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Review 08: Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

What with the movie on its way, I thought it’d be time to go through the book again. And, as always, it was a great pleasure to read.

This is a graphic novel that has an immense impact on comics history. It’s considered to be one of the most important works in the genre in, well, ever. Read any analysis of Watchmen and you’ll read that it revolutionized comics. It changed everything, they say.

They’re right.

Before I get to the actual story – and it’s a formidable story – I want to address the immense technical achievement that is evident in this book. Look at any panel, any page and you can spend a long time just admiring the artistry that has emerged from the Moore-Gibbons partnership. The words and the images fit together like the finest puzzle pieces, each one reinforcing and supporting the others. There are no unnecessary words, and there are no unnecessary pictures.

Goddamn it’s good. It’s a fantastic piece of work.

Just as much as the technical aspects of the book are a marvel, so is the story. It was written in – and set in – the mid-80s. It took the core genre of the comics industry, superheroes, and bent them to reality’s will. These were not the iconic, ageless figures of Batman and Superman, people whose hearts and intentions were pure and who never aged. The superheroes – or “costumed adventurers,” more appropriately – were very, very human. Not only did they age, but they made mistakes. They lied, they failed, they gave up. They were, with one notable exception, human, and their reasons for doing what they did were also very human.

It’s tempting to say, “These characters are us,” because they’re not, but they’re still a lot closer to us than traditional superheroes are. And this was especially true in the mid-80s. The Darkening of comics hadn’t begun yet, and it was probably Watchmen that kicked it off. Suddenly, after decades of two-dimensional storytelling and Manichean moral codes, the idea of heroes with ethical failings, personality problems and a faulty moral compass flooded the market. Unfortunately, they were inferior copies of an exceptional original.

Anyway, the story. The world in 1985 is a different place. The rise of the costumed adventurer had a big impact on the social fabric of the United States, and the Cold War has reached levels of tension that nearly break the world in two. America owns a superweapon in the person of Jonathan Osterman, also known as the nearly godlike Doctor Manhattan, but even he can’t stop the political super-powers from the intractable mess they have created. Everyone can feel it, the great burning and the end of the world. Everyone knows it’s coming.

And then someone kills The Comedian.

The death of this adventurer-turned-mercenary sets off a chain reaction that leads to the discovery of a horrific plan to save the world. People who believe themselves to be heroes have to decide what it means to do good when there are no good choices left to make.

It starts off as a murder mystery with hints of conspiracy and ends with a bang, as well as a deep moral quandary – do the ends justify the means, and if so, how far can we take that argument?

There are points to criticize the book, if you want to. One that my friend Joe mentioned is that, for all that the main characters are supposed to be heroes, they’re utterly un-heroic. They’re the antithesis of what a comic-book hero is supposed to be: morally sure and above reproach. Any mistakes that they make, even the ones that result in tragic consequences, should make them more heroic in the end. That’s what makes characters like Spider-Man and Superman such a pleasure to read. We know that, even if they screw up, they’ll ultimately do the right thing.

The same can’t be said for the people in this book. Rorschach is a homicidal existentialist, Ozymandias is a megalomaniac, Doctor Manhattan is a detached nihilist, sort of, and Nite Owl is a pudgy guy in an owl costume. These people are not, by and large, people that you can cheer for. They’re not people you can look up to, mainly because they’re just like us. They’re flawed, very deeply flawed, and we expect our heroes to be better than that.

So, it is possible that you will dislike each and every character in the book, and I can’t blame you for that. Still, it’s worth your time to read, even if it’s just to admire the technical ability of Moore and Gibbons. As for the movie, I can only pray that they do it right. I have a high tolerance for adaptation – and I know there’s no way the entire comic can be fit into a movie – so I will give the filmmakers some leeway. But I pray that they do it right….

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“Somebody has to do it, don’t you see? Somebody has to save the world…”
– Captain Metropolis, Watchmen
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Watchmen at Wikipedia
Watchmen at Wikiquote
Watchmen annotations
Watchmen movie website
Watchmen at Amazon.com

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Review 04: Superman: Red Son



Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong

Every culture has its icons. Characters or figures that are recognizable by anybody who lives there, figures that are almost impossible not to know. And America is very good at producing those icons and spreading them worldwide. I remember reading somewhere – I don’t remember where at the moment – that the United States’ chief export is dreams, and I think there’s definitely something to that.

