Category: Mystery

What is there to say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said a million times before? Easily the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, Watchmen isn’t just a seminal work in the burgeoning realm of graphic novels (that would ultimately allow other celebrated works like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man to exist), but it is simply one of the defining novels of the last 30 years. Simultaneously science fiction, political satire, mystery, superhero (the definitive supehero tale), psychological drama, and a massive deconstruction of every comic book that predated it, Alan Moore didn’t just write the premier superhero story of all time; he made it nearly impossible to look at any superhero tales before or after in the same light ever again. As a child, I was a huge comic book fan, but I grew out of it as I got older because for the most part, the average superhero story wasn’t maturing as I was. Then, my sophomore year of college, I saw that Watchmen was being released in theaters and I felt it was high time to read this story that every one kept praising, and nothing was the same ever since. It rekindled my love with the comic book genre (and produced a drain on my finances thanks to my new comic book addiction), and introduced me to what is simply one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

At its core, Watchmen begins as a murder mystery but to say its morph into so much more would only be scratching the surface of the various layers of this dense and complex novel. In an alternate U.S. history where superheroes are real (though only one has any actual superpowers and is therefore essentially a god amongst men) and Richard Nixon is seeking his fourth term as U.S. President after superhero involvement led to a U.S. victory in Vietnam, one of the world’s superheroes has been murdered. A caustic and darkly comic man known as the Comedian (one of two superheroes still legally allowed to fight crime) was thrown out of his apartment in New York by an unknown assailant and the remaining superheroes (retired or vigilante) are worried that someone may be gunning for former masks. The remaining superheroes include Nite Owl (an aging millionaire [the Batman stand-in] who spends his days reminiscing with one of his predecessors from the 1940’s, the original Nite Owl), Silk Spectre (the daughter of one of the original 1940’s superheroes who only got into the business to please her mother), Rorschach (a psychotic and violent crime fighter who refused to retire and sees the world in starkly black and white terms), Ozymandias (smartest man in the world and most financially successful of the superheroes as he cashed in on his name post-retirement), and Dr. Manhattan (a former nuclear physicist who was transformed into a godlike being that can alter the state of matter at will among many other powers after a lab accident disintegrated him). As Rorschach investigates the Comedian’s murder, the others deal with personal and psychological flaws until they eventually stumble onto a conspiracy that may destroy the world.

Let’s start with the artwork. This is going to be a long, long review, and I guess art seems like the logical place to begin an assessment of a comic book. I’ve read Watchmen in its entirety about 4 times now, and the simple fact that I notice new things (and a large number of new things) every time I read the book should be a testament to just how much detail is crammed into each individual frame of this story. Whether it’s Dave Gibbon’s artwork simply from an aesthetic view point, which can be both beautiful and terrifying (those who’ve been exposed to some aspect of this piece know how gruesome it can get) or its the many recurring visual motifs and symbols that frequent the pages, it is likely you will spend as much time parsing the images of Watchmen as you will reading Moore’s words (and ultimately that is where the true genius lies). It truly takes a special talent to keep up with the brilliance of Alan Moore, and I honestly can’t think of a better author and artist pairing than Moore and Gibbons in this work. If it weren’t for the fact that there are still literary types that can’t get fact that this is a comic book, I would personally guarantee that academics could spend as much time parsing Watchmen for all of the symbolism and deeper meanings that they could Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest, and Dave Gibbons’ art adds richly to the symbolic tapestry of this novel.

Next, the characters. As a grown-up comic reader, when I read a traditional Marvel or DC story, I would say that 75% of my enjoyment from those tales comes more from an attachment to the characters rather than the plotting itself, which is often cliche comic book material. There are so many fun and memorable comic book characters out there, and it takes decades of mythology to turn them into the beloved icons they are today. In 12, 28-page, issues, Alan Moore was able to craft the most complex and distinct characters in the history of the genre. With the possible exception of Silk Spectre (who movie or book remains the least compelling character in the story), these characters all have dense psychological profiles that are explored in-depth and they almost all seem to represent some specific philosophical archetype. Rorschach is the definition of a right-wing deontologist where things are either right or wrong. There is no gray area. The Comedian can also be called a nihilist because he sees how damaged and broken the world is and decides to be a dark mirror of the world. Ozymandias is more of a utilitarian though I can’t get into exactly what that entails without spoilers. Dr. Manhattan is an examination of how an all-powerful deity would view something as mundane as human life (which is to say with bemused indifference). Nite Owl doesn’t really represent one of these philosophies. He was just a bored playboy who had a romanticized fascination with the superheroes of his youth and wanted to follow in their footsteps (which isn’t to say he’s not as emotionally scarred as everyone else).

