Thursday, March 12, 2009

Revisited - WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, was published by DC Comics as a 12-issue series in 1986 and 1987. I previously reviewed it here, but the nature of the work is such that further readings lead to further discoveries and insights.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Watchmen is the astonishing level of detail in both the story and the art. Each time I read it (this is the fourth or fifth time), I find something new, in the visuals and in the characters. The plot of the book is fine, but this attention to detail is what makes Watchmen so incredibly immersive. Moore packs forty years of alternate-Earth history into twelve issues, and the reader never feels that any part of it has been rushed through or glossed over.

The transitions between scenes are masterfully done. There is, it seems, practically no limit to the parallels the authors have drawn between one character and another, one event and another, the Watchmen world and the Tales of the Black Freighter world. Recurring visuals abound. Also notable is the use of the fixed shot. The vast majority of Watchmen’s pages are divided into nine panels, which allowed Moore more control over the timing of his scenes. Focusing for several panels on one subject in the foreground while the action takes place in the background allows the authors to emphasize certain images while keeping the story moving.

Related to this is the use of symmetry, from the use of the stained smiley face on the first page and the last of the entire work to the vertical zoom-outs on the first and last pages of Issue 1 to the way Issue 5’s panels are symmetrical. The reader doesn’t consciously notice this the first time, or the second, or even the third, but from the beginning it helps to imbue Watchmen with its inimitable style.

After repeated readings, one begins to pick up on some of the little issues of the work (to call them errors is to invite the authors to beg off with the old “it’s a parallel world” excuse): the Astrodome is in New York; Dr. Long’s wife Gloria is drawn and sometimes written as though she were white, but is sometimes written and always colored as though she were black; In the Milton Glass text at the end of issue four, the non-word “refudiated” appears. Still, these are mostly trifling issues. One less trifling: Rorschach, arrested and awaiting trial, is sent, not to jail, but to Sing Sing, a maximum security prison for convicted felons, where he is initially allowed to mix with the prison population. While this does make for some excellent storytelling, it is an indefensible error. But all of this is easily forgivable because of the sheer quality of the work.

So is Watchmen the best comic of all time? Maybe. What does “best” mean, exactly? Certainly no comic has ever been better put together, or executed so flawlessly (Rorschach’s trip up the river notwithstanding).