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Watchmen by Alan Moore
Cover Artist: Dave Gibbons
Review by Andrew Brooks
DC Comics Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780930289232
Date: 01 April 1995 List Price $19.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

I will always have a special place in my heart for the comic books from my childhood. Filled with superheroes and super villains, citizens in distress and epic battles between good and evil, those comics held everything a child could want to cram into his or her over-imaginative head in one sitting. Watchmen does not resemble those nostalgia tinged books in the least.

In the mid-eighties Alan Moore's magnum opus shattered many of the conventions of the comic book world, drawing heaps of praise from both comic fans and critics alike. However my tastes were young, accustomed as they were to the kinds of black and white issues and characters I devoured with great relish. Watchmen does not take place in that world, the one a little boy dreams of flying or punching through walls in. It takes place in an alternate America, true, but not one in which heroes fly and display constant feats of bravery. The heroes here strive simply to live, to come to grips with themselves and the world that they live in. Some of them rape or kill innocents, and some of them are not heroes at all. But they are all here, in Alan Moore's wonderful book, on display in one of the best truly character driven stories I've ever read. Watchmen is magic of the truest sort, storytelling magic.

The world stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation, the United States and Russia both with their fingers over the button, a sense of fatalism blanketing all. Amidst this, the story opens with the death of The Comedian-a member of a now outlawed masked crime fighting team, and as we come to find out, one hell of a bastard. But somebody's gunning for masks, as the character Rorschach puts it, and Moore's book comes out of the gates fast. In what begins as a kind of whodunit, Watchmen then veers through both past and present, in an attempt to show the men and women behind the masks. The mystery keeps the plot on pace, but anyone who reads this and comes away thinking that same plot lukewarm clearly missed the real meat of the story.

The characters all have a past and they all have things they're running to or from, and not a one of their stories, with the slight exception of Ozymandias, disappoints. There's the aforementioned Comedian, a man whose brutality earlier in the story only serves to make his tender gestures later in the novel more poignant. The only real superhero in the book, Dr. Manahttan, has become withdrawn from both Earth and its inhabitants, and is the catalyst for the world becoming potentially unhinged. You've got Nite Owl, a Bruce Wayne type character who has lost faith in himself and his abilities, and the daughter of a former masked crime fighter trying to please her mother, the Silk Spectre. There's also the world's presumable smartest man thrown in the mix, Ozymandias. And then you have Rorschach.

Rorschach is like no other comic book character that I've read, although I see echoes of the Punisher in his demeanor and take no prisoners vigilance. Of all the characters, I found Rorschach the most fascinating, the most tortured of the lot. Wearing a mask that gives his face the appearance of a Rorschach ink blot picture, albeit one that changes frequently, he hasn't let the ban on mask wearing vigilantes keep him from policing the streets. Indeed, he's the one prompting the other characters to find whomever killed The Comedian and seems to be after the others. The section, which originally was printed as its own separate book (as all twelve chapters were when published), pulled me into the world of the Watchmen the way no others did. Tortured doesn't even begin to describe this character, and the sheer brutality that he inflicts along the way is gruesome, but I still found his character easier to identify with than the others. Perhaps it's because his view is that black and white (in his eyes) from the comics of my youth, perhaps because by the end of the novel you just feel so sorry for the guy.

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Although his character's stubborn refusal to side with Ozymandias' plan at the end kind of passably fits in with what we learn of Rorschach, I found his ignoble end both surprising and disappointing. It's one of the problems I had with the ending, although that shouldn't deter anyone from reading Watchmen. Others, countless others, have discussed the ending ad infinitum wherever you care to search the web so I won't do that here. Except to say that the ultimate ending could never have lived up to the expectations that the preceding set up. That should be an encouragement to those who haven't read it, because the preceding is that good.

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I'll not get into the discussion of whether Watchmen is a classic, or one of the best things ever put to paper. For the simple reason that, like all wonderfully enjoyable stories, the tale's a different thing to each person. In my case I'm still thinking about all that Moore managed to work into it, and a lot of it will echo around in my head for a long time. That's enough for me. The Watchmen is no simple here to there, heroes versus villains type story. It's a long winding spiral where character's paths cross and cross again, and you'll be satisfied if you give it a try. I recommend highly.

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