Jan 13, 2009

Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons

Watchmen takes place in the 1980s in an alternative United States. The main difference between this reality and ours is the existence of superheroes, whose presence influenced historical events like the war in Vietnam, and are now influencing the Cold War. The world is on the verge of nuclear conflict, but the presence of the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan gives America an advantage over the Soviet Union. This advantage disappears, however, when something forces him to go into exile.

The main characters of Watchmen are The Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Rorschard and the Silk Spectre. The book opens with The Comedian being murdered. Rorschard, the only non-government sponsored superhero still active after public discontent caused them to be outlawed, suspects that someone is out to get them all. Subsequent events suggest not only that he might be right, but also that there might be more to the whole thing than one could have imagined.

There’s so much I want to say about this book. Let me begin with the characters: all of these heroes are extremely ambiguous characters. As the story advances, we get more background information about all of them, information that allows us to form a detailed psychological portrait. And yet never for a moment do we feel that we have them all figured out. The characterization is too rich and complex to allow that.

Another interesting thing is that these characters have very different ways of looking at the world, and so we get to experience the reality they live in from several different points of view. I think this reinforces what is for me one of the main themes of the book: that reality is often ambiguous, that in real life things are never easy to categorize.

These characters are fascinating, but they’re not exactly likeable. But they also aren’t easy to dismiss as villains under the guise of heroes. They are complex, they each have their motivations, they are human. They are human beings with a lot of power and responsibility – perhaps more power than one person should ever have.

Power is another important theme, as are justice, revenge, fear, war, and the concept of “necessary evil”. Watchmen poses a lot of questions for which there are no easy answers. Therefore, it doesn’t attempt to answer them easily. Perhaps it could be said that the characters each have their own answers, but the book as a whole doesn’t advocate any one stance. And that’s s big part of what makes it so interesting. Apologies if I sound horribly vague here. It’s just that I want to go on and on about this book, but I don’t want to give away the whole plot.

As it’s often pointed out, another thing Watchmen is about is the superhero genre itself. In a world where superheroes are real, comics about them aren’t all that popular. Instead, pirate stories are big. The main plot is alternated with a story called “Tales of the Black Freighter”, from a comic one of the characters is reading. It’s interesting to realize, as you read on, how this story parallels the main plot.

I was particularly interested in the way the story questions the concept of a “hero” – it addresses not only its necessity or its flaws, but also everything that makes it interesting and appealing and be such a big part of our imaginations. In this way, it had some parallels with Perry Moore’s Hero, and like I said the other day reading them side by side was really interesting. Actually, the stories have some similarities too. I don’t mean this negatively, but having finished Hero first made me guess something about Watchmen that might have surprised me otherwise.

This is definitely a book I want to read again. I bet I’ll discover new things in it every time I pick it up. One last thing: I so love the quotations at the end of the each chapter, and the fact that the chapters were named after the quotations. The sources range from Bob Dylan and John Cale to Nietzsche or William Blake to The Bible.

Other opinions:
books i done read
Books & Other Thoughts
Stainless Steel Droppings
Bold Blue Adventure
Everyday Reads
Sophisticated Dorkiness
where troubles melt like lemon drops
Stella Matutina
Trish's Reading Nook
Fyrefly's Book Blog
Musings of a Bookish Kitty
You Can Never Have Too Many Books

Libri Touches

(Let me know if I missed yours.)

Also, here’s a great link I found via Kim. Next time I read it I want to keep these annotations in mind.


  1. Sounds like a good one to add to my list of "alternate realities" books to read!

  2. I admit to being curious about this book since I heard about it through the movie. Usually I'm not too fond of books like this but it sounds so interesting!

  3. I'm sure I'm the only person who previously had no clue about this book, but wow, I really want to get my hands on it now!

  4. My brother got this for Christmas, so I am likely to borrow it from him now.

  5. Terri B: I think this will definitely appeal to fans of alternative reality/history stories.

    Ladytink: Do give it a try...I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

    Debi: I am completely sure you are not :P

    Lenore: I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it if you do

  6. I have to admit, I'm becoming more and more drawn to reading this book as I hear more and more about it in the blog world! But I have to admit, I've NEVER read a comic book before in my life! It's got me a little intimidated.

  7. Yep, this is up for my personal graphic novel experience this year.

  8. Great review, as always Nymeth! I'm so glad to hear you liked this book. It really left me thinking, especially the ending. Was what happened the right thing? Was it worth it? Or was the position that Rosarch takes, the right one? I still don't think I know. That's one of the things I definitely liked about Watchmen: there are no easy answers.

    So how do you feel about the movie? I had high hopes for it, but BiblioGuy has heard some worrying things (namely, that they fiddled with the ending).

  9. Never heard of this novel until your review. I've been reading more graphic novels since my discovery of Maus last year. Very intriguing review!

  10. I'm reading this now. I detoured to read the third Fables, but I should return to it shortly.

  11. This sounds interesting - nice review. I'm curious about the concept of necessary evil. Some of the books I've been reading have dealt with that, although not using superheroes.

