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on March 9, 2004
Having long heard Watchmen's praises, I resisted reading it because I dislike the late 80's and 90's ultraviolent comics, and I assumed Watchmen to be the quintessential comic of this type. I've finally read it, and I was wrong. It deserves its reputation. Violence serves theme and plot without being exploitative.
SPOILER: I'll discuss the story's ending. I'll also compare Watchmen to other works, such as Kingdom Come.
I think Watchmen is basically a condemnation of ubermensch theory (Nietzsche's idea that "supermen" are entitled to violate society's moral laws, imposing their will on those "inferior" to themselves. Hitler infamously used the theory to justify Nazism. I concede I am no expert on Nietzsche.), and an accusation that superhero stories endorse this philosophy by lionizing vigilantes. Watchmen also attacks the genre's simplistic good vs. evil morality.
Only one character has "superpowers" to justify claims of superiority, yet Dr. Manhattan takes too little interest in human affairs to want to control others. On the contrary, he lets himself be used as a tool, hoping to retain his humanity by pleasing people. Yet he's now too detached to morally judge his orders, becoming a living military weapon. Apparently, desire for power over others is for mortals living among mortals--like Ozymandias, the archetypal Aryan "superman": a blonde, blue-eyed, physically perfect, supremely brilliant, self-made billionaire.
Achieving peace through slaughter, Ozymandias, like his hero Alexander, embodies Nietzsche's belief that ends justify means. If paradise is attainable through atrocities, as Nazi and Soviet propaganda claimed, is it worth it? And, once the eggs are broken, should one reap the benefits of the sin? (I ask this sitting comfortably in California, stolen first from Native Americans, then from Mexico.)
Rorschach--Watchmen's brutal, uncompromising conscience--says no, and his journal seems to give him the last word. Yet Rorschach tortures for information, sometimes needlessly. Besides, his winning may mean Armageddon.
In keeping with a thought experiment in Nietzsche's worldview, Watchmen's universe is an apparently godless one, as stated by several characters. Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov justifies murder through Neitzschean arguments, but then feels remorse and, through this reluctant acceptance of higher morality, comes to believe in God. C.S. Lewis's arguments in favor of God's existence hinge on morality's independence of human preference. Watchmen's ending is too ambiguous for any divinely transcendent morality or providence to be clear to the characters or reader. As a Christian, I acknowledge the realism of this ambiguity, for even assuming that God exists and His will constitutes absolute morality, His moral intent is rarely as discernable in real life as in melodramas (the classic example of divine inscrutibility being Job's sufferings in the Bible). As Hollis Mason says in chapter 3, "Real life is messy, inconsistent, and it's seldom when anything really gets resolved."
I like Watchmen--but fear I now better understand why the genre degenerated following its publication. It's a damning attack on superheroes, yet publishers couldn't stop printing their bread and butter, so self-indictment pervaded superhero books of the following years as they struggled with Moore's accusations. Also, as Neil Gaiman observes in his introduction to Busiek's "Astro City: Confessions," the easiest "riff" of both Watchmen and Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" for hacks to steal was darkness, not depth.
There are other reasons for the so-called "Iron Age's" violent nihilism besides Watchmen and DKR's influence. Such trends were already growing in early 80's comics. DC had ravaged almost its entire stock of characters in 1985's "Crisis on Infinite Earths." There was also the need to satisfy reader bloodlust once the maligned Comics Code, for better or for worse, became a rubber stamp. Universally recognized characters synonymous with virtue in the public imagination became brutal, wrathful, petty--and if heroes became jerks, villains became the most lurid sadists imaginable. This culminated in the near-plotless splatterpunk and exploitative sadism of the early Image Comics. "Good vs. evil" became "merely evil vs. nauseatingly evil." Moore expressed dismay that things took the direction they did in those years.
Watchmen's theme is: if Nietzsche were right, as superhero comics claim, that would be terrible. It took a decade for superhero writers to rebut this accusation. Their answer came in Waid and Ross's "Kingdom Come" and was: We never claimed Nietzsche was right--the essence of superheroes is that the stronger someone is, the LESS excuse he has to abuse the weak, and the greater his obligation to them. (As Stan Lee wrote years earlier: "With great power there must also come--great responsibility!" Or, as Moore himself has Superman say in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, "Nobody has the right to kill... not [even] Superman. Especially not Superman!") KC portrays a higher morality--indeed, a God-given one, delivered through the mortal Norman McCay. Perhaps it requires divine perspective to see that an ant who can shatter mountains is no better or worse than his fellow ants. Unlike Watchmen, but like most superhero comics, most of KC's characters have "powers"--flight, invulnerability, etc.--differentiating them from general humanity in a way that even bullet-catching Ozymandias is not. Yet they're not blessed/burdened with near godhood like Dr. Manhattan (staggeringly powerful even by superhero standards, Manhattan perceives all moments simultaneously, and creates and destroys life at will. He has no common reference with humans.). Powerful, yet mortal, they have no more free license to sin than anyone. Probably less. KC portrays a world which needs to relearn this, just as the comics industry needed to relearn it. (One shortcoming: unlike Watchmen, KC isn't self-contained. It assumes reader familiarity with Superman, Batman, etc. and with ultraviolent comics. )
KC and Watchmen bookend the Iron Age. Watchmen unintentionally (I say unintentionally because Moore apparently laments the fact) helped begin it, and KC helped end it.
Yet despite spawning these trends, Watchmen itself is breathtaking, complex literature which takes masterful advantage of comics' visual medium.
Warning: This is not an acceptable comic for children. An R-rated story with lots of sex and violence, Watchmen is a story for grown-ups.
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on December 27, 2005
Needless to repeat what everyone else has said here, but I'll share my story:
Three years ago, I walked into a comic book store and asked the owner, "I don't know anything about comics. How do I get started?" He told me to start with the best, and that although every later comic that I would pick up afterwards won't be as good as that first one, it's the one to start with.
Sure enough, I bought "Watchmen" that fateful day - and came back two days later for "V for Vendetta". That was the start of my love-affair with the graphic novel genre.
I went on to read Garth Ennis' Preacher, Mike Mignola's Hellboy, Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Sin City, all landmark graphic novels of our time.
And though these were all remarkable books (and I recommend all of the above series), they still came second to "Watchmen", which will always be the top model of the genre by which all other comics are compared to.
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on July 11, 2007
A superhero called the Comedian is thrown out the window of his apartment and killed ... murdered. Soon afterwards, another is framed for causing cancer to those he has been in relations with. And the strikes continue, upon the survivors of a superhero group who had called themselves the Crimebusters. Who has discovered their secret identities? How? And why do they want them removed? The threat of a nuclear war, the third World War, lingers, as these not-so-super superheroes struggle to find who has been orchestrating their removal, and the destruction of mankind.

