The superhero genre as we know it has existed since the beginning of the twentieth century, but nobody really fully explored what it meant to be one of these costumed vigilantes until Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons came along with Watchmen. Ripe with eighties paranoia involving the cold war, the looming threat of nuclear Armageddon and turmoil in the streets, Watchmen takes a startling and riveting look at the minds behind the masks, while a plot of murder, chases and intrigue spirals towards an Arctic finale.
While the philosophical insights and believable, well-rounded characters are fantastic, the book’s core is Dr. Manhattan. This isn’t to denigrate the other characters – The Comedian, Nite-Owl, Rorshach, Ozymandias, Silk Spectre and others (all referred to by both their professional and personal names throughout) – but Manhattan’s presence looms large over the events of Watchmen. It is this massive blue presence that allows for some interesting questions about ethics, morality and the nature of the self. If there is a God, why would he help us? What is the purpose of our existence? Are we just less successful, more pollutant bacteria? That these questions can be asked most effectively via a comic speaks volumes about the quality of art that is on offer.
The film version of Watchmen presents the events of the book as a plot that is to be followed, and as a traditional superhero film with a few deeper elements. The book is an incredibly dense and original piece of work, employing complex story-telling techniques to probe the inner-most reaches of the human soul, and in that respect it is an absolute success. It’s truly seminal and, with a prequel series in the pipeline, now is the time to savour it before it is spoiled forever.
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