Monday, 21 September 2009

'the art of being a hero'

by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

When I posted my review of Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicles a small discussion evolved about graphic novels. Most of the graphic work I have read has actually been non-fiction so after those comments I determined to have a crack at a comic. Which one to pick though? There are literally thousands to choose from and the rather strident views of the fans of the form tend not to have a consensus so even picking which of the classics to read wasn't as easy as you think. A weekend holed up in a cottage with a self-confessed comic nut was all that was required to convince me that Watchmen was the daddy. The front cover proudly proclaims it as one of Time magazine's 100 best novels (since 1923 - the year Time magazine was founded) and it's well worth shouting that as I'm sure there are plenty out there who might question whether there's a place for a comic amongst the greats of twentieth century literature. Have no doubt though that there is.

I had a singing teacher once who taught me the importance of acting the words contained in any song in exactly the same way as I would any text. In musicals he explained, the only reason why the actor goes from speaking into singing is because the pitch of emotion or energy has reached the point where simply saying it isn't enough. Why am I going on about singing? Well, because it seemed to me at several points during this book that the only reason it was in a graphic format was because that was the only one that could do the story justice. There are sections of written text at the end of each chapter consisting of memoirs, newspaper clippings, psychiatric reports etc but these written sections are there only to support what has been made graphic in the drawn panels. In a story which explores the clouded motivations behind those who would put on a costume in order to fight crime (as many traditional comic characters are) and which attempts to get to the heart of the American psyche it seems that a graphic format is the obvious choice. It also makes sense of the decision to use Dave Gibbons as the artist. I'll be honest and say that the look of the book was the main reason that I hadn't read this any sooner. It looks like a traditional comic rather than the much cooler, dark artwork of some of the more recent graphic titles. My friend assured me it would all make sense and again it seems the obvious choice given the set up of the story and the themes contained within.

Attempting a précis of a book with so complicated a structure could take up more space than you have patience for so I'll be brief. It is 1985 in an America a little different from the one we knew back then. Victory in the Vietnam war has helped Nixon to win the next election and then to pass legislation to allow him to serve a third term. The reason for that military victory and America's continued dominance of world power is the existence of the world's one and only superhero: Dr Manhattan ('The superman exists and he's American'). His genesis is one of the books highlights; an accident in a laboratory (of course) removes the 'intrinsic field' that holds Dr Jon Osterman together. Seeming to have disappeared it is an extraordinary moment when he reappears as the blue chap you can see on the cover above. Over a period of months he has learned to reassemble himself at the atomic level which means that he now has the ability to control and alter the atomic structure of anything, making him a potent weapon. What it also means is that he now views the world on an atomic level, removing some but not all of what made him human. It is a mark of the audacity of this book that the superman's struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with a woman should be so important to the story, and to the fate of the world when it comes to that.

The cover above shows some of the other 'superheroes'. Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt -the cleverest man in the world), Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk, the second incarnation after her mother Sally), Nite Owl (Daniel Dreiberg, again the second man to operate under this moniker), Rorschach (Walter Kovaks) and kneeling in front The Comedian (Edward Blake, whose murder begins the plot running). These heroes, born out of a period of unrest, have already been rejected by a disillusioned populace and outlawed by legislation when we join them in 1985. None of them ever had special powers, in fact their status as costumed heroes is the mask underneath which Moore finds the space to pursue themes like power, fate, politics, morality, honour, violence, sexual aggression and dysfunction, what it means to be human...you know, the biggies.

I mentioned a complicated structure and this is not only because of the time-shifting that happens as the plot unfolds but the brilliant way that Moore manages to weave the storyline from Tales of the Black Freighter, a comic that a boy reads at a news-stand, in amongst the main feature. The panel I've pictured above shows you some of that and another one below shows its development (click on the images for a clearer view). This isn't just clever because in this alternate history where caped crusaders exist, and therefore have lost their currency with comic readers, it is pirate tales that are the most popular. It isn't just clever because like a sub-plot in any novel it allows Moore to echo and enhance themes from the rest of the book (what he also does well is to run scenes together that provide ironic counterpoint to one another). It's really clever because, in a way that a written novel would struggle to emulate, it allows him to do all of that, at the same time, on the same page. When your eyes and brain are working that hard you begin to understand a bit more why this book deserves its place on that list.

There are so many more themes, images and ideas than I could begin to discuss satisfactorily here and any attempt to summarise further would end up being clumsy. I don't want to incite any of those strident voices against me! I feel certain that it is the kind of book that I am going to be glad to have on the shelf in the future, Moore himself has said that it is a book designed to be read four or five times so I expect it to reward further reading in exactly the same way as any classic novel would; revealing evermore exciting layers and details, telling me something new about what it is to be human.


saveophelia 21 September 2009 at 08:12  

I had such a hard time discussing this book when I read it because of the many themes brought up in the work.

Admittedly, it was also my first venture into comics and I wasn't expecting them to bring up such relevant topics in such a thought-provoking way.

William Rycroft 21 September 2009 at 08:56  

Even having been prepared for its stature I was surprised by how ambitious the book was. Have you gone on to read any other comics saveophelia?

bobblog 21 September 2009 at 16:29  

Great review. Yeah Watchmen is a multi layered masterpiece, with references and sharp winks to the foibles of popular culture.

If you liked watchmen then I suggest you delve into Neil Gaiman's Sandman series and read them all in one go. The last two volumes aren't really up to scratch with the previous 8 but it's a very rewarding read. (and investment)

William Rycroft 21 September 2009 at 19:57  

Thanks Robert and thank you for the recommendation. I may have lined myself up for future disappointment by starting with this one but I shall certainly read more graphic titles in the future. I'm working with someone at the moment who has never read any graphic non-fiction so we're going to have an exchange.

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