You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, February 25, 2008


I have recently come to appreciate the graphic novel as a distinct art form in its own right. It has potential to tell a story in a vastly different way from traditional fiction or film. There is a specific talent to using the features of the medium. Dialogue, narrative, and visuals all work together to create a unified whole. The format lends itself to stories with a strong science fiction or fantasy element, often with grand themes.

One such story is Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It takes the theme of superheroes and gives it a few twists. Superheroes are often portrayed as popular, powerful forces for justice. Watchmen shows another view of superheroes, as troubled vigilantes with their own code. The story narrates the background of several superheroes in a group known as The Crimebusters, the successor to a group called the Minutemen, who fought crime together in the 1940's. A lot is made of the contrast to the war years and immediately after, as opposed to the more decadent and less hopeful years of the Seventies and Eighties. The superheroes are as much reviled as loved. Laws have been passed against masked heroes. Some have gone into hiding, others have given up their careers.

The Comedian is a masked hero who decides to join the government as a way of pursuing his career legitimately. He has a negative, cynical outlook on humanity, and sees life and society as a joke. The Nite Owl is two different men, one in the Forties and another man who takes his place when he retires. Rorschach is a vigilante who wears a strange mask and has a solitary, harsh code. Ozymandias is a known as the smartest man in the world, and a great athlete. He hangs up his uniform to go commercial and sell figures of himself and his comrades. Dr. Manhattan is a scientist who is turned into a powerful force after a freak atomic accident, but it leaves him disconnected from humanity. Silk Spectre is the daughter of one of the original Minutemen.

Each character is developed with a backstory during most of the chapters. Each chapter except the last is followed by text from sources inside the story that elaborate on the story's themes and history, such as Nite Owl's autobiography and a treatise on Dr. Manhattan's affect on the Cold War. The nuclear threat from the Soviet Union is a large part of the background and context of the story, as is the crime of that time. The superheroes are seen as going from fighting America's enemies to being a public nuisance. Their lives take different paths.

Bringing another element to the text is the pirate graphic novel that is a story within the story. Read by a boy at a newsstand and written by a missing author, it tells about a man stranded on an island by a death ship and his quest to get back to his home to protect his family. There are strong parallels with the main story and the madness of the character behind most of the plot.

The visual style and the narrative complement one another. Repeated visual elements add to the story, tying it together and building on the themes. One repeated phrase, written in graffiti, is "Who watches the watchmen?" It plays to the theme of distrust of vigilantes, and a general alienation of society.

The plot centers on Rorschach's belief that someone is targeting the masked superheroes, and his attempt to get others to join him after the Comedian is murdered. But more than this synopsis, the story is about the lives of the superheroes and how their troubles lead them on different paths. Old rivalries and old grudges come into play as they struggle against each other as much as against crime and an unknown force. I have rarely encountered such a strong unity of form and function, character and plot. The story is very memorable, and each character is distinct. I give it an A, and I think it lives up to its description on the back cover that it "changed an industry and challenged a medium."


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