The way that Moore lays out the story manages to be even more dense (and beautiful) than the artwork itself. Eschewing a linear format, the story jumps all over in time and place, and there is one chapter told from the view point of Dr. Manhattan (whose mind exists outside the normal bounds of linear time) that is arguably the single greatest issue of any comic I’ve ever read in its masterful non-linear story and haunting tragedy. At the end of every chapter, Moore provides several pages of non-comic book material that are presented as either excerpts from books within the Watchmen universe or newspaper articles or similar diegetic material. About halfway through the book, you are suddenly introduced to an in-universe comic book called The Tales of the Black Freighter which seems oddly out of place at first until you reach the end of the story and you realize just how relevant it truly was. The most amazing thing about this comic is that in spite of all of its intellectual pretensions and ambitions (which it fulfills extrrordinarily well), it also manages to stand on its own as an entertaining and engaging superhero story. Even when the mechanics of its ending are a little odd (perhaps the only area where the movie was better), it doesn’t lessen the impact of this story’s brutal and shattering climax.

If you somehow haven’t read Watchmen yet, you have to. Even if you saw the movie and didn’t enjoy it (which a frustratingly large number of people didn’t), you should still read the novel as I know several people who are big fans of the book that don’t like the movie either. It’s one of the most important novels of the last 50 years. It’s really a shame that DC screwed Alan Moore out of the rights to these characters and that led him to sever all ties with the company because considering what he was able to accomplish with a brand new set of characters (though many of these characters are direct responses to certain obscure Silver Age comic characters), I can only imagine what he could have done with established heroes. His The Killing Joke story for Batman remains one of the definitive Batman tales along with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and The Dark Knight Returns. I’m very glad that I chose to re-read Watchmen for this blog because each journey into that dark and twisted world reveals a little more of its secrets and I guarantee I still haven’t discovered all there is to know. Who watched the Watchmen? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I sure as hell know who’s telling everyone else they should read them.

Final Score: A+

I often like to imagine my life having a theme song at any moment, and my past love of creating mixtapes that matched my current mood only speaks of my most pretentious music inclinations. When I went to NYC for my interview for the internship, my theme song was LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” because if there is a better hipster/indie anthem then I don’t know what it is. When I returned to America at the end of my first trip to Italy, we flew in to Logan International Airport, and of course, classic rocker’s Boston were blasting from my headphones. Despite my own personal agnosticism, when I dated an extremely conservative Christian girl during the summer before college began, my theme song was “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (one of my top five love songs of all time and it fit the relationship perfectly). Right now my theme song should be Amy Winehouse’s (in retrospect) darkly accurate “Rehab” because I have an addiction to Star Wars: The Old Republic and “I don’t want to go to rehab. So I said no, no, no!” It’s a problem. Ever since it came out, if I’m not at work, I’m playing it. It’s more addicting than Skyrim was (although I would argue Skyrim is still a much better game). Anyways, if readers are wondering why my writing has slowed to a crawl, my awesome Zabrak Imperial Agent/Sniper named Yoqeed is the reason why. Anyways, time for a review in a day that I have set aside as being for absolutely no video games.

Dennis Lehane is a hot property in so many different worlds right now. He wrote several episodes of the single greatest television program of all time, The Wire. His novel Mystic River was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film that would have likely won Best Picture had it not been up against the Oscar juggernaut The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I actually enjoyed Gone Baby Gone even more than Mystic River, and Martin Scorsese left his directorial comfort zone to direct the psychological thriller, Shutter Island, another of Lehane’s novels (though I’ve yet to see the movie). If you want intelligent and morally challenging crime fiction, you don’t have to look much further than Mr. Lehane who has made a name for himself as arguably the premier crime novelist of the 2000’s. I bought my little sister all of the Lehane novels I mentioned earlier for Christmas one year and she ate them up like candy. I haven’t had a chanec to read any of them yet (until now), and I can say that his delirious and mind-bending Shutter Island makes me very excited for something in a genre that Dennis Lehane is more accustomed to working in. As much a gothic horror story as a frenetic whodunit, Shutter Island managed to keep me on the edge of my seat and guessing even though it’s big climax had been partially ruined for me by unintended spoilers from the film version.

