Saturday, March 6, 2010

Matters of Perspective – Watchmen (novel)

“Watchmen” has been touted as one of the most important graphic novels in the history of the media. Reading a little about it you discover that is changed the way comic books were viewed, perhaps even leading to the phrase graphic novel. It has been called a deconstruction of the superhero storyline. It has been called a work of art. It has been called one of the greatest novels of all time.

So when you see all that hyperbole you can’t help but feel a bit antagonistic. I mean, it can’t be that good right?

What struck me the most while reading “Watchmen” was the fact its impact must have been monumental back in 1986 when it was published. Now, it’s like “Star Wars – A New Hope” or “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis. We can see how innovative it was during its time, but now it seems familiar or cliché (even if it invented the cliché in the first place). Now maybe I’m doing “Watchmen” a bit of a disservice. That is not my intention; I just want to put some perspective on my reaction to it.

When I was done, I felt a little annoyed that all that work went into what was essentially an anti-climax. I understand it was the point. The story is supposed to take all our conventions about super hero stories and shatter them. It did that. But a real great piece of art not only conveys its message but does so in a way that is affecting. Annoyance isn’t really affecting – it’s, well annoying. Did the artists mean to annoy me? You could argue one way or the other. I think they were trying to make me think – and they did a very good job of it.

Now, I’m willing to say that my exposure to the medium of super hero comics is fairly light. In my youth I read some “X-men” (Uncanny and regular). I read some “Transformers” back when those were the rage. I even had a couple compilations of “The Incredible Hulk”, “The Fantastic Four” and “The Amazing Spiderman” when I was really young. I don’t remember them too well, but my parents have stories of me yelling “Flame on!” when I was in my single digits. I have a sense of what super hero comics were before “Watchmen”.

The focus of most of these stories were good versus evil – with lines clearly drawn. It was about action and adventure. Sometimes the superheroes had personal problems, but it was rarely the kind of thing that turned into a feature storyline. The art supported the action and was very functional. Most mysteries were solved in the same issue they were presented. Again, these are broad generalizations based on my experience, I’m sure there were exceptions.

“Watchmen” does not have clearly drawn lines of good and evil. The story is not about action or adventure, but is theme based. “Watchmen” is the first superhero comic book I’ve read that is so rich in themes and ideas, and not only presents them, but also shifts perspectives to provide other views of the themes. All the super heroes have some kind of personal problems and these problems as well as their history take up the bulk of the story. These become part of the themes and feed into multiple ideas. The art not only illustrates the action, but it has deeper layers, sometimes providing ironic imagery, or illustrating the feelings behind the dialogue, or illustrating what is being said in a unexpected way. “Watchmen” forces you to examine nearly each panel and look back at previous panels after you proceed deeper into the book. Some of the questions presented in the book are never answered, and the ones that are only seem to lead to new questions. The world of the “Watchmen” is profoundly changed in the series, but I was left wondering what would happen after the events depicted.

It’s easy to see all the ways “Watchmen” have influenced the super hero genre in nearly all points. It’s a dark and cynical book. And that darkness and cynicism really affected the genre. So much so that most super hero films must be cynical, dark and moody. Just compare Richard Donner’s “Superman” with Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns”. They both portray the same set of characters and are connected even via narrative – and yet the feel between the two couldn’t be more different. “Superman Returns” reflects what audiences expect from comic book super heroes after “Watchmen” changed the game.

“Watchmen” plays with perspective. And as a modern reader, our perspective must be adjusted. Some of us only know the world after “Watchmen” and may not see anything extremely innovative in it now. But it takes more than just reading the surface of the book. It begs to be thought about and examined from all perspectives. It makes it unique and interesting and powerful.

I’m going to tackle the movie in a separate blog, so save your movie specific comments for the next installment.

Have you read “Watchmen”? What did you think of it? Was your perspective of comic book super heroes changed by it, or did your perspective of the genre affect what you thought of it?

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