My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When one sees lists of must-read books, if there is a graphic novel on the list, it’s probably this one. Watchmen represents both the graphic novel and the super-hero tale at their best. It forgoes the unrealistic and hackneyed dialogue and internal monologue that usually plague this genre. While the “tough” style (see: Tough Sweet Stuffy by Walker Gibson)is used liberally–particularly for the voice of Rorschach–it has a natural ring to it.
At its heart, Watchmen is a morality tale that pits absolutist morality against the utilitarian approach. Rorschach (a.k.a. Walter Kovacs) represents the absolutist extreme. For Rorschach, the lesser of two evils is nothing more than an evil to be punished. On the other hand, Ozymandias (a.k.a. Adrian Veidt) represents the utilitarian view that to save the many one may have to sacrifice the few. The rest of the cast is in between, showing varying degrees of comfort with utilitarianism, but none willing to accept the absolutist extreme.
While my preceding paragraph may have made this sound dreadfully boring, in fact it’s anything but. The morality tale plays out inside a well-developed mystery plot. It begins with an inciting incident best described by a quote from Rorschach’s journal, “Tonight, a comedian died in New York.” That comedian was “The Comedian” one of the book’s cast of costumed heroes. As other heroes begin to be eliminated–not all by death, some by imprisonment or apparently self-imposed exile–the intrigue builds. Events pull individuals–such as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre–back into the game after many years out.
For those who have seen the movie, I will say that it follows the book far more than do most film adaptations. The movie borrows many of the exact words of dialogue. It even borrows a lot of the imagery almost exactly (e.g. the Comedian flying out the window enveloped by glass shards.) However, if you’re wondering whether it’s still worth reading, I’ll say two things. First, the book does cover a lot more detail than the movie. Besides the usual comic book style graphic panels, there are excerpts from fictitious novels, correspondence, magazine interviews, and another graphic novels that support the story line. Second, the biggest deviation between the book and the film is in the details of the devious plan that is revealed at the book’s end. In other words, there are a few surprises.
I would agree with the widespread notion that if you only read one graphic novel, make it this one.