Shutter Island is set in the 1950’s and follows the investigation of U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck Aule as they investigate the disappearance of a mental patient from a secure room in an experimental mental hospital on the remote titular island off the Boston coast. A veteran of World War II and one of the best Marshall’s in the service, Daniels has been called in because every inch of the island has been scoured and the patient, a woman named Rachel Solando who murdered her children and then placed them at the dinner table like dolls, still hasn’t been found even though it should have been physically impossible for her to escape her cell in the first place. It doesn’t take long on the island for Teddy and Chuck to realize that something isn’t right. All of the doctors and orderlies seem like they have something to hide and one of the key doctors left the island around the same time as the patient escape. It also looks like potentially illegal and Nazi-esque techniques are being used on the patients and not to cure them but for the sake of experimentation. When it’s revealed that Teddy may have had ulterior motives for accepting this mission in the first place and a connection between one of the patients and the murder of Daniels’ wife years ago, the tale journeys further down the rabbit hole until it reaches its shocking and truly brilliant climax.

I can’t talk about the one thing I thought was the most brilliant about this book without giving away its ending, and if you’ve somehow managed to not see the movie or read the book yet and no one has ruined the twist for you, I have to avoid any spoilers out of good conscience. So without wanting to ruin anything, let me simply say that form most definitely follows function and for those of you who have read it, you know just how deftly Lehane foreshadows the books climax if you read it with an eye for what’s coming ahead. Most endings like this books are cheap but if you pay attention, Lehane lets you know its coming at least half-way through  and its great just how intimately Lehane is able to get the reader into the head of the protagonist. This is a psychological thriller at its finest, and while I haven’t heard as many great things about the film adaptation, this book almost reminds of a David Lynch film except for the fact that the ending is rather clear compared to Lynch’s more ambiguous works. Let us just say that this is a taut and thrilling page-turner that will keep you hooked til the final moments.

This is an easy read but at the same time the pacing is absolutely top notch, and I was left dissecting the myriad ways Lehane’s story bowled me over hours after I finished the book. I knew how it ended (but not necessarily the exact details) and the ending still managed to have me saying “Wow.” and “holy crap” to myself over and over again and it made putting the puzzle of the novel together while reading even more enjoyable than the shocking twist would have been had I gone in cold. It’s simply a great book. Not perfect by any means but Lehane is a top-rate novelist, and I’m excited for seeing the rest of his library. I’m torn as to whether I want my next Lehane novel to be Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River. I know which movie I prefer, but Nicole (my sister) says neither book is like the film. I’m sure I’ll enjoy them both quite a bit.

Final Score: A-

The Lost Symbol

My freshman year of high school, one of my best friends recommended that I read Dan Brown’s mega-seller The Da Vinci Code. The book had remained on the New York Times bestseller list already for a year at that point, and so I gave the book a try. While I was instantly fascinated with the way that Brown combined a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of art and history with elements of an Elmore Leonard thriller, age hasn’t done the book many favors, and it’s obvious now that much of the book’s fame comes from its now infamous theories concerning the Holy Grail and that Brown will never be a master of strong characterization or even plotting that makes any sense once you’ve put any thought into it. Angels & Demons was a notable exception to this rule (though Deception Point and Digital Fortress had more in common with The Da Vinci Code structurally). For once, Brown was able to forge a stunning and engrossing thriller that didn’t rely on some shocking claim or unbelievable contrivances to propel the book forward. It was packed with twists and turns, but they all made sense within the context of the story and trying to stop the destruction of the Vatican by legitimate potential science felt more natural than a main character of The Da Vinci Code being a descendant of Christ (the non-fiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail handles the whole Sang Real stuff much better than Brown ever could). While nothing will ever stop Robert Langdon from being Dan Brown’s own personal walking box for endless exposition with little personality of his own, there is no denying how much fun and educational it was to read Angels & Demons. Brown’s last book, 2009’s The Lost Symbol, manages to be a step backwards from the already uneven The Da Vinci Code and every aspect of Brown’s writing that critics tend to dismiss is put on full display. While the book certainly kept me engrossed, I was once and for all forced to confront Brown’s myriad weaknesses as an author.

