemed out of place, and everything seemed to collect together. The pirates’ story-within-a story, the disappearance of Max Shea, the disappearance of Hooded Justice, the B-plots of the Bernies and Dr. Malcolm Long. They were all rewardingly connected together in the end. And everyone was connected by a larger tale of humanity, and the other "watchmen" who were elected to serve. This larger tale proposes questions, and only one hero dared to come up with an answer.

In the end, the costumed heroes meet up in Antarctica to a mind-boggling and heart-breaking conclusion. Veidt successfully tore down a city in the guise of helping the world. The panel that shows Veidt jubilantly shouting “I DID IT!” had such great visual impact for me – and for a moment, I celebrated along with him. The lead-up to this panel was so thought-provoking and insightful, that I forgave Moore for giving Veidt the “villain’s role” in this story.

But murdering innocent civilians in the attempt to salve a global political crisis had no redemptive quality for Veidt. And none of the heroes made a bid for redemption, either. Their past sins will continue to haunt them. Even Dan and Laurie, who joined the felony of silence, had to keep their relationship under wraps. Doctor Manhattan exiled himself to Mars. Only Rorschach felt compelled to reveal the truth, and paid dearly for it with his death.

And Veidt? His euphoria was short-lived. For as Manhattan said to him just before teleporting his way out of the universe, “Nothing ever ends.”

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Toni and Dallas

Well, tonight's Amazing Race episode just reaffirms my love for this mother-son team.

Toni and Dallas were a class act tonight. They were smart, and just appreciative of everything. Even though they were made to look like "fools" in the Detour. Dallas, bless his heart, was just a hoot to watch and just made the Detour look like a ton of fun. I think it is moments like these when a person is just lucky to be traveling with a kid (albeit a college-age kid) on TAR. He was mooing and skipping across the street, and had a pretty good sense of direction (despite being temporarily lost looking for the marked milk stand). And he was very supportive of his mother. Toni was also a great teammate. She rocked the Roadblocks, was surprisingly in great shape, was culturally sensitive, and really trusted Dallas with certain things. I really like this team.

Now if Dallas could just get his eye off Starr...

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