Book #7: Watchmen (1986)

authors: Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
language: English
length: like 400 pages or something
finished on: 7/2
book coverIt’s time for me to play that old game of Catch Up on Reading Those Classics You Never Got Around To, once again, this time in the form of influential 1980s comic books. I’ve been intending on reading this for a while now and only recently realised that I can actually request books from other libraries in the city, which is good considering that the local library doesn’t stock it…

Anyway, the first thing I’ll say is that the book is very thick and complex. It constructs a parallel world in the Cold War era inhabited by superheroes, each with their own fully-fleshed out backstory. That alone is going to bring you a very complex story. Yet it’s also very regimentedly structured, each chapter predictable in its rough length and bookended by a full colour plate and a two page spread of some kind of article from the superheroes’ world. This structure comes right down to the framing, which I found a bit too rigid for my liking, as it’s generally a 9×9 set on each page, meaning that most frames are in portrait. I haven’t really read many American-style comics (or many comics other than Tintin, where the framing’s generally landscape-oriented and not at all rigid in the size of each frame), so I’m not sure if this is a common theme among these books, or if it’s just a feature of this particular book. It certainly displays the authors’ bias towards character-driven plots quite well. The way that the chapters often introduce quite a dramatic shift in the focus of the plot (often focussing on a new character in each new chapter) certainly betray the book’s origins as a serial comic, too.

There’s so much attention to detail by the artist, Gibbons, that I don’t even know where to begin. It’s just things like the way you can always spot little things in the background that are obviously afforded some significance, or the way that when you read the pirate comic story that’s interwoven with some of the main narrative, it’s shown in that old newspaper print colouring, with slightly faded colours, as if you’re reading it off a page straight from this other world. In a kind of alternate-history joke, Americans never get into superheroes in a world actually inhabited by them, and end up reading pirate stories instead, which I found amusing. But at the same time, I found it confusing when the pirate story was interwoven with the main narrative, because the way it jumped back and forth between the two was usually very disorientating, and I found that in certain places, I had to read through the pirate story first and then read through the main story just so that I could keep track.

This form of interruption in the story kept happening quite a lot in the book, and I started to get annoyed with it after a while. The other main form of interruption was the sections of three or four pages of prose between each chapter, which I found difficult to adjust back to reading. Some were easier than others, but there was at least one that I read kind of half-heartedly and went “what the fuck?” afterwards. To be fair, there were a couple of sections of graphic storytelling that made me WTF too, but that’s the one that sticks out in my memory. I just found that the prose sections were the biggest thing that interrupted the flow. But I guess that’s one of those things that happens with serial storytelling; the flow can be interrupted quite easily.

Anyway, I quite enjoyed most of the rest; characters were good (all with their own flaws, of course), plot was fascinating… I guess there was a bit too much obvious attempts at philosophy, which kind of made me glaze over a bit, but meh. The Cold War theme was also obvious and present throughout, playing off real public fears of the time that I guess are a bit lost on me. The story explores how the presence of the

Now what I think I’m going to do is what’s fast becoming one of my favourite hobbies: complaining about artistic renditions of planetary bodies. Specifically Mars, since that’s the planet that Dr Manhattan (the blue superhuman guy who’s the only one with real superpowers and arguably the point of divergence with the real timeline, since he introduces a lot of environmentally-friendly technology and wins Vietnam for America) goes to when he decides that he doesn’t like humanity anymore (or something, anyway).

We see Mars in two chapters; in the first, it appears to be night-time, but several references are made in Manhattan’s monologue that the sun is shining. What bothered me about this chapter is the pinkness of Mars… now, I know we know it as the Red Planet, but if you actually look at a photo of Mars, it’s a kind of orange-brown desert colour… not pink. It could even be described as purple here. OK, so, benefit of the doubt, it could actually be like that at night. In the second chapter when he teleports his girlfriend to Mars with him, it becomes daytime, and it looks more like how I’ve seen Mars depicted in the past, with an orange sky and beautiful cliffs.

But then they seem to make what to me now seems like an error of geography. One minute they’re in their floating castle above the south pole, and in the time they take to have a conversation they’re approaching Olympus Mons, which is in the northern hemisphere. I know that they haven’t teleported, because she didn’t want to be teleported, so his flying machine must be going awfully fast to travel that distance. That aside, Olympus Mons isn’t depicted quite how it would be in real life… now, I don’t know how much of this they would have known in 1986, but Olympus has a really shallow gradient and is 1000 or so km across. It wouldn’t fit onto a horizon, or indeed really look much like a mountain to a casual observer, more like a massive cliff at the bottom and quite flat for someone on it. And then they seem to turn a corner and reach the Valles Marineris – not so fast, there are three other massive shield volcanos between Olympus and there.

Anyway, I should probably stop bitching about bits like this that don’t even matter that much. It’s just so… satisfying! But while I’m at it, I guess I might add that there’s a very poetic-sounding speech from Manhattan which uses the simile “rarer than a quark”. You know, rarer than one of the universe’s most common particles? Kinda loses its ring, doesn’t it? Anyway, all that aside, I enjoyed the book thoroughly and would recommend it.

(I’m also now dreaming of going to Mars after reading about it on Wikipedia and seeing images like this one:
Martian sunset Excuse me while I shed a tear for my inevitably earth-bound existence.)

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