Watchmen: The Late Review

Weeeee!  I'm an ironic icon!!
Weeeee! I'm an ironic icon!!

I hated Watchmen.

Okay, some of you just spit soda pop all over your monitors. While we wait for you guys to clean up, let me warn the rest of you readers that there are spoilers aplenty in the following review. I wrote this piece assuming that you’ve already read the book yourself and found this site trying to score some juicy internet gossip regarding the film. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know the ending please check out ‘The Secret History of Vegas’ or the sneezing monkey video we’ve posted here on GonzoGeek. They’re both pretty funny.

Monitor wiped down? Good.

Let me rephrase my opening remarks. I hated parts of Watchmen.

Which is kind of a bummer, because I wanted to love this book, not just like it. I have enough books on the shelf that I like. I wanted this to be a great book. A book worthy of all the praise heaped upon it, the greatest graphic novel of all time. Sadly, I was let down.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it. I did. I just didn’t love it.

Here’s why:

Weak characterizations of Nite Owl, Silk Spectre and Ozymandias.

‘Wait,’ you’re saying, ‘weak characterization? But Ozymandias is the bad guy. And Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are both big parts of the story. You’re wrong.’

No I’m not. Sorry to burst a bubble, but being a plot device isn’t a characterization. Yes, Ozzy is the villain (sort of) of the piece, but we don’t ever get to know him as a fully realized person. He’s smart and he’s going to save the world. Guess what, so was Hugo Drax from Moonraker. Remember him? Save the pretty people and to hell with everyone else. No? Not surprising, Moonraker wasn’t very good, but that’s beside the point. Ozymandias is no Drax. No, he reminds me of another Bond villain, Auric Goldfinger. When he’s monologing about the fate of mankind and his grand plan to save us from ourselves, I’m thinking ‘No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.’ That’s not a mover and a shaker, that’s a simple, two-bit megalomaniac. Seriously, if I didn’t keep hearing the theme to Goldfinger every time Ozzy was on page, I’d be pushing for a new bad guy outright. Someone with some razzle-dazzle.

As weak as Ozzy is, at least he’s not as annoying as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. Those two are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Watchmen. They move the plot along here and there, but they could just as easily have been dogs or singing mice. Actually, singing mice would have been kind of fun. For as little as those two added to the plot, they had way too much face time. Worse, Moore seemed to trot them out whenever there was a slow spot in the narrative. Hmm, the action is a little slow, let’s watch Nite Owl try and score Spectre on the rebound. Yaaaaawn. Who cares. So Nite Owl’s impotent out of costume, powerless in the face of…what? Modern life? Idle wealth? Dry ornithology? He’s not exactly built up to be a new take on anything as far as literature goes. There are lots of powerful men with issues in books. Nite Owl isn’t one of them. And Silk Spectre, other than being the Comedian’s love child and Manhattan’s punch, she’s…um…she’s…

Exactly. E-mail me your answers when you figure it out.

Most, if not all, of the supplemental material.

Watchmen is, at times, one fat bastard of a book – lazy and self-indulgent. No more so than when it presents us with all the book excerpts and personality profiles and marketing memos at the end of every chapter (issue). I didn’t find any of that material to be particularly enlightening. Reading it, I felt like I was watching a cartoon where Bugs Bunny looks at the camera and holds up a sign saying ‘Screw-Ball’. It simply reinforced things I already knew or suspected, or added information I didn’t need. Already, I’ve been told by fans of the book that I’m missing the larger point, that these extras makes the world Watchmen exists ‘more real’, but they’re full of shit. The grim and gritty world that Moore and Gibbons created on the illustrated page was world enough. Well crafted, believable within its context, the perfect setting for the story they were telling. Why they fucked it up with all the extra material is beyond me. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m not an ‘expanded universe’ kind of guy. I never finished The Hobbit because I got tired of the bullshit history of Middle Earth. Lost was easier to understand before ABC tried to explain it to me on the web. And Star Wars rocked so much harder before 1999. These were the thoughts bouncing through my head as I slogged through ‘Under the Hood’ and ‘Nite Owl’s Book Report’ or whatever it was called. They gave the book an illusion of depth, but not real depth. They were filler, literary Bondo. I read the book twice before writing this review, once reading everything, and again reading only the picture pages. Guess what, the second time through was better than the first. Not because I knew what was going on, but because I didn’t feel like I’d been taken for a ride. The story IS better without the extras and someone at DC should have told that to Moore.

