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March 9, 2009 | by  | in Books |
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Watchmen

DC Comics 1986-1987

The release of Zach Snyder’s feature-film adaptation of Watchmen certainly got a lot of people buzzing; a great deal of ink’s been spilled (amongst other fluids).

I’m not going to tell you why Watchmen is important, except to say I have nothing intelligent to add to the consensus that Watchmen is a landmark work that injected, along with The Dark Knight Returns, psychological depth and respectability into comics thitherto unimagined.

The central characters are costumed vigilantes: a sort of League of Concerned Citizens with a great deal of spare time and no real appreciation of how camp they are. They are joined in 1960 in the novel’s alt-historical timeline by a real superhero, Dr Manhattan.

Dr Manhattan is the product of a horrible scientific accident: a frequently naked blue dude with near-arbitrary command over matter. He can create, destroy, alter, and teleport just about anything. Serving as a metaphor for the dizzying potential of human technology, the emergence of an American “god” has awesome ramifications on the Cold War.

Ozymandias, who represents the potential of human will, is Dr Manhattan’s counterpoint. Between them, they embody the full potential the two strands of power, technology and will. The philosophy of the novel centres on ethical questions concomitant with such human possibility: if men are capable of anything, good or ill, then what is to stop them from doing ill? What compromises must be made? In Juvenal’s words, from which the novel takes its name, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The reaction of the other Watchmen to this unconstrained potential drives most of the plot. Two of them, Rorschach and The Comedian, spiral through existential angst to nihilism.

Most of the other characters, and all the women, are unfortunately shallow. The women are defined in relation to the men around them. The two incarnations of Nite Owl are reactive, and ultimately because they have not succumbed to post-Dr angst, ineffectual. To the extent that the film beefs these all up—without padding—it will succeed not only as a movie, but as an improvement on the original text.

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About the Author ()

BK Drinkwater's actual origins are shrouded in mystery, but it is said that he sprang from the summit of Taranaki fully formed, four days after the birth of Aristotle. He resents having been overshadowed in this way.

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