Sunday, July 19, 2009

Watchmen - Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

1995; 416 pages. Comics originally published in 1986-87. Genres : Graphic (in both senses of the word) novel; action. Awards : One of the NYT "100 Best novels"; Update : 1988 Hugo Award for Best Other Form. Overall Rating : A-.

   .It is nigh impossible to discuss the plot without spoilers, so here's the ultra-condensed version : the brutal slaying of a retired superhero leads to a plan underway that threatens the fate of the whole world.

.What's To Like...
    A fantastic storyline; in-depth character development; breath-taking artwork. A cool alternate history setting where the US wins the Vietnam War due to two of our heroes' involvement, and Richard Nixon gets to be President-for-Life.

.The term "superhero" is a misnomer here, since only one of the group has superhuman powers. That's Dr. Manhattan, who through personal ineptness turns himself into a walking, talking Star Trek transporter. This fascinates the US government, but generally irritates everyone else, particularly Manhattan's Vonnegutian view of time.

.The group also includes Ozymandias, the world's smartest human. But face it, right now, someone's walking around on earth with that same distinction. And Nite Owl creates some fabulous Batmanesque gadgets, but nothing unbelievable. The rest of the group seem to be ordinary people with a sense of vigilanteism and a fetish for capes-&-spandex.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?One of the charms of Watchmen is that it examines a number of situational ethics themes. Here are two of them; albeit modified so that spoilers are avoided.

.Theme #1 : What if your superheroes aren't?
Yeah, Spiderman may have to occasionally confront his dark side; and Batman might have a moment or two of psychological self-doubt. But in the end, they always emerge as all-American good guys, that little boys can idolize when they read the comic books.

.But what if they had some permanent character flaws? Suppose Superman felt compelled to get a sex-change, or Batman physically abused Robin, or Underdog got insanely jealous of all other superheroes. Would we still hero-worship these world-savers if they weren't perfect?

.Theme #2 : The Hiroshima Syndrome
For all the nuclear-weapons-in-terrorists-hands phobia nowadays, the fact is - only the USA has ever detonated an atomic bomb on another nation. And we did it twice, and against civilian, not military, targets. At Hiroshima, roughly 70,000 people died on the day of the blast; then another 40,000 a few days later at Nagasaki. After another three months, those numbers double; and another equal number of deaths occurred due to long-term cases of cancer, etc. All told, more than a quarter million lives lost.

.Even today, the debate still rages about these bombings. In school, the teachers always justified the action by saying the bombs were dropped to "save American lives that would have been lost if we had actually invaded Japan" and to "destroy the will for warfare of the Japanese people."
Watchmen gives you its opinion of the Hiroshima Syndrome. I won't spoil it for you, instead I'll lay out a similar scenario.
Suppose a swine flu epidemic arises. It has a 95% mortality rate; is highly contagious; and spreads rapidly. For now, it is confined to Iran. In another week, it will spread throughout the world. Question - do we nuke Iran for the sake of the rest of humanity?
Now what if the point-of-infection was, say, your home state? Does your answer change? And who makes the decision? The US Government? Would their answer be different if the point of infection was Washington DC?

.Halt! Hugo's there?I give Watchmen an A-. It is a genre-changing opus and redefines the depth that a comic can have. It is complex, with a lot of food-for-thought, and held my attention. Plus I'm a sucker for situational ethics.
OTOH, it is not one of the 100 best novels of all time. While the ending is superb, the final steps in getting there are a bit clunky.

.Nor should it have won (update : nor did it win) the Hugo Award for Best Novel. As beautiful as the artwork is, I am more in awe of somone who can give you just as vivid of a scene, using only text. Like Sylvia Plath, for example :

."The wind has blown a warm yellow moon up over the sea; a bulbous moon, which sprouts in the soiled indigo sky, and spills bright winking petals of light on the quivering black water."

.Oooooh, that's sensational! It's not a matter of which is better, it's a matter of what constitutes a novel. Thankfully, the Hugo folks came to their senses, and have since established a separate Awards category for Graphic Novels. As for me, although I can't say I won't read another Graphic Novel in the future, I will say that they'll never replace a good, text-only book.

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