Who’s Watching?

PART I: A little bit of WATCHMEN info…

First of all, for those of you, somehow, may be unfamiliar with what, exactly, WATCHMEN is: It’s a comic book. A twelve-issue “maxi-series” written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons that was published by DC comics from 1986-87. But it’s certainly more than that.

short box review article I will admit to being a proud supporter of the “but it’s only a comic book” school of thought. I think people get a bit too pretentious about comics sometimes. And, usually, these are people that ‘discovered’ comics in college or something, not people who rode their bikes to the newsstand or five-and-dime when they were kids to grab the latest issue of G.I.JOE or SECRET WARS or ATARI FORCE (don’t laugh. It was a great comic). USUALLY these are people who use the term “Graphic Novel” incorrectly which drives me utterly batty.

Such as the quote below:

“[WATCHMEN IS] A work of ruthless psychological realism, it’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium. It would be a masterpiece in any.”
–TIME, TIME MAGAZINE’s 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present

YES, it is “A work of ruthless psychological realism”. And it most certainly is “a landmark”. But it is NOT a “Graphic Novel”. It is a comic book.

“But, Mikey,” you say, “I bought WATCHMEN and it’s a big, fat, book with lots of pages. SURELY that is a Graphic Novel!”

No, it’s not. It’s a “collected edition” or a “trade paperback” if it is softcover. I know, I know, the term “Graphic Novel” has come to encompass collected editions as well, these days, but I’m anti-that and will remain anti-that until the day I die.

“OK, Mr. Smarty-Pants,” you say, “Then what IS a Graphic Novel?”

 Author/Artist Chris Ware on Graphic Novels vs. Comic Books

A “Graphic Novel” to me needs to meet three certain criteria (and, please, this is MY opinion. If you disagree with it, fine. You’re WRONG, but, fine):

  1. Is it more than 22 pages long? If NOT, it’s a comic book. If SO, it MAY be a Graphic Novel, but not necessarily (BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, for example, is 48 pages long, but it isn’t a “graphic novel”. It’s a one-shot comic book. But BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM is 216 pages. DEFINITELY a graphic novel.) I tend to be of the belief that a ‘Graphic Novel’ needs to be at least 90 pages in length. Again, that’s just my opinion.
  2. Is it one continuous/complete story from cover-to-cover? If YES, then it MAY be a “Graphic Novel”. If NOT (if it’s, say, a collection of shorter stories by different artists that may SHARE an idea or concept but are still un-related to each other) than it is an ANTHOLOGY . SO, for an example, SUPERMAN: INFINITE CITY? Graphic Novel. 24 SEVEN? Anthology.
  3. Has it or any part of it been previously printed in the standard ‘pamphlet’ (meaning: floppy) comic book form? If it HAS, it’s not a “Graphic Novel”, it’s a “collected edition” (WATCHMEN, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, BATMAN: YEAR ONE – each of the ‘chapters’ in those books were originally sold individually on a monthly (or nearly-monthly) basis). The fancy-pants hardcover edition of the aforementioned KILLING JOKE is STILL just a comic book. YEAH, it’s a comic book with a hard cover and dust jacket, but that’s just because it’s dressed up to hang out in polite society.
Graphic Novel or Comic Book

Comic Book Historian, Scott McCloud, defines Comic Books

SO…Taking WATCHMEN into consideration: Is it (in it’s readily available form):

A) More that 22 pages long?

It most certainly is. It’s actually a whopping 416 pages (the paperback edition).

B) One continuous story from beginning-to-end?

It is. And it’s a helluva good story, too.

C) One single unit that’s never been printed in serial form?

Well, no. No it isn’t. It originally came out in 12 parts.

AH HAH! So is it a ‘Graphic Novel’?

Well…No. It CAN’T be because it doesn’t meet all three criteria.

Correct. It is a ‘collected edition’ or, if you’d like, a ‘collection’. But it’s not a ‘graphic novel’ so stop calling it that.

Next up is a question that many MANY people get WRONG, including the people at DC Comics themselves:

Who are the Watchmen?

The short, sweet answer to this question is: Nobody.

But that’s not entirely true.

graphic novel comic booksThroughout the comic we can see, in the background, graffiti that reads: “Who Watches the Watchmen”. This comes from a quote from the Roman poet Juvenal: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” which actually translates more like: “Who shall watch the watchers themselves?” or something like that. Meaning, of course, “Who’s keeping tabs on the people keeping tabs on us?”

In the course of the comic, it comes to mean many things. Who’s keeping tabs on the masked heroes? Who’s governing the government?

The story takes place in an alternate 1985 where Nixon is still president and America is on the verge of Nuclear war with Russia. The U.S. government put into effect something called the Keene Act in 1977 that outlawed masked vigilantes (the only ‘super-hero’ on the planet is Dr. Manhattan). The main characters are former masked heroes Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach (who is still active working against the Keene Act). Rorschach responds to the murder of a man named Edward Blake and discovers that Blake was the former costumed vigilante/government agent known as The Comedian. Rorschach gets it in his head that someone is trying to kill off masked heroes and it goes on from there but, y’know, I ain’t gonna read it FOR you.

