Category: Political Novel

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 remember my first introduction to the works of Alan Moore as if it were yesterday. I turned 17 in 2006, and the very first R-rated movie that I bought my own ticket for at the movie theatre was the Wachowski brothers’ (The Matrix) adaptation of Alan Moore’s beloved graphic novel starring Hugo Weaving as anarchist/terrorist V and Natalie Portman as besieged heroine Evey Hammond. I loved that movie when I was in high school, and at times, I still appreciate its fairly vocal outrage against the dangerous path this nation was traveling during the Bush administration. However, much like Alan Moore has with all of the adaptations of his books, Alan Moore was an especially vicious critic of this particular re-imagining of his book. I had never understood why when I was younger since the film seemed a clear indictment of fascism and a call to arms for citizens to take responsibility for their own freedom and the governments they give free reign to run their lives. I get why Moore doesn’t like the movie now (though it doesn’t forever ruin the movie for me) having now read his original graphic novel. Whereas the movie is an almost clear-cut tale of a superheroic freedom fighter in a not entirely subtle knock at the Bush administration, Moore’s original graphic novel is a far more morally ambiguous and challenging tale centered on an uniquely British take on the danger of rampant Thatcherism which makes V less a superhero and more of a flawed prophet for his unique vision of the seeds of a new anarchic England. While both versions of the work have their strengths and weaknesses, Moore’s ability to craft a tale that makes you think more than a self-aggrandizing vision of liberal victory against neoconservatism makes his original adaptation the far superior product.

Set in 1998 (or 16 years after the book was first published), V for Vendetta is a vision of a dystopian British near-future where a nearly worldwide destruction at the hands of nuclear war has caused England to fall under the tyrannical rule of a fascist political regime known as Norsefire. At the center of the tale is a terrorist named V who wages a practically one-man war against England’s new rulers. Wearing a Guy Fawkes mask (the anarchist who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605) and spouting Shakespeare and other literary luminaries, V is the keeper of culture in a world where the fascists have erased all aspects of society (blacks, Jews, gays, intellectuals) that don’t fall in line with their Nordic vision of humanity. At the beginning of the story, V rescues 16 year old factory worker (and attempted prostitute) Evey Hammond from this world’s equivalent of the Gestapo who are about to rape and murder her. She soon finds herself drawn into V’s world where he plans on destroying every inch of the current society so that humanity can rebuild from scratch and finally take responsibility for their own future. Along the way though, he sets in motion an elaborate revenge scheme against key members of the party who committed terrible atrocities against him and others at a government sponsored concentration camp.

I’m having difficulty making up my mind on how I feel about the artwork in V for Vendetta. It certainly improved as the series progressed, and there was a certain artistry in a lot of the individual frames where David Lloyd was able to accomplish quite a bit without the need of any dialogue or thought bubbles (no sound effects for the entire series). However, on the whole, it wasn’t especially aesthetically pleasing to the eye. There was a certain ugliness about every character and every building. That was probably intentional considering the story, but I certainly preferred Dave Gibbons’ artwork with Alan Moore on Watchmen. I can attribute a lot of the early awkwardiness though to the fact that this strip was originally done in black and white with color being something that was stitched on to the final product when DC would pick up the strip years after it had laid on the shelf when its original home went under. There’s a lot of strange, muted color palettes used for the strip, and while, yet again, this makes sense from a story perspective, it is very rare that is comic is ever pleasant to look at. The one great thing I will give to David Lloyd is how he handles the moments when Alan Moore would provide absolutely no dialogue pertinent to what was actually happening on screen and Lloyd had to tell the entire story (rather than the subtext Moore was providing) through his pictures. Lloyd is very gifted at visual storytelling; I just wished he approached the aesthetic part of his drawing with more of an eye for beauty, but then again, I’m probably complaining about an aspect of his drawings that he was actively trying not to achieve.

This was Moore’s breakthrough novel, and as much as this man certainly represents (along with Neil Gaiman) the apex of the literary ambitions of the graphic novel market, he was still in his formative stages when he was putting this book together, and it really shows. A lot of the dialogue (V’s excepted) is rough, especially in the stories written before the book’s years long hiatus. Moore often layers so much external dialogue over what is happening that it becomes harder to understand who is speaking and what is quite going on than in a Robert Altman film. Despite Moore’s attempts to flesh out his character, the Leader, Adam Susan, still comes off as almost cartoonishly villainous and by book’s end, comically inept. You never see any of the charisma and manipulativeness which would have needed to exist to propel this strange man to power. Nearly all of the primary antagonists of the piece are one-dimensional political strawmen, and there’s one, a Scottish gangster, that I couldn’t understand most of what he said because of Moore’s decision to spell out his dialogue phonetically. Outside of V himself, none of the characters in this book have the mental staying power that every single character in Watchmen portrayed. What made Watchmen so good was that not only were the heroes often fatally flawed, the villains often made their fair share of points. In V for Vendetta, the only character with much depth is V, and while his motivations and methods spark debate, there’s no villain worthy of the kind of thought Ozymandias provoked in Watchmen.

