Tuesday, March 17, 2009

the last book I read

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Well now. You might remember I made some slightly scornful reference to comic books and graphic novels in a post a while back. But a couple of things sowed the seeds of curiosity with regard to this particular one - firstly, I'm aware that it's always been regarded as the War And Peace, the Ulysses, the Citizen Kane if you will of graphic novels, secondly it's recently been lavishly filmed, and thirdly Amazon were flogging it for half price. So I thought all right, I'll give it a go.

We're in 1985, but it's a slightly different 1985 - Nixon is still president, kept on for several extra terms by the success of the war in Vietnam (and the successful cover-up of the Watergate conspiracy after the mysterious, hem hem, "accidental" deaths of Woodward and Bernstein), electric cars are commonplace, and, most obviously, this is a world where masked superheroes operate to fight crime, although they've been outlawed since 1977, and most of them now lead normal lives with their capes and masks stashed away at the back of the wardrobe. The only one whose activities retain official sanction is Dr. Manhattan, who coincidentally is the only one with any actual superpowers. He acquired these as a result of being disintegrated to his constituent quarks in a lab accident in 1959; on reassembling himself by force of will a few months later he was found to possess near-godlike powers over matter. Needless to say this makes him a formidable Cold War deterrent.

The novel opens with the death of retired old-school superhero The Comedian, thrown out of an upper-story window to a messy death on the pavement below. This sends shockwaves through the clandestine ex-superhero community - malodorous maverick Rorschach, gadget-y Batman-alike Nite Owl, scantily clad temptress Silk Spectre and pompous Alexander The Great obsessive Ozymandias. Is there a conspiracy against ex-"masks"? It seems so, especially when a media campaign is cooked up against Dr. Manhattan which results in him exiling himself (via some handy teleporting capabilities) to Mars, Rorschach is arrested and an attempt is made on Ozymandias' life. Meanwhile, with Dr. Manhattan out of the picture, Russia is emboldened to invade Afghanistan and push the world closer to nuclear war.

Inevitably the ex-masks strap on the capes again and set out in the Owlmobile to kick some ass; said ass isn't quite whose or where they expect it to be, though. Dr. Manhattan, despite his increasing detachment from the concerns of the human race, is persuaded back from Mars, and there's a big superhero showdown in your classic Bond villian secret lair in Antarctica. Meanwhile a bizarre and grotesque tragedy plays itself out in New York, and the world has to adjust itself to a new sort of threat.

Lots of clever structural tricks - each chapter is closed with a bit of related text: extracts from an ex-mask's autobiography, contemporary news articles, interviews with some of the protagonists, letters, etc. Interspersed throughout some chapters is a parallel narrative, Tales Of The Black Freighter, presented as another comic book being read by one of the minor characters and which shadows some of the events in the main narrative. Even within the main story the timeline is fractured and non-linear.

So has my mind been changed? Well, not entirely. It's undoubtedly very clever, and various eminent critics like it enough to include it (as the only graphic novel to make the list) in Time magazine's list of the 100 best 20th-century novels. Any novel celebrating, however qualifiedly, the activities of superheroes is going to struggle not to have a slightly fascistic Nietzschean quality to it, though; in addition there's a note of slightly fastidious disgust with sex and physicality in general as befits the slight detachment from everyday reality of a bloke who lives a slightly hermitic existence in Northampton, of all places. I just think, in a more general sense, there's a question over the justification of the use of the word "novel". What reading something like this resembles much more is going to a movie; the irony of its protracted journey from book to film is that although it may only be now that CGI technology has advanced sufficiently to realise the effects required, there's always been an instant storyboard in the form of the book itself - you could just lift many scenes as drawn and film them. Not much "interpretation" required, in other words.

It's good to try new things. And, although I'd qualify my praise by saying I'm probably not going to be rushing out to buy another job lot of graphic novels, I enjoyed it. Some of the artwork is terrific, particularly the rendering of the Martian landscape during Dr. Manhattan's brief exile there. And although Alan Moore shares with Iain Banks, among others, the slightly irritating fault of not being quite as clever as he thinks he is, he tells a compelling story, even if it does get a bit silly towards the end. Just don't imagine that this gets you as many points as a "proper" novel.


Anonymous said...

hello. i'm interested in reading your comments as i was in blighty the other week and came across this "book", and was rather intrigued. I stood in WHS and pondered over whether to buy or not with my mother.
Anyway, I didn't buy it, largely because the frogs and their obsession for their "BD" puts me off. They go on and on as it being an art etc etc: so I just thought "non, je ne vais pas l'acheter merci beaucoup". And I didn't. Maybe I should have done.

electrichalibut said...

Worth a look I'd say. Though the trouble with graphic novels is they're eye-wateringly expensive. This one was eight quid, and that was a half-price special.

I was going to enquire re. "BD", but then I googled it - "bande dessinée"; you learn something new every day. I was and am a huge fan of Asterix if that helps.