– A rather obvious plot swerve.

A good detective novel keeps the reader guessing right up to the end. You start with a body, filter through the suspects and end up with your murderer, usually part of the domestic staff and almost never Mr. MacGuffin, the skulky guy next door with an unhealthy interest in taxidermy. There’s no guesswork in Watchmen. The major plot twist in the book, Ozzy’s ‘villiany’, is easily figured out by the end of the third chapter. How? Because it was obvious.

Clue 1 – At the Minutemen Redux mixer, Ozymandias stares at the map the Comedian has set fire to and the word balloon over his head says ‘Somebody has to save the world.’

Clue 2 – Ozzy’s assistant is killed in a failed attempt on his life and the assailant dies in the attempt, with Ozzy’s fingers in his mouth. How convienent.

Clue 3 – In a story filled with ‘mundane’ language and names, words like Gordian Knot and Promethean jump off the page. That they should both occur while Nite Owl (yawn) is having new locks installed following Rorshach’s visit regarding a ‘mask killer’…hmmmm. Mask killer – his potential victim – Gordian knot – Promethean – Ozymandias. If you missed this, then you’re in desperate need of a mystery reader primer. Those, my friends, are huge, friggin’ clues. Now, without Google, someone reading Watchmen in 1986 would need to hit the library to do the research to fit these pieces altogether, but you can do it all in another tab today. And while you’re looking these things up, please make sure you read the Shelley poem ‘Ozymandias’. I think that’s an instance of what they call ‘foreshadowing’.

In the same vein, Silk Spectre’s paternity wasn’t exactly out of the blue either. Too much was made of the Comedian’s amorality and the sexual assault on the original Silk Spectre in the early half of the book. It rang false. Forced. Soap operatic. Maybe there was an evil twin in there somewhere. Of course, it doesn’t help that Silky 1 tells Silky 2 that ‘things change’ right before the Comedian’s funeral in chapter two.  HELLO!!  CLUE!!!  Check the mystery primer again.  When Moore got to the big reveal, where Silk Spectre figures out who her father is, my eyes started to roll. Memory flashbacks. Juxtapositioning. Haven’t I seen this somewhere? Yes, on Lifetime. They’re always running movies about fucked up hot chicks. Maybe Silk’s daddy issues will be the focus of the upcoming film.

– The ending.

God, I hated the ending. Not the final exchange between Ozzy and Manhattan. That I loved. In fact, that’s how the book should have ended with Ozzy staring at the globe, contemplating Manhattan’s final words, realizing that maybe he just fucked up. Brilliant. Fade to black. The end. Book it Dano.

No, what I hated was the stupid space-alien, psychic bomb ending. A bunch of scientists, artists and a hack writer are taken to an island and told they’re making a movie while they’re really creating a monsterous octo-squid from the brain of a psychic to kill a bunch of people so the rest of civilization can be scared into world peace. And that’s not a Bond movie? Would you believe Get Smart? How about a couple of sixth graders tweeking on pixie sticks? Here’s an idea: trot out Nite Owl and Silk Spectre and let them bore three million people to death. Wait, that scene is in the book already, immediately following, and sucking the life out of, the Ozymandias/Manhattan scene.

Seriously though, for eleven chapters Watchmen did a fantastic job of making us believe in superheroes as regular Joes living in the ‘real’ world. You know, all that heady ‘deconstruction’ stuff the fancy-pants critics talk about, the stripping away of the superhero mythology. Then, on the verge of stabbing hokey comic book conventions right through the heart with a killer climax, it resorts to a bogus ending that seems like it was ripped from, well, a comic book. I think that might be irony. I know that it sucks.

– And finally, there is the cult of Watchmen.

That’s right Wizard magazine, I’m looking at you. You, and every comic-shop fanboy that has berated me for not reading Watchmen these past 20 years, as if my fan-cred was somehow at stake. I didn’t read it. So what? If it makes you feel any better, let me tell you why. I didn’t read it when it came out because I didn’t like how it looked. At the time, I was a bigger fan of comic art than I was of comic writing, (which means I’m one of the people responsible for the eventual founding of Image comics). I opened the book, saw a fairly formal, fairly static presentation and said ‘pass’. It looked dull. Even today, while I understand what they were trying to accomplish, I’m still not a fan of the book’s look. It is very stiff and prone to slow spots. There are parts of the story that would have been much better served with a splash page or two. But that might just be me.

