Category Archives: Comics You Should Have Already Read By Now

Comics You Should Have Read By Now: JLA/Avengers

Hello, Geeks, and welcome to our latest installment of Comics You Should Have Read By Now. For those of you joining us for the first time, we make it our mission with this article to highlight the best works that the industry has to offer. But while this sounds pretty straightforward, it is somewhat tricky to quantify, as different things can be the “best works” for entirely different reasons. Things can be good for thought-provoking stories, or for beautiful artwork, or for a profound message. Sometimes, a comic can move you with ingenious storytelling that pushes the limits of the medium. Today’s selection, though, manages to do something entirely different: it represents what I think think to be the greatest fan book to ever grace comic shops.  That’s because today we’ll be taking a look at the most epic comic crossover of all time, JLA/Avengers.
Continue reading Comics You Should Have Read By Now: JLA/Avengers

Comics You Should Have Read By Now: Daytripper

Hello, and welcome to another segment of Comics You Should Have Read By Now. Today, we’re going to be branching out a little bit and take a look at a book that isn’t about super heroes. It features no supernatural elements, and does not take place in a fantastical setting. There are no high-octane action sequences or high-stakes shadowy intrigue. It came out only recently (2010), and so hasn’t really achieved “classic” status, and therefore probably won’t show up on too many “All Time Great” lists. But in spite of this, today’s featured graphic novel is definitely a comic you should have read by now.

This is because Daytripper by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon is quite simply one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Continue reading Comics You Should Have Read By Now: Daytripper

Comics You Should Have Read By Now: X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills

Hello, folks! And welcome to another installment of Comics You Should Have Read By Now, now without the “Already.” But while we’ve taken a word out of the title, our goal remains the same: to showcase and discuss the best of the best in the world of comics. For today’s segment, we’re going to be looking at Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson’s X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, a thought-provoking look at our own society through Marvel’s Merry Mutants. File:X-Men God Loves Man Kills cover.jpg

Before we get to talking about this particular book, though, let’s take a few moments to talk about the X-Men in a more general sense. What is it about them that makes them so compelling, to the point that they can support such a staggering number of characters and monthly titles? Part of it is, of course, the strong creative teams who have contributed to their books over the years, and part of it is the colorful characters on their rosters and the exotic adventures they go on. I would argue, though, that the thing that truly sets the X-Men apart is the way in which they embody the plight of the downtrodden.

Ever since their debut in the 1960s, the X-Men have been purposefully and at most times effectively cast as the Marvel Universe’s representatives of the oppressed minority, both in a broad sense and as specific analogies. Originally, this could mostly be viewed as a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement which was at its height during the 1960s, but has since been expanded upon to include a number of groups outside of the mainstream, most notably homosexuals. All told, the X-Men have a long and rich history of espousing tolerance while speaking against bigotry and hatred.

Yet while combating intolerance has always defined the X-Men in one form or another, nowhere has it been done more directly or, I would argue, done better than in the pages of God Loves, Man Kills. The story follows the X-Men as they struggle against the forces of deranged religious leader William Stryker and his army of fanatical followers, the Purifiers, as they crusade against all mutants. But while this may sound like a setup for a fairly standard super-hero story, God Loves, Man Kills is anything but. I mean, sure, the X-Men do briefly fight against thugs in robot suits, and Stryker’s master plan does involve using a brainwashed Professor X to wipe out mutant-kind, but the bulk of the tension here is not your standard super hero fare. There are no alien invasions to fight, no sentient islands to visit, no demons to slay. Rev. William Stryker is not your typical comic book super villain, but rather something far more frightening: the type of fear-mongering zealot that we might find here in our own world.

And it is this, perhaps, that really makes God Loves, Man Kills stand out. This is a book that places its narrative in a less exotic light, one that is steeped mostly in the mundane and the familiar. Because of this, the story will at times hit very close to home, reflecting scenes from our own society that we are perhaps not as far removed from as we would like to think. What is probably the most striking example of this can be found in the opening pages, where we find a young mutant and his family being hunted down and murdered by an angry mob, with their bodies strung up, put on display, and denounced as mutants.

Here, Claremont’s symbology is deliberate and fairly straightforward, calling to mind the  lynchings that have been carried out in our own Real World. And it worked. This sequence serves as a bone-chilling reminder that the discrimination the mutants face in the Marvel Universe is not one of mean looks and angry shouting, but one incorporating the most vile hatred, the kind that moves people to commit unthinkable atrocities. Much the same as it does in real life. By taking the focus away from flamboyant super-villainy, this story brings the central struggle of the X-Men to the foreground: the philosophical battle for acceptance. And this battle is fought not with fists, but over hearts and minds. Appropriately enough, then, the book also places a heavy focus on the average people, those without affiliation to the X-Men or the Purifiers. We see the way the ordinary people of the Marvel U react to the presence of those that are different, and while we may see hatred and fear, or else passive indifference…

…we also see elements of hope and acceptance.

The climax of God Loves, Man Kills occurs as our heroes confront Stryker at a rally, using not their powers, but rather their words to resolve the situation.  It is here that Kitty Pryde makes an impassioned speech, pushing Stryker to reveal himself as the monster he is.

It is at this time that a nearby police officer interferes, saving Kitty.

It’s important, I think, for the theme of this story that it was an average citizen, inspired by a heartfelt plea, that ultimately stops the villain. This is because at the end of the day, God Loves, Man Kills isn’t about the Marvel Universe; it’s about ours. It’s about us. It’s about the fear that we sometimes allow to control us, about hatred that warps something good into something monstrous.