"Watchmen" is nothing that you could presume it could be going in. It's a satire, it's a drama, it's a murder mystery, it's a superhero comic mini-series ... and a landmark in the medium. The artwork is fantastic, and very professionally plotted out to make it easy to read. Colour is used more as an emotional anchor than to distract from what is happening. You'll find here is a fantastic literary achievement, chronicling the later adventures of strong-willed individuals, driven to save humanity from itself. It dishes out psychology-rich, deep-reaching personal profiles of the characters, exploring into what shaped them, what drives them. You come to feel that you are reading an illustrated recording of actual events, accurately portrayed, despite some tall-tale elements. Its believability is as striking as its vivid reflection of reality. "Watchmen" serves as a mirror to better view a world in crisis that we easily glance away from. There is no arguing with the problems which "Watchmen" exposes. It's stark, gritty realism.

Alan Moore (writer of "V For Vendetta" and "Swamp Thing"), and artist Dave Gibbons ("2,000 AD", "Green Lantern") teamed up to make a comic mini-series to prove the industry wasn't just for kids, and that such a comic could be as literary, as meaningful, and as deeply gripping, as any novel. The heroes were loosely based on those of Charlton Comics, but they are fully their own characters. The idea of the book is simple -- what if superheroes were real? What if, in this messed-up world, there were people screwy enough to don silly guises and try to save it? How safe could we be without them? How safe could we be with them?

I was delighted that Amazon sent it to me in mint condition, with the British release cover version as it advertises (the American release cover shows a window breaking and is a far less original first glimpse upon such a powerful book.) "Watchmen" is the first graphic novel to win a Hugo award and earn a spot in Time Magazine's 100 Best Novels. It stands as a work of high cultural influence, a subject of discussion, and a marvel in storytelling. A book to read once, read several times more, hold onto and treasure for a lifetime.