You have to understand though that any complaints or quibbles I have about this work are all in relation to Moore’s later work. When this first sprung on the scene, it was light years ahead of everything else out there in terms of quality and content. This was the book that let Watchmen happen. It allowed Frank Miller to write something like The Dark Knight Rises (the more I know about Miller’s personal politics, the more it puts all of his comic writing in an increasingly negative light). Neil Gaiman would be able to craft the apex of graphic novel storytelling with Sandman thanks to this early experiment. Yes, it’s flawed, but that tends to happen when you’re crafting the beginnings of a comics revolution. Watchmen remains one of the greatest novels of all time (regular or graphic), and he laid the foundations for his dystopian vision in this book. If you’re a fan of comic books, this is must read. It helped to usher in the modern world of comics where people finally took them seriously, and at the end of the day, it’s still a great read from beginning to end.

Final Score: A-

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Stephen King is one of the most accomplished authors of all time. He published his first novel, Carrie, in 1973, and over the next 38 years he has produced a mind-boggling 49 novels, not to mention his screenplays, short story collections, and non-fiction books. For those doing the math, that means he’s averaging more than one novel a year. Admittedly, for every The Stand or The Dead Zone, you’ll get a Christine or Thinner, but there’s simply no looking past how prolific this legend’s career has been. It’s popular for literary academic types to beat up on Mr. King for his accessible and simple prose as well as his penchant for the supernatural and other pulp material. What they often overlook, however, is his incredibly rich characterization (among the best in the business) alongside his striking insights into the darker sides of human nature. Real Stephen King fans know that his best work are among his least reliant on horror cliches like ghouls and monsters (It excepted which is terror incarnate). Instead, the terror comes from the darkness inside us all, if horror is even the point. Along side George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, Stephen King’s Dark Tower books have become hallmarks of American fantasy. Similarly, his apocalyptic magnum opus, The Stand, is a seminal piece of Americana rife with plentiful Biblical symbolism and social allegory. My favorite King novel, Insomnia, has an urban fantasy plot but at its core is a deeply touching tale of old age, loss, and sacrifice. I’m happy to report that Stephen King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is simply the best work he has done in over a decade. Rife with political allegory and a plot that never lets off the gas for its nearly 1100 pages, Under the Dome is King at his very best.

Under the Dome, a door-stopper along the lines of It and The Stand, is one of King’s most ambitious novels to date, even if the action all occurs with the confines of one small Maine Town (for once not Castle Rock or Derry). As retired Army Lt. Dale “Barbie” Barbara is trying to leave the small town of Chester’s Mill after a vicious beating from some local hoods, an invisible but impenetrable dome covers the entire town exactly along the town lines. Planes crash into the invisible barrier and any car that hits the Dome explodes. People working in their gardens or walking along the town’s barrier are cut in half by the quick descent of the bars that have turned this town into a prison. As Barbie (at the urging of his former military superiors) tries to discover the source of the dome, he is also forced to contend with “Big” Jim Rennie, the town’s Second Selectman (which must be Maine’s equivalent of a Deputy Mayor) and used car salesman. Rennie’s a cut throat politician with a dirty streak that would make Dick Cheney blush, and he sees the potential for unchecked power in “his” town now that they’re cut off from the outside world. It’s up to Barbie, as well as local newspaper woman Julia Shumway and physician’s assistant turned town doctor Rusty Everett, to stop Rennie and save this town from the impending ecological and social disasters this Dome is sure to cause. When the local children start having visions of a massive fire and imminent doom, it’s obvious to everyone that time is running short.

