Thursday, 9 April 2009
I read Watchmen for Nymeth's mini challenge. Molly was my partner, and she posted a brilliant edition (all her own effort) of the email discussion I sent her about Watchmen, here, for the challenge. However, while I sent her many of my thoughts about the novel while I was reading it, I've had a couple of weeks to let it sit, and here are my final thoughts.
Brilliant. I am so glad I finally let myself read it. It is powerful, intoxicating, gripping, tragic. It's an ode to humanity. I can't rave enough about the story, about the graphic art, about the complex characters. This book is bittersweet. It's 23 years old, and it should be dated, but it's not. The Viet-Nam War makes an appearance. The Doomsday Clock ticking towards midnight. Ronald Reagan. The Kennedy assassination. Nuclear bombs. Love. Sex. Murder. Death. Most of all, irony. This books drips with a wicked sense of humour. How can I not like a book that talks like I do?
Rorschach: Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders? Not only is this the height of irony when Rorschach's story is finally revealed, but it's something I often wonder about people: what is normal? How do we know what lies behind someone's face?
Watchmen explores what the meaning of a hero is. Entertwined with this is what it means for our society, as we both accept the need for a hero, and deny them when we have them. In order to be a superhero, something extraordinary, it must be to fill a gap -that is what is really a personality disorder, Watchmen hints at. No one ordinary would want to go hunting at night for criminals. But what if there is a need for them? Who would step in? Why? And, as is spray-painted all through the book - another supreme irony, it's on the walls and garage doors below the apartments where some of the Watchmen live, so someone is watching them! - who watches the Watchmen? How do we know they mete out justice to the deserving? How can we trust them if only misfits and the doomed are the Watchmen?
And in spite of their failings - of which all of the Watchmen are slowly revealed to have, as we go from one story to another, even as the clock ticks closer to midnight - we do pin our hopes on them. We have to. Because we are busy living our ordinary lives and hoping someone else will watch the darkness for us.
I love the stories of each of the characters. I don't like all the characters, several of them left me feeling like they were nasty people, and yet they chose to do this courageous, heroic action. Once again, Watchmen takes the superhero myth and pulls it apart and asks some very interesting questions. Of the characters, I liked most Laurie (Silk Spectre #2), her mother Sally Jupiter, Dan and Hollis, all of whom are the most easily human and accessible characters. I know this! Rorschach was fascinating (and a little creepy) - how is it I can prefer the superhero figure and not the real man underneath? That is one of the most difficult questions I think that this book asks. The Comedian, Dr Manhattan - scary, and sad. Nothing is what it seems, no one is exactly who they appear to be.
A favourite scene is meeting Sally and her daughter Laurie and their first conversation together, when Sally says: "Life goes on, Honey. Life goes on." Juxtaposed with this is a view of the cemetary, where a funeral is taking place. A few windows on, Sally says, again with the background of the cemetary: "I mean, without your health, where are you?" How can you not love that kind of writing/art together?
Or, Dr Manhattan says: "Things have their shape in time, not space alone. Some marble blocks have statues within them, embedded in their future."
"It stretches more than three thousand miles, so that one end knows day while the other endures night. Temperature differences breed shrieking winds that herd oceans of fog along a canyon four miles deep. Does the human heart know chasms so abysmal?" Yes, mine does.
"....Until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold....that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermo-dynamic miracle."
"But....if me, my birth, if that's a thermodynamic miracle....I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!"
"Yes. Anybody in the world."
Did I say that at it's heart, Watchmen is about the wonder of life, and the mysteries that make up each person, and the world? That every person is part of a bigger story, and every person has a story to tell? And that it's about how everything is connected, which physics is discovering in deeper levels every year or so? The same physics that creates Dr Manhattan, who gives us what a real superbeing's perspective would be? This is such a thoughtful, deep book. How can a comic book be so good?
What would you do to stop the insane build up of nuclear warheads, if you had the means to stop it? Do the ends justify the means? This is another level of subtext in this novel. This book talks about one possibility, what it would take to stop it, and it is chilling and horrifying, as insane and horrifying as the build up we constantly, still, hear about, even today. If you can destroy the world once, why is being able to destroy it 30 times over, better?
This is a book about life, death, love, and chaos, the things we wrestle with our whole lives, and to me, it was a revelation. It was like having a conversation with a very dear friend about things I already knew, and hearing the same cynicism and hope, faith and fear, that I carry with me. I kept nodding my head, saying "Yes! Yes!" as I read it. I love this novel. It is spectacularly human, and breathtaking in its many textured levels of meaning. I think this is a book that captures our essential angst at this juncture of human culture.
I am a product of the 1980's, as are any of us who were alive then must be. The saddest thing to me is that my son, who was born in the 1980's, is also somehow a product of that same clock ticking towards midnight fear/faith/helplessness. He wrestles with the 'how does anything matter' angst, too, with all the talk of the wars constantly in the background, the same as in Watchmen, the same as in the 1980's. In twenty years' time, nothing has changed. This is when, like Dr Manhattan, we - I - have to find the things that root us in time and space, or we would float in fear, unconnected. One thing I did learn in the 1980's was to take everything, anything, one day at a time. And, I did protest, I went on nuclear peace marches, protesting the building of nuclear bombs, because I had to do something. My son is still wrestling with what to do. Watchmen is about that feeling too. I'm not sure what kind of superhero that makes me, or that I would want to be anyone in the book! but any time we take action, that we choose love over hate, makes us a superhero, in my humble opinion. So Watchmen is about taking action anyway, no matter the odds. In the end, it's about hope and the belief that, despite our frailties and faults, it's worth doing - well, except what Ozymandias does. Watchmen also shows what happens when we let fear take over our decision-making.
This is one of my top 10 books for 2009, I know this already. It might be one of my favourite all-time books, that I end up carrying around with me for the rest of my life. It's that good.
Andi Lit's review here
Trish's Reading Nook
Musings of A Bookish Kitty