"Who watches the watchmen?"
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on June 22, 2004
That is the simple question that Watchmen poses and is one of the many clever conceits that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons employ throughout the 12-issue mini-series that is collected in this fine trade paperback.
Moore and Gibbons present a world not unlike ours. An alternate reality where the United States won Vietnam (thanks to Dr. Manhattan--the book's only Superman) and as a result Nixon stayed President. Dirgibles instead of airplanes can be seen in the sky, there are electric powered cars and a popular fast food chain of Indian restaurants known as Gunga Diner are everywhere.
In this world, superheroes have been outlawed because the police felt that their jobs were threatened and so only Government sanctioned costumed heroes can legally operate. That doesn't stop Rorschach, a masked vigilante from plying his trade.
Why am I going into all this detail? Because Watchmen is all about the details. Moore and Gibbons vividly draw us into this world through the most minute details, often populating the backgrounds of panels so that they only become obvious upon multiple readings.
What is so astounding about Watchmen is that it works on so many levels. Superficially, it's a murder mystery. However, it also asks many big questions like, who makes the world? Who is responible? Is everything planned out or is it all up to chance?
Watchmen is also a marvel of technique. Moore and Gibbons employ all sorts of film techniques (zoom ins, close-ups, revolving "the camera" around somebody, lighting effects, etc) and also several techniques of rhythm. For example, look closely at the panel layout for Chapter 5: Feaful Symmetry. The panel layout on the first page is exactly the same as the last page and so on until the center pages which mirror each other perfectly. Or all of the smiley face images that pop up throughout the various chapters. This is only a taste of what is going on in this book. It really is an astounding work.
There is a reason why Watchmen is so highly regarded. It is an amazing accomplishment and one that takes the costumed superhero genre seriously. If you haven't ever read this book before then I strongly recommend checking it out. If you aren't a huge fan of comic books, this one will change your mind. It proves that comics aren't just for kids. Not any more.
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on May 6, 2002
Long before "Kingdom Come" meditated on a world without heroes, around the same time as Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" returned, and executed more forcefully than the "X-Men"'s story of Sentinels and Mutant Registration Acts, Alan Moore & company asked "Who watches the Watchmen?"
Set in a world where heroes and vigilante justice have run their course, and the last era of superheroes are living out their days quietly with their own ghosts, "Watchmen" is an amazing piece of literature and comic book artistry. The series itself, twelve issues now commonly packaged in one booklet, is sprung from the golden age of graphic novels - the 1980's, where graphic novels told stories and presented images where normal comics, movies, and televison shows feared to tread. Perhaps most importantly, the themes of the story ring as true today as they did then, and the emotionally-invested reader will perhaps see themselves in the everyday characters talking sports and entertainment as the newspaper headlines blare klaxons of war and pending doom. Society entrusts its safety to a greater body politic, but who watches the watchmen and what is the price paid for handing over the responsibilities of self-defense and indulging in a comfortable apathy?
These are the driving themes behind "Watchmen", a graphic novel so stunningly well-written and well-drawn that I do not hesitate to recommend it to even the most ardant skeptics who look upon comics with disdain, never thinking to read anything remotely associated with them. "Watchmen" represents the perfect synergy between the use of pictures, the potency of the written word, and the sublime power of symolism that drives artists wielding either brush or pen to record their art permanently on canvas or paper. A worthy investment that stands tall amongst the great literary works of the latter part of the 20th century.
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on July 13, 2004
Yes, this is an graphic novel, but every page carries every ounce of narrative density and depth that you'd expect from a more text-heavy tome. Frankly, there's so much to say about this work that I hardly know where to begin, so I won't. Instead, I'll just heartily recommend it to everyone--not just my comic geek friends. In fact, I would <i>especially</i> recommend it to friends of mine who don't read comics or graphic novels because they think those things are (a). just for kids or (b). not as satisfying as a more traditionally formatted read.
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"There's a notion I'd like to see buried: the ordinary person. Ridiculous. There is no ordinary person." This is just one the philosophical bon mots liberally resident in one of the most layered and engrossing comic books of all time. These kudos are not given lightly. In fact, Time Magazine voted Watchmen one of the best novels of the 20th Century. I believe this is because of the compelling themes:

Real Life
"Real life is messy, inconsistent, and it's seldom when anything ever really gets resolved. It's taken me a long time to realize that.”
Life is messy and when this explored through the cast of aging superheroes, it is accentuated in a way to give new meaning to the observation.

“In an era of stress and anxiety, when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagines past”
This is incredibly deep given the fantasy lives of superheroes and their alter egos.

“Nothing's that simple, not even things that are simply awful.”
Comic books once wrapped up each story neatly like a thirty minute sitcom. Then the world got more complex and comic books followed. This is reflected beautifully in Watchmen that bridges the early Batman crime fighting sensibility with the darker and deeper comic book output of the 1980's.