So, the WATCHMEN are the main characters. It’s the name of the team, right?

Wrong. There is no “team” to speak of. From 1939-49 there was a team called The Minutemen, and, briefly in 1966, there was a failed attempt to form a team called The Crimebusters but there is no team called The Watchmen. Not once in the book do they refer to themselves as such nor does anyone else refer to them as such.

The term “Watchmen” refers to nobody in particular. Calling the characters in WATCHMEN (and the title is WATCHMEN, there is no ‘THE’ in front of it) is incorrect. Just like calling The Monster in FRANKENSTEIN “Frankenstein” or referring to the risen-from-the-grave Eric Draven as “The Crow” is incorrect. Frankenstein is the guy that MAKES the monster, not the monster, the Crow is the bird, not the guy, and WATCHMEN is the name of the book and a blanket term for ‘those who are in power’ and that’s it. Don’t be embarrassed, tough, if you thought otherwise. In issue 25 of DC’s reference series WHO’S WHO IN THE DC UNIVERSE, they incorrectly have the group listed as ‘The Watchmen’.

And that brings us to the third part of my manifesto:

Some of you have read WATCHMEN and have decreed “Meh. Who cares? I didn’t like it very much. Nothing I haven’t seen before.”

Those “Some of you” are fools. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. You’re misguided.

NOW…For those of us who have read it and enjoyed it and understood it, well, it’s not like we’re an elite group who have secret handshakes and discreetly wink at each other. If you feel like we are, then you’re doing it wrong. Comics stay alive because we keep them alive. We pass them on from generation to generation. It is our duty as fans of the medium to pass on our knowledge. Remember that. When the movie came out, more and more people asked us “what’s the book like? Is it any good?”. It was our job to tell them that YES, it IS good and here’s why.

For the rest of you, well, hopefully you will one day read and fully understand the impact this comic had on comics in general and American comics in specific.

watchmen graphic novel comic bookSee, the Brits had been doing this kind of stuff for years prior with anthology books like 2000 A.D. and WARRIOR. And the French had been doing if for years prior with METAL HURLANT (Heavy Metal) and others. And, sure, even here in the States we had our own version of HEAVY METAL. But that “European storytelling sensibility” hadn’t quite invaded American mainstream comics yet. There were little hints here and there such as CAMELOT 3000 in 1982 (which is important for a series of firsts: It was the first ever maxi-series, it was DC’s first ever direct-market title, and it was the first comic I ever read with boobies in it) which was written by an American, actually, but still had a very ‘British” vibe to it, and comics like IRON MAN and GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW which both approached serious subject matters (alcoholism and drug abuse, respectively) in the 70′s (1979 and 1971 respectively).

But they were just the warm-up. WATCHMEN was the big show.

The eighties were a VERY important time in American comics. American comics came of age in the 80′s and lost it’s virginity in ’86. In February of that year Frank Miller and DC initiated foreplay with DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, but it was WATCHMEN that broke its cherry. It was a serious, mature take on the ‘super-hero’ genre. But the glory really is in the presentation. The detail of each panel is astounding. The structure of the chapters is innovative and unusual and unlike anything mainstream comic fans had ever seen before.

Now, you need to keep in mind, it was 1986. Since then, it has been ripped off, replicated, rehashed, ‘homaged’, and ‘inspired by-ed’ a million, billion times. The ‘grim and gritty’ take on comics is commonplace now. WATCHMEN is the grand-daddy of all of that.

If you love and appreciate WATCHMEN and if you have $125 bucks lying around (or if you, like me, have a ton of toys just sitting around collecting dust that you can trade in somewhere) I highly recommend picking up the one-two punch which is ABSOLUTE WATCHMEN and WATCHING THE WATCHMEN. You could probably pick them up for much cheaper used via Amazon Marketplace or the dread eBay. The pairing of the two is like a two-disk Special Edition DVD. ABSOLUTE is disk 1, all digitally remastered and recolored with some pages of commentary in the back, and WATCHING is disk 2, with all of the behind-the-scenes info. WATCHING THE WATCHMEN is crammed with so much preliminary artwork and sketches and roughs etc. that your eyeballs will pop out of your head.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In Part II of this little manifesto, I will discuss BEFORE WATCHMEN and how awesome it is and why all of the people crying foul should put a sock in it.

About

Mikey Wood has had a love/hate relationship with comics and other nerdery since he was a wee child and has, in his 39 years on this big, blue marble we call home, developed some opinions on things. Opinions that he will throw at you ad nauseam. He doesn't expect you to agree, but he's gonna talk, anyway. He is the artist/writer/head honcho at SPACE MONKEY COMICS and has contributed artwork to Dark Horse, DC, and Image, all of which were rejected.

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