Continuing the story of Robert Langdon, professional symbologist and amateur survivor of endless attempts on his life, set forth first in Angels & Demons and next The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol takes place years after the end of The Da Vinci Code (with absolutely nothing said as to what happened to Sophie Neveu). Back to teaching at Harvard and having remained mum on the events in Paris, Langdon is summoned to Washington, D.C. by his old friend and benefactor, Peter Solomon. Solomon is a rich and powerful philanthropist who also happens to be the highest ranking Mason in America. When Langdon arrives in Washington, he discovers the severed hand of Peter Solomon in the Capital Rotunda and that he was called to Washington not by his old friend but by a mysterious man known only as Mal’akh, a shadowy figure intent on finding a legendary Masonic Pyramid in Washington, D.C. which legend states hides secrets that will unlock the untapped power inside of humanity. As Langdon rushes to decipher the many codes and puzzles at the heart of the Masonic legends and rescue his friend, he eventually meets up with Solomon’s younger sister Katherine, a scientist in the growing field of noetic sciences (the study of the ability of human though to have a tangible effect on the world). Langdon and Katherine must outrun the CIA and the machinations of one of the most brilliantly evil villains in the series before time runs out.

Brown has some of the most clumsy prose this side of Stephenie Meyer. Real people do not speak the way the characters in his book do. While he certainly has an elaborate eye for detail when he’s discussing architecture and art, that could possibly be the most positive thing you can say about his actual writing style. Chapters are almost never more than a couple pages long, and though this gives the book its fast-paced and can’t put down feel, it also forces Brown to rush and muddle plot points that should have a little more time to develop and begin to make sense. As supposedly brilliant and perceptive Robert Langdon and Katherine Solomon are supposed to be, they seem especially apt to fall for the exact same kinds of tricks and traps that have plagued Langdon since he was first sent out to the Vatican all those years ago. If Brown lavished the sort of detail and attention to his actual plotting and artistry of his prose that he did on every little meaning in some painting or building, these books could be undeniable classics. Instead, it feels like you’re attending an entry level lecture in art symbolism with some artificial and forced plot thrown in. My favorite parts of these books are the non-fiction and educational aspects, and at times, I just wish that Brown would go ahead and write a non-fiction book because making art seem intriguing is his specialty. Instead, we’ve now had three books filled with a main character who is almost without personality and who seems so boring in comparison to the Pope’s Camerlengo from Angels & Demons and the mysterious Mal’akh of this novel.

Even more than in The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown falls prey to some very New Age and psuedo-scientific principles to form the central core of his story. The main mystery of the novel is unraveling the Ancient Mysteries of the Masonic order which only the truly enlightened can find. To say that the end of this book is a cop out, would be like saying that the Season 1 finale of Lost was just a conventional cliff-hanger. Combining some very circumspect notions on the organized religions of the world with nonsense taking straight of Jungian philosophy (there’s a reason why Karl Jung is the only classic psychologist given less respect than Sigmund Freud in today’s academic circles), Brown will make anyone with even the slightest background or familiarity with science and physics nauseous with the way he bandies around his so-called science as fact. While noetics is certainly an interesting field and if it ever develops to the extent that Katherine Solomon pushed it in The Lost Symbol, then maybe I won’t be so skeptical. But as it is, Brown unnecessarily added some science fiction but mostly fantasy elements to a story that was otherwise centered in the real world. People have accused him of remarkable scientific and historical inaccuracies in the past, and what’s on display in The Lost Symbol, is about as egregious as it gets.

Before you think I completely hated this book, don’t get that impression. When I read it at work, I was glues to the pages, and the final twist of the book concerning the identity of the main villain was very shocking and I didn’t remotely see it coming. I learned a lot about the Freemasons and I walked away from the book with a renewed respect for their order (although once again, without wanting to ruin anything, I’m not sure that the national security threat the CIA saw in this book was nearly as serious as the book made it out to be). I don’t think this book is remarkably different than any of the other books that Dan Brown has written. It’s just that I’m now able to recognize his writing for what it is for the very first time. Having read other authors like Neil Gaiman who are able to combine mythology and history into their works while maintaining a high level of artistic ambition, it just makes Dan Brown seem depressingly conventional and stale. While I still think very highly of Angels & Demons, I do wonder how it would stand up against another read at this point in my life. If you’re fans of Dan Brown, this is more of everything you love about him. If you’re not, this book won’t change your mind.

Final Score: B-