book The Watchmen

reviewed by Andrea Cumbo

Published in Issue No. 143 ~ April, 2009

Here, I say, thank God for teaching. If I had not thought I could “teach” The Watchmen, I would have missed out on one of the most complex, provocative (and apparently popular) books of the late 20th century, simply because I didn’t think I “liked” graphic novels – “books with pictures” is what I called them in my head. The Watchmen proved that I can be wrong, even about what I like.

The Watchmen is a phenomenon that has prompted a film (which I rate mediocre to good, if you must know), a clothing line at Hot Topic, a series of highly ironic action figures, and all of the other “merch” that comes with a hit film. But I would argue the film has only brought the power of this book to our highly visual generation in a way that they can access. So many people now are reading the book, simply because the film exists.

While the basic plot of The Watchmen doesn’t glitter in summary (a bunch of masked vigilantes try to fight crime and bring American society back from the brink of the cultural upheaval and potential social degradation that can follow war), the concept itself, as executed by Moore and Gibbons is brilliant. The book parses the questions of humanity – what does it mean to be good? When does the end justify the means? How do people so damaged by life – i.e. Rorschach – turn their suffering into something good? When is silence required in the face of atrocity? When is it not? What does it take for humanity to survive? On this level, the book reminds me of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment, as it explores the darkness that often underlies the brilliance of the human mind. Raskolnikov becomes Adrian Veidt or Dr. Manhattan.

The thematic questions of the book are what make it beat with life, but the complexity of the story – with comic books within comics, three time periods (or none if you’re Dr. Manhattan) and multiple settings – makes it truly postmodern in its ability to deconstruct both time and space while still holding a single, primary storyline. At times, this complexity is daunting, and I found myself wanting to skip sections, but when I held fast and let the strings of story wash over me, I began to tie ideas together, as if the synapses in my brain could see connections that I could not perceive. In that, the reading experience of this book is a bit like Veidt’s multiple TV screens, a wash of experience holding everything together.

At moments I almost set the book down – particularly as the conclusion seemed to be lingering beyond pages and pages of white snow when Night Owl and Rorschach travel to Veidt’s Antarctic castle. While a case certainly can be made for the key nature of these slower scenes in the book, for a reader exploring her first graphic novel, these lulls were almost the death of the novel.

Yet, it is the characters that kept me returning to the story. I wanted to know how Dr. Manhattan would reconcile his belief that humanity is not worth saving with his love for a human being. I wanted to understand how Dan Dreiburg would resurrect his life into something that gave him joy. I wanted to know how Rorschach could be both so despicable and yet so sympathetic. I wanted to know how to do these things for myself. The Watchmen – as all good novels do – forced me into myself even as I delved deeper into the story. Sometimes it takes a parallel reality to make our own real. Ask Dr. Manhattan.

As an English professor, I don’t feel myself qualified to comment fully on the quality of the art in this book, but from what graphic artists tell me, these are masterful illustrations, and on some level, I can see that for myself. Repeated images and themes and visual structures hold the drawings together and tie them intimately to the storyline. Nothing is lost in this story simply because it has “pictures.”

The book is wise and thoughtful in ways that I never imagined a “comic book” could be. Moore and Gibbons have taken the superhero genre beyond the “bams” and “pows” of Batman and past Superman’s strength and speed, and in so doing, they have returned us to our humanity. For it is not in Dr. Manhattan’s god-like power that our salvation exists but in our own feeble hands.

I’m grateful The Watchmen came into mine.

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Andrea Cumbo's work has appeared in South Loop Review, Ginosko, Relief, Santa Monica Review and other publications. She currently lives in rural Maryland where she is an English professor and freelance writer. Her blog of book reviews, musings about teaching, and general nonsense can be found at