George R. R. Martin could really take lessons from Stephen King about how to maintain good pacing over the course of 1000 pages. In the A Song of Ice and Fire books (especially all of the ones after book 1), Martin tends to back load all of the action and actual development into the last couple hundred pages which can make the first 4oo pages or so, a little taxing to read (especially in A Feast for Crows). This book starts out with a series of literal bangs and continues to up the ante non-stop for the rest of the book. Every time you think that there’s no way that Stephen King can make the stakes any higher or increase the tension to more unbearable levels or (especially) take his story to even darker places, he essentially bitch-slaps your misgivings and lays down the acceleration even more. This book is the definition of can’t put down fiction. I read this while at work (where I bar tend and have plenty of free time) and I was averaging something along the lines of 200-300 pages a shift over 6 hour shifts. It inspired me to get the actual work of my job done as quickly as possible so that I could spend as little time away from this tome as I could spare. Over it’s 1000 pages, it would be difficult to recount just how many different action filled moments King provides, but a quick breakdown would include a Roadhouse style bar room brawl, a prison break-out, attempted political assassinations, a shoot-out straight out of The Wild Bunch, and other moments I don’t want to ruin through simple allusion. Needless to say, this plot continues to evolve into a continuing darker and darker place, and what starts out as a more personal and political version of King’s earlier Needful Things metamorphoses into something more akin to Cormac McCarthey’s The Road.

What strikes me the most about the book (even more than its break-neck pacing) is how effective King has become at painting an incredibly political tale. Under the Dome is the logical culmination of his short story The Mist and his novel Needful Things, in how it takes a supernatural situation but rather than that being what causes most of the damage, it shows just how short a period of time before being cut off from society and security turns us back to our baser and more animalistic nature. However, if it were simply those themes at work, then King would just be recycling old material (something he’s been accused of doing in the past, but it isn’t as true as his hater’s think. The only thing From a Buick 8 has in common with Christine is a car. From a Buick 8 is a much more ambitious and interesting novel). Instead, he layers a political allegory on top of his social commentary that is as relevant today as it was two years ago when the book was released and four years ago when he started writing it. “Big” Jim Rennie is a not entirely subtle dig at Dick Cheney (First Selectman Andy Sanders being his puppet George W. Bush), and the dangers and disasters that come when you have the wrong kind of people in office at the wrong moments. It’s a novel about greed and lust for power, and King is expertly able to show how a crisis and an unwitting and scared public are all it takes to create despots like Rennie and the Bush administration. Some people may take umbrage at the fairly one-sided political nature of the novel, but for anyone who has seen our nation’s liberties eroded time and time again in the name of “safety” and “protecting our freedoms”, you’ll appreciate King’s sharp insight.

This should come as no surprise to long time King fans but his characterization and mastery of telling a story from many, many points of view is on better display in Under the Dome than in any of his novels since It and The Stand. It is essentially a book about small-town America, and King wants you to know as much about the citizens inhabiting Chester’s Mill as you can. The story is told from around 20 separate points of view (though the main cast is perhaps a more reasonable five or six characters), and by the time the book ends, you may feel you know the inhabitants of Chester’s Mill as well as you do your own small town. The fact that King is able to accomplish all of this character development and backstory without ever sacrificing the pacing of the novel is a masterful achievement (and something he wasn’t even able to do in the universally lauded The Stand). King’s gift though is not only getting into the minds of his heroes but truly inhabiting his villains. “Big” Jim Rennie and his even more psychopathic son, Junior, are among King’s best villains to date. Their only real competition in that category are recurring King villain Randall Flagg as well as It‘s Pennywise the Clown. Combining Rennie’s utterly evil and despotic tendencies alongside his borderline genius on how to maintain his own power, you get a villain who is more than a match for our heroes and does far more damage to the town of Chester’s Mill than the Dome could ever hope.

For those who can get past their own literary pretensions, it is plain that Stephen King has remained one of the most resounding literary American voices for the last 40 years, with absolutely no signs of slowing down any time soon. Not even his nearly fatal car accident has been able to take the spring from his step. Under the Dome marks, not a return to form which would imply his writing had gotten bad in the last decade, but a return to the masterful heights all of his fans know he is capable of. Even if you’re intimidated by the books remarkable length, you shouldn’t let that discourage you from picking up one of the most powerful works by one of our nation’s best. After I finally finished the book and came to the end of its incredibly shocking final 100 pages or so, I was left with so much to think about and spent the remainder of my shift at work in deep contemplation about what I had just read. For someone who loves the works of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and James  Joyce, I should be one of those literary snobs that turns his nose up at the pulp fiction Stephen King writes. I don’t. His ability to transform clear and simple prose that every one can appreciate into tales that cross the border into legitimate artistic expression make him a modern American egalitarian legend. This is King like he hasn’t been in decades, and fan or not, you shouldn’t let this one slide by.

Final Score: A+