Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, (1986/2008) Titan / DC Comics, £12.99 / US$19.99, pbk, 436 pp, ISBN 978-1-401-22266-6
What with The Watchman film shortly due out (2009), Titan in the UK and DC in the US have re-released the 1986 graphic novel classic Watchmen from two grand masters of comics, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Alan Moore is, of course well known for the SFnal steampunk The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the Orwellian V for Vendetta, both of which are masterpieces. Meanwhile artist Dave Gibbons has worked a range of strips including Batman. Both spent time at the legendary Brit comic 2000AD back in its IPC days in the late 1970s and early 1980s: so maybe this was where the roots of their partnership lie(?).
Scenario - What if there really were superheroes in the real world? How would we cope? How would they cope? How could they reconcile their having abilities beyond that of the average person and yet seemingly unable to deal with the big threats (such as world war) that could potentially devastate average lives? This then is the premise underpinning the story.
The super-hero characters themselves are assembled from existing (or formerly existing) comic heroes. Some of these are recognisable to average fans who dip into comics: 'The Nite Owl'' could well be 'The Batman', 'The Screaming Skull' (for which there is just a passing reference might be 'The Phantom'. Other of the characters are reflections of comics heroes that only die-hard comic buffs will know of. 'Rorschach' who wears a black and white hood with the pattern of a Rorschach test sees everything only in black and white, and he virtually psychopathically divides people up into good and bad: there is no grey. This character might well be 'Mr. A' invented by Spiderman and Dr Strange co-creator Steve Ditko. 'The Comedian' could be a hybrid of Nick Fury and a darkly ironic Captain America: there's a joke in there somewhere. Anyway, it is not for me to unpick all the characters for you, you get the idea.
As for the plot itself. Following the government outlawing super-heroes practising their trade. Someone murders the Comedian. This is a feat in itself and so causes Rorschach, who has never accepted governmentally forced-retirement, to do some investigating. This does not go down well and he is framed. Meanwhile internationally tensions are rising between the east and west. It transpires that someone might be out to kill off, or at least silence, members of a group of super-heroes formerly known as The Crime Busters. Why? More importantly who?
As a graphic novel The Watchmen is as rich and complex as any written novel. There is more than one storyline with the back-story being in-filled with flashbacks while the main finding out about the Comedian's murder story line is going on. Then there is the line of on-going comment from a popular newspaper on one-hand and a grassroots semi-prozine on the other. There is even a comic (Tales form the Black Freighter) being read by a comics fan by a street magazine seller's kiosk, and so we have literally a comic within a comic. There are a few pages of text between chapters that are either articles from newspaper on events taking place within the main story lines, or official reports, or excerpts from Nite Owl's (Under the Hood) autobiography. One thing though you do need to remember: Watchmen came out in the 1980s and that was a time when we were all a bit worried about the World entering (albeit accidentally) into nuclear war. Today it is all too easy to forget that this really gave the graphic novel that extra dark edge. All of which helps ensure that Watchmen is no ordinary graphic novel and one that you really do need to read at least twice (preferably with a gap of a few months between). Not surprising then that Warner Brothers decided to turn it into a film and the publishers re-release Watchmen as a new edition.
Either way, whether or not you decide to go for the new edition or a classic edition reprint, you will be in for a treat. Indeed even if your SF diet does not usually include graphic novels I would in this instance advise you make an exception. Alan Moore is a brilliant writer and certainly two of his graphic novels would be in my personal all-time top ten with Watchmen being one (and
The 2008 edition
The first thing to note is that the cover of what is being called the 'International Edition TP' is not the same as that of many (but not all) of the previous editions that were almost iconic in themselves being a small slash drop of blood (or sauce) across the close up of an eye of a simple smiley face. This is a visual motif that recurs three or four times in the graphic novel including its opening and closing pages. Whether or not the splash of red is blood or sauce is briefly questioned early on. Fortunately it looks like in addition to the new edition with the new cover, there are currently reprints around of the old edition with the classic cover and for my money would personally seek those out: the new cover is neither iconic nor does it refer to a piece of visual whimsy within the graphic novel. However it is drawn by the artist Dave Gibbons and is brand new artwork.
The new edition also has seen some colour restored. To be quite frank this too is unnecessary. The original edition's colour did the job and the original printing on not very good paper meant that it felt like a pulp comic that, after all, is close to the heart of the graphic novel's subject matter. So again for my money the new edition is not worth it for this. In short the clear recommendation is for you to go for a reprint of the old edition. There are currently many about.
Poor old Alan Moore has had a bit of a bad time with some of his other graphic novels getting turned into film. The worst abomination was the simply dire and inexcusable treatment Hollywood gave to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol 1 (which in 2004 2000AD's editor rightly criticised). Conversely the best adaptation to date has been V for Vendetta (2006), and as the original graphic novel was itself fantastic it was not surprising it was nominated in 2007 for a Hugo Award in the Best Dramatic Presentation - Long Form category.
And so we come to the Watchmen film that, after a bit of a rocky start with Warner Brothers, is due out later this year (2009). Apparently it has a budget getting on for £100 million (US$1.8m). Of course this means nothing especially given the absolute hash Hollywood made of their so-called 'adaptation' of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol. 1 that also seemed to have a reasonable budget (even if a chunk of it might have gone on the cast). However I have seen an early, extended Watchmen trailer and I have to admit that if nothing else it does look good. I also understand that when the DVD comes out that the extras may include an animation based on Tales From The Black Freighter and documentary Under the Hood (the comic and Nite Owl autobiography respectively featured within the graphic novel; though the latter might be just the name they give to the 'Making of...' mini-feature - Let's hope not). If the film does end up being half as good as the advance hype then it could be really great. Yet Hollywood does not have a good track record with Moore or other Brit SF adaptations (witness the right turkies that were Thunderbirds and The Avengers). Still, we can but hope. Time will tell, though the news that its director, Zack Snyder, has changed some things and so even before the film is out we know that yet again Hollywood cannot be entirely faithful to the original.
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