Of all the dreams to emerge from the American subconscious over the last century, Superman is one of the most enduring. Show that “S” shield to almost anyone on the planet and they’ll probably know what it is. For most of his lifetime, he has stood for Truth, Justice and the American Way, with the third element to that tag line slowly vanishing as writers with a more global perspective take over the character.

Regardless of his jingoistic past, Superman still remains a popular American figure. He represents what we would like to be, as a country. Powerful and just, upright and honest, but at the same time kind and generous and, at heart, good. Superman has the power to control the world, but he doesn’t – he chooses not to – and we like to believe that it was his small-town, American upbringing that instilled such humility in him.

This book examines how things might have gone.

In the late ’80s, DC Comics introduced their “Elseworlds” imprint, with a pretty simple mandate: take canon DC characters and place them in new situations or environments. This way you could see how Batman might have turned out in an America that had never gained its independence, or what would have happened to the JLA without Superman, or if The Flash had taken the bullet meant for JFK. It opened creative doors, allowing writers to tell new stories about familiar characters without disrupting the regular continuity of the DC Comics line.

Of these, Superman: Red Son is one of the best. Mark Millar poses a simple question with a very complex answer: What if young Kal-L’s rocket had landed in Soviet Ukraine instead of Kansas?

What emerges is a fascinating tale of a Superman brought up under Stalinist philosophy. Still the good man that we know him to be, Superman nonetheless chooses a very different means of interacting with the world. We see from the first few pages that the man cannot stand still – he is constantly in motion trying to save people, not just in the Soviet Union, but anywhere in the world. It is his responsibility, he believes, to keep people safe, much in the manner of Soviet philosophy where the government controls nearly every aspect of its citizens’ lives.

Taken in by Stalin, Superman eventually rises to lead the Soviet Union to nearly world-wide dominance. Under his rule there are no accidents, no wars and no conflicts. Crime is nearly non-existent, and those who do not mesh well in this well ordered world are mentally reprogrammed until they do. There are dissidents, of course, like the mysterious Batman, a singular force of chaos in Superman’s perfectly ordered world, but in the end, even he falls. The only true challenge to Superman’s worldwide reign is the brilliant American scientist Lex Luthor, who has devoted his life to freeing mankind from alien tyranny.

It’s a brilliant take on the myth, with a lot of very familiar characters worked in. The art is gorgeous, with a style and a color palette that evokes thoughts of Soviet-era propaganda posters, yet never fails to be dynamic and fascinating.

More important, however, is the message of the story. The idea that comics can have a message is something that a lot of people seem to ignore, fueling the idea that comics are just for kids. The message in Red Son is very important and very, very timely.

The story was published in 2003, a time when America was in great pain. We had been badly hurt and wanted to set things right. By doing so, however, we caused far more damage to the world than we had ourselves endured. By trying to fix other people’s problems, we created even more, and the harder we pushed, the more the world pushed back. And this was not a new trend – one of the negative labels often affixed to the United States is that of “world policeman.” We have a long, long habit of trying to help everyone, whether that is the right thing to do or not.

In that vein, the Superman of Red Son, despite being a Soviet, is a reflection of ourselves. He is a man of immense power, who decides to help everybody. His intentions are good, but good intentions are not always rewarded with good results. His world is orderly, yes – crime and violence are nearly unheard-of – but it comes at the price of individual freedom. People are no longer in control of their own destinies with Superman in charge, and while that may be a safe life, it is not one that I would like to live.

The political message of this book is subtle, but it’s there. More interestingly, it’s a message that can be enjoyed by a broad spectrum of political views. If you’re a liberal, then it’s taking a stance against imperialism, against the imposition of one country’s values and politics over others’, all in the name of making the world a better place. If you’re a conservative, it’s a call for individual liberty. A government that provides everything for its people is just another form of oppression – without the freedom to make their own choices, for good or for ill, people are not truly free.

In the end it’s a complex tale, with no real good guys and no real bad guys. Except for Brainiac, who will probably never be anything but a bad guy. It’s a story about the choices we make, both as citizens and as societies, and the understanding that we must have the freedom to make those choices. They may sometimes be the wrong ones, but making mistakes is part of the package. In the end, there can be no Superman to save us. We must save ourselves.

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“I care about everybody.
– Superman, Superman: Red Son
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DC Comics.com
Mark Millar on Wikipedia
Superman: Red Son on Wikipedia
Superman: Red Son on Amazon.com
Soviet Posters: Revolution by Design

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Filed under Batman, comic books, Dave Johnson, DC Comics, Elseworlds, ethics, fantasy, graphic novel, Mark Millar, morality, peace, super-heroes, Superman, totalitarianism, USSR