Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Watching the Watchmen...an Existential graphic novel

Watching the Watchmen...an Existential graphic novel

The graphic novel genre is still in most places perceived as being far from the realm of serious literature. In a way graphic novels such as More and Gibbons “Watchmen” have allowed people like myself who read serious literature but also grew up with the American Comic book to reach a compromise and acceptance of both. I have always believed that a graphic novel is a serious art form that is capable of dealing with ideas that are as challenging and illustrative of serious ideas as literature or as film.Watchman is a sequential art in a graphic book form. And covers autobiography, art, journalism and history its also of considerable length and it has to be read in order and not the way we might read a series of comic strips..

The story deals with the costumed heroes of our childhood. The sort of superhero I can remember from seeing at my Grandfathers knee. Moore and gibbons created a new set of Comic book Heroes based on the characters we know and at the same time allowing a rich and varied form of difference.
Nite Owl has many of Batman characteristics, including a fascination with gadgets and devices and almost a prototype Bat Cave. The Comedian, who is killed in the first chapter but whose story is told in the remembrances of other characters as the story unfolds. He is a sort of dark Captain America. Silk SpecterI and II are a mother and daughter from different generations of costumed heroes are more or less Wonder Women even down to the costumes.

Brilliant Ozymandius is a self made hero-brilliant, beautiful and strong a sort of perceived Neitzchian Superman. He has developed his powers in such way that he is now almost not human. He is roughly based on the DC Comics version of Marvel-man, an adapt ion of the earlier British Miracle-man.. Then we have Rorschach the Vigilante who preys on the fears of criminals but who operates almost completely outside the bounds of society that he is pledged to protect.. His name comes from the shifting shapes on the mask he wears. He is probably based on the Charlton hero the ”he Question” Finally there is Dr Manhattan who was damaged in a Nuclear accident he is a kind of mutation. He I is the only hero with superpowers and he is very loosely based on the traditional Superman of the films and comics .


Despite their descent form these superheroes we see their charterers in a unique way. They are darker and as troubled as we are, more human and dysfunctional both psychologically and sexually, they experience problems of intimacy and search for an existential meaning outside of their superhero selves. They are all at least middle aged and they are all flawed in some way as we all are. To make them more interesting these characters are place din a realistic world that resembles our own and yet is different in a number of ways.


The year of the watchman story is 1985. Richard Nixon is President and there was no Watergate. Nixon has changed the Constitution to allow himself to stay in power. Henry Kissinger is still Secretary of State and because of Dr Manhattan his powers tipped the Cold War into an American victory, largely because the Russians had nothing to challenge him with.
In 1977 in this alternative world world the Police and Criminal enforcement Agencies had grown frustrated with the costumed heroes interference in their work and lives and went on strike. This caused Congress to pass law against vigilantism. So most of these costumed heroes have been retired some eight years.


The Soviets and the Americans are in a massive arms race in this alternative world. The expensive arms race has led to a declining support for society's infrastructure, toads, buildings, transport and services are constantly being curt back. Each side s are stockpiling Nuclear war heads and the presence of Dr Manhattan has increased the tension and there is a great fear that the Russians might try a pre-emptive strike,


The main plot of the novel concerns the the consequences of the murder of the costumed hero the Comedian. The murder awakens in Rorschach the suspicion that someone is trying to kill off the heroes and the ides gains credence from other events, including a smear campaign against Dr Manhattan that drives him into exile.. it becomes clear that there is a conspiracy to eliminate the heroes and in particular Dr Manhattan They suspect that the Soviets are behind it and this in turn leads to a paranoia so frequent in such historical situations. This paranoia has effect both collectively on society and the individual psyches of the many players in the novel.
Most of the sub-plots in the novel are based around ordinary people going about their everyday lives experiencing the fear that a war is coming that will wipe out all human life on Earth.. The real virtue of the book is the detailed description of the lives of these minor characters are overshadowed by the events of the larger plot.
There is for example a graphic novel within the graphic novel.. it is called “Marooned” that serves a variety of functions within watchmen-allowing the news vendor and the boy who buys the graphic novel to comment on the whole situation of the plot. This parallel structure works throughout the novel. There are multiple plots, and they are skilfully interweaves drawing our attention to contrast and parallels in the main plot.

The design and art in the book tie the many strands together. One of the books unifying symbol;s is a smiley face, which appears in the cover of the first issue. It turns out to be a button the Comedian wore when he was thrown out of the high rise apartment window, and when the body is taken away , the button remains in a pool of blood just by a drain entrance. The button itself has one little drop of blood across the right eye and this visage interweaves throughout the rest of the book.
Another feature of the book is the intercalary material. Between each chapter is four pages of an essay or a collage of text material relating to the them and background of the chapter or developing the storyline as a whole. This material provides much of the texture for the book, that provides information that enriches and deepens the book itself. This material explores the motivation to become a superhero and explores them in detail. It looks at reason far beyond the need to create a just society and uses many ideas from the Jungian concept of the shadow to even more complex psychoanalytical defence mechanisms.


The book asks how far should we trust our guardians whether they are middle aged superheroes coping with mid life crises or our own government “protecting” us from external threats. It asks about inter state and asks much about the nature of globalisation and capitalism. We may also see within in questions about the nature of bullying and power over others.. The point is that a society can see itself as so invulnerable that it can do anything such as stockpile nuclear weapons and gloss over the reality of the true situation by choosing to do what it wants.

The book asks “Who watches the watchmen?” and provides no ultimate answers. They watch each other watch themselves, anf the rest of the world watches them and we as readers watch them too. The book reminds us that the whole issue of superhero comics asks questions about power and the way that power effects and changes us. The graphic novel it provides is a worthy existential classic and reminds us of Sartre claim that hell is other people.

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