  12. Nymeth says: Another interesting thing is that these characters have very different ways of looking at the world, and so we get to experience the reality they live in from several different points of view. I think this reinforces what is for me one of the main themes of the book: that reality is often ambiguous, that in real life things are never easy to categorize.

    I love books like this. Even when I'm reading, I take on different perspectives to better appreciate what the author has to offer. Great review!

  13. I'm glad to hear that the Read-A-Thon will continue! I spent quite a bit of time reading past posts from past read-a-thons and was really disappointed to think that the great event might not continue (although I never knew Dewey, I've done quite a bit of reading of her blog, as well, and understand how odd it will be to continue without her) and I'm also glad to know I wasn't the only one who felt like The Beedle Bard could have been a bit longer!

  14. I keep wishing I had signed up for some kind of graphic novel challenge so that someone could pester me to read them.

    I hear the movie that is coming out is supposed to be almost as good as the book!

    Wonderful review Nymeth!

  15. I can't wait to read this! I have it sitting on my TBR pile for the Graphic Novels Challenge. Sounds fantastic! Any plans to see the movie?

  16. I've been wanting to read this for a while and your review makes me want to read it even more! Problem is my library doesn't have it and I'm always putting off requesting it by ILL. I'm going to put an order in for it soon now, though!

  17. I bought Chad a really awesome copy of this for Christmas. I figured I might as well try the whole Graphic Novels genre, and I'd start with this one. Chad had been looking at it, as I guess I killed 2 birds with 1 stone!!

    Besides, with the movie coming out, I like to be prepared!

  18. It's funny, I am also reading this right now. Thanks for not giving anything away in your review. Although I have to say there is a big spoiler at the end of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for The Watchmen. I guess you're supposed to read The Watchmen fist.

  19. I really need to get off my duff and read this, huh? Well, my friend who owns this book is the same friend who's been pestering me to take Absolute Sandman V. 2 back to the library so he can check it out, so I'm sure we can work out some kind of agreement. :)

  20. I've been meaning to read this for so long - want to read it before the movie comes out. Your review has made me want to read it so much more, so hopefully that'll give me the motivation to get to the library for it.

  21. Chelsea: You're tempting me to make it my mission to make you read a comic :P No reason to be intimidated! There are comics out there for every taste. About the Read-a-thon, it really will be odd. But April is a long way away, and I hope my mental block will disappear in the meantime.

    Care, can't wait to hear what you think!

    J.S. Peyton: You know, I am not at all surprised to hear the ending will be messed with. Somehow I didn't see Hollywood leaving it like that. There must be clear Bad Guys, and they must be Properly Punished. But hey, I hope I end up swallowing these words :P As for all those questions, they pretty much make my head want to explode (in a good way). I mean, I really hate the thought of something like that EVER being acceptable. But my sympathies weren't with Rorschach either. It's such a good book.

    Staci: I loved Maus! I hope you enjoy this one too.

    Kailana: A good reason to detour :P

    Charley: It's something I have trouble wrapping my mind against. Something happens in the book, and every bit of me screams against the idea of it ever being considered necessary. And yet in the story...well, I really can't say more. Read it :P

    Alice: I love them too :)

    Saveophelia: There is a graphic novels challenge running again this year, so you could still join :P I'm a bit sceptical about the movie, but we'll see! I'd love to be proven wrong.

    Chris: I'll see it, but probably not in the theatre, mainly because I almost always wait for the DVD. The last time I went to the theatre was for The Dark Knight :P Anyway, I really look forward to hearing your thoughts on this one.

    Nicola: I hope you manage to get it easily!

    Stephanie: I'm glad to hear Chad's been enjoying it, and I hope you do too!

    Shannon: You're right, there is! You know, I read that last summer, but I had completely forgotten about it. I guess having a bad memory is good sometimes :P

    Fyrefly: Yep, you do :P

    Court, I hope you enjoy it! And I think you will.

  22. I still have the copy I borrowed from a friend but set it aside for just the right time. I'm very intrigued by the story and also the upcoming movie. It looks incredible.

  23. Great review - I felt exactly the way you did! It's a very thoughtful, thought-provoking book, and thanks for including that cool link at the end.

  24. I've been recommended this book a few times, I must really read it this year for the graphic novel challenge

  25. Its not something I would usually pick up, but it does sound interesting, great review ;)

  26. Iliana: I really thought it was incredible. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it.

    Darla, you're welcome! I wish I had found the link sooner, but it will be so useful for a re-read.

    Katrina, I hope you enjoy it!

    Naida: Don't be intimidated by it or anything. It's really a hard book to put down.

    Valentina: Yes.you.must :P

  27. I definitely need to read this soon! Thank you for the great review, Nymeth.

  28. A wonderful review, Nymeth. I'm already planning to read this again in preparation for the movie in March, but if I hadn't been your review would have made me want to(if that makes sense?)

  29. Great review of a book that is difficult to review! I just about gave up, because it is a complex book and each person could take away a different perspective from it. I'm interested in the upcoming movie, although I imagine it won't be the same.

  30. Well said! Finally got my review up! I didn't find it an easy read, but did enjoy it.



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