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Watchmen As Literature by Sara J. Van Ness

01/01/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Watchmen As Literature in the USA - or Buy Watchmen As Literature in the UK

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pub: McFarland. 211 page occasionally illustrated small enlarged softcover. Price; GBP 29.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7864-4475-5.

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The title, ‘Watchmen As Literature’, sort of gives away what this book is about. Interestingly, author Sara Van Ness gives some interesting observations about the famous graphic novel. With books such as this, it is the amount of reaction that I have, whether for or against, that determines the level of interest. As you will see from below, this book kept my interest which is always a good sign.

Van Ness’ comments on comicbook structure in chapter two is interesting and shows some unfamiliarity with the subject, mostly from not being brought up reading them but it does offer some insight. Something we take for granted is the style of word balloons. As regular comic readers, we’re used to the structure and pace. In the digital age, word balloons are drawn and texted by computer these days, often using fonts created by the original letterers. Everyone tends to under-estimate their importance in telling a story but their structure and placement adds as much texture to the colour as the art itself. You would soon spot it if it was bland or even obscuring vital parts of the scene. I remember reading stories in ‘Heavy Metal’ years ago that had typed word balloons that just felt odd to read.

As with all books of this nature, there are some unusual insights. It’s a shame really that Van Ness didn’t compare the final edition to the script notes that Alan Moore gave to Dave Gibbons who distilled it into art to show how much the latter contributed to the final product. Even reading the opening pages from the now out-of-print special edition and I’ve been told that the ‘Ultimate Watchmen’ carries the same information, it was obvious that Moore was hyping himself up to get Gibbons into the same mood as himself. Gibbons own commentary that he was often given too much information shows how much of a moulding and distilling process that goes on in making a comicbook story, even outside ‘Watchmen’. The collaborative process has rarely been under so much scrutiny than with this graphic novel.

In chapter four, Van Ness does question who is relating the story that it might possibly be Seymour from the New Frontiersman magazine bringing the various pieces together which brings the various extracts at the end of each story more into the picture. An interesting idea but as with any first person story, writers have to come to terms with who are they addressing in the narration and it might simply just be there. I know I had a problem with that and in the end, accepted that in the nature of a story, the reader doesn’t really care as long as the story is expressed in some way. With ‘Watchmen’, the story is seen from different perspectives throughout and often in first person, leaving it to the reader to get the whole picture which the characters themselves might not see. Which really destroys Van Ness’ theory is that Seymour only has the information from Rorschach’s Journal up to the point when he and Nite-Owl go to the Antarctic. There would hardly be an information beyond that proving that Ozymandias was behind everything. I did use to speculate as to what would be the repercussions if it had been discovered if Veidt was found out but with his whiter than white image and his involvement in repairing the world and the source, a right wing magazine, I doubt if few would believe it. The reason why Dreiberg and Juspeczyk were still wary, even in disguise, was because in their alternative identities they were still being hunted for breaking Rorschach out of prison. I doubt if Veidt would be after them. There are times when it’s too easy to read too much into anything. Moore’s playing with names like Seymour – see more – and editor Hector Godfrey – freedom holder – would be more like irony as I doubt if anyone would believe what they write about. Although it would be unfair to judge even comicbook characters by their appearances, Seymour does not look the sort of person who would fathom what has been going on, not if he’s so subservient to his editor boss.

The analysis of heroes dividing them into natural heroes who does what it right and a conventional hero who abides by society’s rules is an interesting observation which would be interesting to investigate with examples from DC and Marvel Universes at large to see if there is ever a middle ground between the two.

Some areas of these actions in the book I do find a little more odd. I’ve always seen Rorschach’s death as intentional on his part. He’s always been portrayed as capable of working things out and go for the best choice, even it if means his own death. I mean, he could hardly get back to America without Nite-Owl piloting the owlship and his death would ensure that his journal, at least in his eyes, would see publication and reveal all and essentially keep his no compromise attitude.

Van Ness is quick to point when other authors examining ‘Watchmen’ makes mistakes so far be it from me to point out that it wasn’t Ozymandias who realised he would be the smartest man on a cinder Earth but the Comedian at that Crimebuster meeting. To be fair, she does correct this error in the penultimate chapter when she goes to into depth with the plot elements. Shame she didn’t spot her earlier error.

Something I hadn’t noticed until Van Ness pointed it is Rorschach’s suit is the same way he was given when he left the Lillian Charlton Home For Problem Children that he grew into. But then, I just figured he probably picked a few up over his career and liked their style.

Van Ness equating the plot elements of ‘Watchmen’ to Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ has been done with a variety of stories, most famously with ‘Star Wars’. Considering his plot profile can fit so many stories doesn’t necessarily mean it was used as THE plot profile when creating a story. It just means Campbell recognised a structure from stories that had been written in prior to his 1949 book. What she does fail to recognise is the reason that Moore and Gibbons reference to ‘The Architects Of Fear’ has nothing to do with the presence of Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre but the fact that Veidt’s plan is actually based off the ‘Outer Limits’ story to have a greater menace that would remove the petty squabbles between nations.

This is also the first examination of the graphic novel to the film I’ve read in such books. In many respects, it is quite brief and Van Ness relies more on the commentary of critics than herself in this final chapter, although she admits in her ‘Closing Remarks’ that the overall subject isn’t closed yet. The main focus is on the impossibility of changing mediums and the significantly different ending but the emphasis is only on the two and a half hour film. She neglects the director’s cut which adds an extra hour of character detail and the semi-animated version which leaves the word balloons intact which pre-dated the live-action version. Considering that the critics’ problem with the film release often centred around not enough character emphasis, I’m surprised she spent no time with the longer version. When I bought the DVD last year, I stayed away from the film release version and stayed with the director’s cut. Something I hadn’t known until reading this book was that IMAX projectors have a limit of two and a half hour films so it’s unlikely that the director’s cut would ever show up at the cinema.

I’m not altogether sure about the comment that the original graphic novel was written by a geek for geeks is altogether fair or correct mostly because ‘Watchmen’ has been read by people who wouldn’t normally have read comicbooks in the first place. Are they geeks as well or just people looking for new experiences?

It is interesting that she noted that adults were taking children to see the film thinking it was just another super-hero film and misses the point that not everything has read the original graphic novel to realise that. Let’s hope that’s just an American mindset problem.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this review, the length of my comments is in proportion to the interest I took in this book which should speak for itself. This book does deserve a read. Whether you agree or disagree with Van Ness’ comments I can leave to your own discretion. If I have to be really critical, I wish she had expressed more of her own opinions as she drew the book to a close rather than rely on the opinions of others. After all, authors are entitled to say what they really think.

GF Willmetts

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