Alan Moore (Author), Dave Gibbons (Illustrator)
Completed 6/4/2022, Reviewed 6/4/2022
I’ve always been interested in this graphic novel because it is on two lists on Worlds Without End, the Top Listed and Most Read Books lists. So when I found the omnibus at Powell’s on sale, I got it, and wasn’t disappointed. It’s a dark, gritty graphic novel about superheroes and the cold war in an alternate U.S. where Nixon is still president in 1985 and Gorbachev isn’t dismantling the Soviet Union. Tension is incredibly high and the only thing that keeps the cold war from turning hot is the existence of one of the Watchmen. While reading this, you have to remember it was written in 1985, and that it’s an alternate world, otherwise, you won’t get the anxiety of the population. I remember that time, and I got the intensity of it. This book won a 1988 Hugo for “Other Forms”.
So, in this alternate New York, one of the superheroes, Rorschach, believes there’s a conspiracy to knock them off. The problem is, Rorschach is a possibly psychotic asocial who has killed his own share of people. He tries to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, and along the way, runs into the rest of the now defunct Watchmen. You see, they’ve been outlawed by an anti-heroes act. Nonetheless, they don their costumes and try to figure out who’s killing them at a time when the US and USSR are on the brink of nuclear war. Things escalate when Dr. Manhattan (the big naked blue guy) exiles himself to Mars and the USSR take advantage of the loss. Can the remaining Watchmen find the killer and at the same time, prevent Armageddon?
It's a complicated plot, actually, as the graphic novel had twelve issues, and they follow the point of view of most of the Watchmen. In addition, there are some side characters that act as a sort of classical chorus, as well as a character who is reading a graphic novel about a shipwrecked man trying to escape pirates. So there’s a lot going on. I really enjoyed getting the backstories of each of the Watchmen as the story progressed. There’s also a previous generation of superheroes known as the Minutemen. We get a lot of their backstory as well.
Dr. Manhattan is pretty great. He’s the only one who’s really “super” in that he survived a massive dose of radiation and was transformed into a powerful blue being. He’s quite emotionless, although is affected by his relationships in interesting ways. Rorschach is the epitome of creepy. After a terrible childhood, he vents all his anger into his persona. In fact, he’s the only Watchman whose real name and face no one knows. Sally Jupiter is pretty great as one of the Minutemen, and her daughter Laurel is one of the Watchmen. So at least there were some women in the groups.
I was really moved by the story, freaked is more like it. But I was pulled out of the story by the far-right and far-left split among the Watchmen as well as the population. The right are Nazis and Klan supporters and the left are communists. It seems like there’s no middle ground. There are racist references, anti-Semitism, and a lot of hate speech. If I read it when it first came out, I probably would have taken it more in stride, but it is pretty cringeworthy today. And I know that it’s all done to make a point, but it is still hard to read.
I give this book four stars out of five, because the intensity of the book was broken several times by the hate content. But this is a very dark story from a very dark time. I’d say it’s still relevant today with the extreme political divisions and the fact that so few see any grey.