Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Book Review - Watchmen

Let me begin by saying this: until recently, I have never considered myself a graphic novel aficionado. I did not grow up reading comic books. As a child, I never found anything remotely interesting about the stories of Superman, Batman, or the X-Men. If anything, I generally looked down upon the superhero genre. I thought their pretty pages offered tremendous form, but minimal substance. About to turn 29, I now realize I have a lot of a catching up to do, thanks to Alan Moore and his tour de force Watchmen.

Louis Giannetti, a respected film scholar, argues that genres go through four formative stages:
  1. The Primitive - the first stage in which authors establish a genre's characteristics
  2. The Classical - the stage when a genre's generic qualities are refined
  3. The Revisionist - the stage when authors reevaluate the rules of a genre, often critically
  4. The Parodic - the stage when authors satirize the genre and poke fun at its conventions
Watchmen is definitely in stage three. Alan Moore examines the superhero concept and takes it to its logical conclusion. He asks tough questions: What would a world with superheroes look like in the long run? What would motivate superheroes to do what they do? And, how far would superheroes go to protect humanity from its worst excesses?

Moore seems to argue that governments would eventually try to exploit superheroes to serve their geopolitical interests, in essence changing their function from protecting individuals to asserting the power of the nation-state. In Watchmen, superheroes help the US government fight the Cold War abroad and help it maintain domestic order by putting down citizen riots. The dramatic turn of events forces superheroes to reevaluate their raison d'ĂȘtre. After Congress passes legislation banning their existence, superheroes are left with three choices: 1) submit to the control of government and become a military weapon; 2) retire from the profession; or 3) go into hiding and become a fugitive of government law enforcement.

Moore also suggests that not all superheroes would have altruistic motives. Some, like the Comedian, would pursue the vocation to fulfill their need to use violence and exert power over people. Others, like Rorschach, would use their profession as means to exact retribution on a human society they overwhelmingly despise. His point: superheroes are not necessarily good people.

Without revealing too much, the ending of Watchmen exposes Moore's final misgiving about superheroes: when they realize they cannot change the human condition (that we are often fearful, violent, and selfish creatures), will they try to control us instead of having us control them? Other authors, like Asimov in I, Robot, have posed similar questions. Ultimately, Moore concludes that superheroes are undesirable because they create more problems than they solve. The story ends with a quote that would make Johnnie Cochran proud: "Who watches the watchmen?" Indeed.