Sunday, July 19, 2009

Watchmen - Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons


1995; 416 pages. Comics originally published in 1986-87. Genres : Graphic (in both senses of the word) novel; action. Awards : One of the NYT "100 Best novels"; Update : 1988 Hugo Award for Best Other Form. Overall Rating : A-.
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Watchmen has already been reviewed by 5-Squared's Nikki here and Jason here. It is nigh impossible to discuss the plot without spoilers, so here's the ultra-condensed version : the brutal slaying of a retired superhero leads to a plan underway that threatens the fate of the whole world.
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What's To Like...
A fantastic storyline; in-depth character development; breath-taking artwork. A cool alternate history setting where the US wins the Vietnam War due to two of our heroes' involvement, and Richard Nixon gets to be President-for-Life.
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The term "superhero" is a misnomer here, since only one of the group has superhuman powers. That's Dr. Manhattan, who through personal ineptness turns himself into a walking, talking Star Trek transporter. This fascinates the US government, but generally irritates everyone else, particularly Manhattan's Vonnegutian view of time.
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The group also includes Ozymandias, the world's smartest human. But face it, right now, someone's walking around on earth with that same distinction. And Nite Owl creates some fabulous Batmanesque gadgets, but nothing unbelievable. The rest of the group seem to be ordinary people with a sense of vigilanteism and a fetish for capes-&-spandex.
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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
One of the charms of Watchmen is that it examines a number of situational ethics themes. Here are two of them; albeit modified so that spoilers are avoided.
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Theme #1 : What if your superheroes aren't?
Yeah, Spiderman may have to occasionally confront his dark side; and Batman might have a moment or two of psychological self-doubt. But in the end, they always emerge as all-American good guys, that little boys can idolize when they read the comic books.
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But what if they had some permanent character flaws? Suppose Superman felt compelled to get a sex-change, or Batman physically abused Robin, or Underdog got insanely jealous of all other superheroes. Would we still hero-worship these world-savers if they weren't perfect?
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Theme #2 : The Hiroshima Syndrome
For all the nuclear-weapons-in-terrorists-hands phobia nowadays, the fact is - only the USA has ever detonated an atomic bomb on another nation. And we did it twice, and against civilian, not military, targets. At Hiroshima, roughly 70,000 people died on the day of the blast; then another 40,000 a few days later at Nagasaki. After another three months, those numbers double; and another equal number of deaths occurred due to long-term cases of cancer, etc. All told, more than a quarter million lives lost.
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Even today, the debate still rages about these bombings. In school, the teachers always justified the action by saying the bombs were dropped to "save American lives that would have been lost if we had actually invaded Japan" and to "destroy the will for warfare of the Japanese people."
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Watchmen gives you its opinion of the Hiroshima Syndrome. I won't spoil it for you, instead I'll lay out a similar scenario.
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Suppose a swine flu epidemic arises. It has a 95% mortality rate; is highly contagious; and spreads rapidly. For now, it is confined to Iran. In another week, it will spread throughout the world. Question - do we nuke Iran for the sake of the rest of humanity?
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Now what if the point-of-infection was, say, Texas (or your home state)? Does your answer change? And who makes the decision? The US Government? Would their answer be different if the point of infection was Washington DC?
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Halt! Hugo's there?
I give Watchmen an A-. It is a genre-changing opus and redefines the depth that a comic can have. It is complex, with a lot of food-for-thought, and held my attention. Plus I'm a sucker for situational ethics.
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OTOH, is not one of the 100 best novels of all time. While the ending is superb, the final steps in getting there are a bit clunky. Jason gives a much more spirited and detailed opinion about this.
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Nor should it have won (update : nor did it win) the Hugo Award for Best Novel. As beautiful as the artwork is, I am more in awe of somone who can give you just as vivid of a scene, using only text. Like Sylvia Plath, for example :
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"The wind has blown a warm yellow moon up over the sea; a bulbous moon, which sprouts in the soiled indigo sky, and spills bright winking petals of light on the quivering black water."
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Oooooh, that's sensational! It's not a matter of which is better, it's a matter of what constitutes a novel. Thankfully, the Hugo folks came to their senses, and have since established a separate Awards category for Graphic Novels. As for me, although I can't say I won't read another Graphic Novel in the future, I will say that they'll never replace a good, text-only book.

14 comments:

Amanda said...

The more I read about this book, the less I'm interested in actually reading it.

hamilcar barca said...

in the end, Watchmen is a comic book. a superbly-done one. but a comic book nevertheless.

it's not that it doesn't qualify as a book; it does. but my preference is to read text, not admire artwork.

Jason Gignac said...

Extra points for the Hugo pun, though.

Kevin Standlee said...