Anyway, now that I’ve read it, I can honestly say that this book has been way overhyped.

Yes it is a good book, and yes it did some things in mainstream comics that hadn’t been done before, but really, one of the best novels written since 1923 according to Time Magazine? No way.

No. Fucking. Way.

Watchmen, at its core, is a semi-pretentious crime novel with dialog, characters and plots twists lifted right out of a Mickey Spillane pot boiler. I’ve read those kinds of books, a lot of them, and I’m here to tell you, Watchmen is one. That’s not necessarily a knock on the book. I like those books. There have been a lot of very good books that just happened to be crime/detective novels. Watchmen happens to be a good book that happens to be a crime novel that happens to be a comic

‘But it’s not just a crime novel. You’re missing the subtext,’ I’ve been told (I have the e-mail around here somewhere). No, I’m not. If there’s one thing Watchmen is not, it’s subtle. The connections that become apparent upon multiple readings…well, duh. When you’ve solved the crime, the clues become apparent. And even if there were a lot of subtext, there’s plenty of room for it within the construct of a crime novel. The best of the genre have less to do with solving a crime than they do with human nature. Is the book really about the murder of the Comedian? No, it’s about what drives Rorschach, Manhattan, Ozzymandias, and the rest of the characters.

Back in the 40’s, Raymond Chandler wrote an essay called ‘The Simple Art of Murder.’ It’s an interesting read, especially if you’re convinced I’m dead wrong about the whole crime novel thing. With the exception of Dr. Manhattan/God’s midlife crisis (bored at work, stuck in a dead end relationship, so he gets a new place on Mars and probably a sportscar) most everything else fits neatly within the parameters outlined by Chandler. Here’s the excerpt that jumped out at me.

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The story is the man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.

How is that not Rorschach? With the exception of the post-modern, Victorian upbringing (the fatherless son of a whore), that is Rorschach. We love him because we’re supposed to, because no one roots for a shiftless cocksucker. That would be the Comedian.

It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in…tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. –  Ray Chandler, same article as above

Think about it. If you thought it was ‘funny’ that we killed each other for no really good reason, what would you think about a plan to kill millions to buy a world peace that can never be achieved? How do you wrap your head around that joke? Had he not been tossed out the window of his apartment, I think the Comedian would have jumped.

Still want to try and tell me I’m wrong?

Look, I’m not going down this path because I’m trying to piss in anyone’s Wheaties (although I do have it out for Wizard). I think putting superheroes into a crime novel is genius. It’s a great vehicle for examining the  superheroeness of superheroics. Why do they do what they do? What do they get out of it? It’s a fantastic idea. Flawed in execution, but fantastic nevertheless. You remove the typical heroic trappings (saving dangerprone damsels) and contemplate the hero as a guy with an agenda. The crime novel format works pretty good for figuring motives, outside maybe an  After School Special, and unless it involves  Karen Valentine having a baby, no one wants to read an After School Special.

Had I read Watchmen when it came out, I probably would have been have been blown away. But I was a different kind of reader then, too.  At that point in time my reading interests were mostly sci-fi and fantasy, with the occasional curriculum dictated classic. In all honesty, my taste in entertainment in the 80’s was crap. I still thought Gabe Kaplan’s The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh was a great movie. Thankfully, times change. As for the comic industry, well, let’s just say things like Contest of Champions, A-Team and Dazzler and be done with it. Watchmen was head and shoulders above that drivel.

Look, comics have always been viewed as literature’s soft-skulled, special needs little brother. No one takes them seriously and the industry does little to challenge the assumption. But Watchmen did. Watchmen tried to be something more. It was more. And it was good. It just wasn’t great. It had too many plot holes (How is it that Rorschach didn’t know the Comedian’s real identity before he was murdered, when several others apparently did?), too many slow spots (Nite Owl & Silk Spectre – Nuff said), and was flat out too long (by at least three issues) to be great.

Was it worth the wait? Yes.

Was it worth the hype? Nope.

4 thoughts on “Watchmen: The Late Review

Add yours

    1. Okay. But my review dealt more with the source material (the book), which I didn’t like all that much. In fact, since writing the review, I’ve come to dislike it even more.

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