But overall, the main story is a person's duality. Superheroes live two lives, wrestle between good and evil, pretend to function in larger society while finding comfort only in their dysfunctional tribe. For them, it is a solitary existence, "We are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later.”

Watchmen can be read in so many ways: existential novel, murder mystery, comic book trivia game. All offer value. The artwork is tremendous, the dialogue believable, and the angst is riveting. Most enjoyable were the newly imagined crime fighters: The Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, Nite Owl, Rorschach, Ozymandias, and Silk Spectre will pull you into their world. It is a must read.
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I've been wanting to read this for quite some time. Longer than I even knew they were thinking about making a movie. I've often seen it on the library shelf but decided against picking up this very thick graphic novel. Of course, it took the recent movie to make me actually get up and read it but by then everybody else wanted to read it and I had to add my name to the very long waiting list at the library. Finally it was my turn.

Only a very broad summary can tell the premise of this plot without giving anything anyway and that hardly does the story any justice. A group of costumed heroes worked at thwarting crime during the forties, early fifties but they eventually went out of fashion in the fifties. But another younger, more resourceful group took over in the sixties only to have an act passed in '77 banning vigilantes altogether, except for a select few who worked for the government. This all takes place on an alternate earth where costumed vigilantes are real, Nixon is still President in the '80s (he removed the 2-term rule) and America won the Vietnam War. Now the world finds itself on the brink of World War III as US and Soviet Nuclear weapons are pointed at each other as the USSR starts to attack Asia starting with Afghanistan then Pakistan.

In this setting we have a more personal story of former superheroes, some retired, some still working underground and suddenly, former masked heroes are turning up dead or worse. One currently working costumed vigilante has an idea that someone is picking off former masked heroes and he tries to warn the others but no one really takes him seriously in this political clime of uncertainty.

This is an amazing book! The story is so intricate. Not only are the two main themes going on as described above but each of the superheroes involved carries their own personal subplot as well throughout the series. Amazingly everything ties together and I'm always stunned when a graphic novel can show such depth and intricacies with such limited text. Of all the great books I've read this month this is my favourite so far. Certainly a product of it's time; the eighties fear of nuclear attack from the Soviets, the Cold War, the threat of a third world war and yet somehow things never change. While the "bad guys" are different today, we still have these threats of nuclear arms making headlines today.

I'm really excited to see the movie now. I've purposely avoided any notice of it as I wanted to read the book without any preconceptions. I don't even know who is in the movie and that is why while reading the book I visualized one of the characters as a certain actor. Jon is a science experiment gone wrong and is a big blue muscular naked guy with a circle on his forehead. His voice is distinctly different from the others, unemotional, and I immediately thought of him as a Jaffa, T'ilk to be exact, and I just heard Christopher Judge's deep voice saying that character's voice throughout the novel! It's weird when that happens.

Back to the book, totally engrossing and riveting. I wish I hadn't waited this long. I said this was my favourite book of the month but this is also probably one of the finest graphic novels I've ever read. It is tough, hard and bloody and most definitely one for adults though, so don't go thinking of this is a "comic" and handing it off to the kiddies. Highly recommended!
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on September 29, 2008
Fans of graphic novels have been crying out for the genre to be taken as legitimately literary for quite some time. Some of these works really should be taken seriously - Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, for example - and some really are nothing more than glorified comic books. As with any genre, there are diamonds and lumps of coal - and Watchmen is the diamond. If you only read one graphic novel, it should be this one.

Plot summaries and spoilers abound; suffice to say that this book involves superheroes, conspiracies, relationshps, insights, metaphysical questions, and so, so very many levels of meaning. Don't let the superheroes put you off: this is as mature and real a treatment of these preadolescent phenomena as you will ever find.

I teach this book to my grade 12 English class every semester, and each time I read it I find something new. My students - who love it - have found things that have escaped me and brought amazing new interpretations. It can be easy to belittle graphic novels, and some deserve it, but not this one. I tremble at the idea of a film version, mind you.
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on August 9, 2012
...the sheer genius that is 'Watchmen'. This one took me a good week to finish because of the end notes of each chapter which is both informative and detailed in regards to the progression of the characters within the novel. Essentially, this novel has amazing art-work with an amazing writer, Alan Moore, of course. All I can say is buy it. It had that great 80's feel to it, and the continuity with the time period is amazing and just adds to the already astounding atmosphere. If you've seen the film and are wanting to buy it, when I read it, it felt like I was reading the script to the film with pictures to add to detail. Although, with this novel, like all novel-book adaptions, there is always more information and untold stories/dialogue that will be found within as opposed to the motion picture.
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