Watchmen won the 1988 Hugo Award for Best Other Forms, a special one-shot category added to the 1988 Hugo Awards for works that didn't fit in any other category. It did not receive (nor was it nominated for) the Best Novella or Best Novel Hugo Award, nor was any Hugo Award it received rescinded. I'm not sure where you're getting the information you've stated about the Hugo Awards, but no Hugo Award has ever been rescinded after being presented.

hamilcar barca said...

hi Kevin. i got the Hugo-Watchmen information from Googling "Hugo Award Watchmen" and visiting the comicsmix.com site.

probably not the most-reliable source of information, but Wikipedia was strangely unhelpful. i *thought* i read somewhere else that the "Hugo purists" were all a-flutter about giving a Hugo to a comic book, although i no longer know where i read that.

at any rate, thanks for commenting and clarifying.

Kevin Standlee said...

...and visiting the comicsmix.com site...

Do you have a specific citation there? It's not a web site that I follow.

but Wikipedia was strangely unhelpful.

The Wikipedia entry, at least when I go look at it right now, says: "In 1988, Watchmen received a Hugo Award in the Other Forms category." and the citation actually points back to the official Hugo Awards web site.

i *thought* i read somewhere else that the "Hugo purists" were all a-flutter about giving a Hugo to a comic book, although i no longer know where i read that.

This whole thing tends to get conflated with a different award -- the World Fantasy Award, which isn't the Hugo and is completely different in structure. There is an issue there, but it has nothing to do with the Hugo Award.

at any rate, thanks for commenting and clarifying.

Thanks. All you have to do is write "Hugo Award" and you're apt to invoke me. (I'm chairman of WSFS's service marks protection committee, so I have a standing search on mentions of all our marks to make sure nobody is launching a Hugo Award of their own and stuff like that.)

Sorry to come across as so critical. BTW, although Watchmen is widely cited as "the only comic book to with a Hugo Award," that distinction will vanish on August 9, when this year's Worldcon in Montreal presents a Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. Lots of Watchmen references will have to be edited to change "only" to "first."

hamilcar barca said...

sorry, i blew the web-address. it's :

http://www.comicmix.com/news/2008/08/29/hugo-awards-add-graphic-novel-category/

my "rescinded" comment comes from that piece of information, plus the fact that Wiki (now) lists the 1988 "Best Novel" award as something different. logical, sensible, and totally wrong on my part.

and i don't think you come across as critical at all. there's at least two of us here at 5-Squared that read a lot of sci-fi, so i'll have to remember how to "invoke" you in the future.
;-)

Kevin Standlee said...

Thanks for providing the link to jog my memory. Have a look at the comments and you'll see Mike Weber and me correcting the article's incorrect assertion that Watchmen won Best Novel. (Doesn't look like they ever corrected the article, though.)

Comic books, graphic novels, and sequential art have never actually been ineligible for a Hugo Award; however, it has been rather murky as to where they might have qualified. At the moment, they seem to fall into Best Related Book, although if the Best Graphic Story category is ratified as a permanent category, it will solve the technical question. One of the reasons we don't really know where such works would fall is that as far as I know, no such work ever got enough nominations to qualify for the ballot in any category, so the Hugo Awards administrator never had to make a ruling about such a work's eligibility.

(I've been a Hugo Award Administrator three times. Like real-world courts, Hugo Administrators are loathe to make hypothetical rulings. They're more likely to only make a decision if the voters force them to do so by nominating a potentially-ineligible work.)

I use the "invoke" phrase deliberately, because there are some people out there who would indeed describe me as demonic. :)

hamilcar barca said...

okay, i've updated the post to give the accurate data re Watchmen and the Hugo Award.

thanks again, Kevin, for setting the record straight! are you presently a Hugo Administrator? it sounds like a great way to work off some karma.

Kevin Standlee said...

No, but I'm Chairman of the Hugo Awards Marketing Committee of the World Science Fiction Society as well as the Mark Protection Committee that watches after the service marks ("Hugo Award," "Worldcon," etc.). As part of that, I'm one of the people who edits the Hugo Awards web site.

As far as karma goes, I co-chaired the 2002 Worldcon in San Jose. Fannish tradition says that this earns you a lifetime's worth of karma, or at least a "Get of of Worldcon Free" card.

Lula O said...

Hmm..anyhoo. Good review Hamilcar. Wasn't there a movie of this recently? I think I heard it was unlike the novel, even though that blue guy was definitely hot.

hamilcar barca said...

good news, Lula! the hot blue guy runs around nekkid throughout the book. i didn't see the movie when it was in the theaters, but i started seeing advertisements for the DVD on TV this week. i may have to break down an actually rent it when it comes out.

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