But it’s also about hope. It’s about the hope that there are good people as well as hateful ones,  that we as a society are slowly yet surely making progress, and that in the end, acceptance  will prove stronger than our fears.

God Loves, Man Kills is a powerful book with a poignant message, one that’s all too familiar, despite the presence of teleporting imps and Masters of Magnetism. In the past, when people have asked me to recommend books to introduce them to the world of the X-Men, I invariably loaned them this book. It is the greatest example of the struggle that defines Marvel’s Merry Mutants, the fight to protect a world that fears and hates them. The X-Men represent a movement towards tolerance that has been one of the defining features of human society, and you’ll find no better example than this book here.

So there we have it! What did you think? Please leave a comment to let me know, and thank you for reading!

Comics You Should Have Already Read by Now: All-Star Superman

Hello, fellow comic fans, and welcome to another installment of Comics You Should Have Already Read by Now. This time around, we’re going to be taking a bit of a break from the norm, and look at a comic book that actually came out within the last decade: Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman. Telling the story of a dying Superman, this book serves as a celebration of who the Man of Steel is and everything he represents in a tale filled to brim with astounding and beautiful moments. Essentially, this book is a giant love-letter to the Last Son of Krypton handled by some of the best talents in the industry, with truly stellar results.

Released as a 12 issue miniseries between 2005 and 2008, All-Star Superman tells the tale of a possible ending for the Man of Steel. After being overexposed to solar radiation while rescuing a band of scientists on the surface of the sun, Superman’s body begins to slowly tear itself apart over the course of a year. With this as our backdrop, the story takes an inspired look at what Superman means on a number of levels. In the fictional setting he inhabits, this means looking at Superman’s role in the world, as well as his role in the lives of his loved ones. In a broader sense, though, Morrison and Quitely give us a study of what Superman means as a comic book character and as a symbol to those of us in the real world, displaying an intimate understanding of essence of the Last Son of Krypton.

Don’t believe me? You need look no further than the first page of the first issue, where they manage to distill Kal-El’s origin story down to a mere 8 words and 4 images!

So to start things off, we have a succinct example of how the creative team, armed with the understanding that Superman has been deeply ingrained into pop culture for well over half a century, are able to break down the essence of who Superman is and incorporate this seamlessly into the narrative.

And things continue along in this fashion, delivering moment after moment that distill the core of the character and the fanciful nature of his adventures.

Issue #3, for example, follows Superman on his date with Lois Lane, an occasion filled cover to cover with Silver Age variety craziness…

But which of course ends with a kiss.

Issue #6, on the other hand, has Superman working with a band of his time-traveling successors to contain a Chronovore in Smallville, during which time he takes the opportunity to connect with his roots and visit his father one last time.

Yet if you had to pick the one issue that best defines Superman, the one that features the Man of Steel at his most iconic, displaying the truest representation of the character, you’d be hard-pressed to beat Issue #10. Narrated by Superman as he thinks on his life, the action follows the Man of Tomorrow over the course of a day as he visits sick kids in the hospital, fights mad scientists from the future, and witnesses the Bottle City of Kandor’s colonization of Mars. Even amongst all this insanity, though, the thing that sticks out the most is the scene in which Superman saves a troubled young girl with the simplest act of kindness there is: a hug.

If you were to ask me to show you one panel to demonstrate the purest and most genuine representation of what Superman is all about, I would show you that final panel with Superman hugging Reagan. This is because Clark Kent is who he is because he’s the guy who always takes time to help the person no one else noticed. He’s the guy who doesn’t fight to punish the guilty, but rather to protect the innocent. He’s the guy who would rather not solve a problem with his fists, but with compassion.

He’s the man with the power of a god, but who’s greatest strength lies in his humanity.

This, then, ties in well with what I think is the best part of All-Star Superman: it whole-heartedly embraces what the character is. Morrison and Quitely understand that Superman is character often maligned for being overpowered and perceived as old-fashioned. But rather than trying create artificial conflict by nerfing his power or making Kal-El more angst-ridden, they instead bring his strength and nobility to the foreground (on the powers front, in fact, this Superman is more powerful than ever with his solar saturation boosting his abilities even as they kill him). By making the story about Superman coming to grips with his impending death, the creators give us a compelling story that assesses the life of Superman and what has made the character an enduring icon.

One of the most important aspects of this is the recognition that Superman is the Man of Tomorrow, not the Man of the Past. Those who think of the Man of Steel as a relic of yesteryear, I would argue, are looking in entirely the wrong direction. He doesn’t represent a simpler, more innocent past that we’ve gotten away from; rather, he represents a goal that we’re still trying to reach. This sentiment is expressed beautifully in the book, when Superman has a spiritual encounter with his father, Jor-El, who explains the significance of Kal’s presence on earth.

“You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl…and curse…and finally…they will join you in the sun, Kal-El.”

Superman represents the best of what we want to be, both to the denizens of the DC Universe and to readers in the real world. He is a goal that we still strive for, even if we are never going to reach it.

All-Star Superman celebrates this side of the Man of Steel, and does so in a spell-binding fashion. This is a book that is both inspiring and heartfelt, and any fan of the Last Son of Krypton, or of super heroes in general, owes it to themselves to add it to their library.

Comics You Should Have Already Read By Now: Sandman

Hiya folks! And welcome to another installment of a series we like to call Comics You Should Have Already Read By Now. Today, we’re going to be taking a look at Neil Gaiman’s signature masterpiece, The Sandman. Guiding us through the surreal world of Morpheus, the King of Dreams, Sandman gives readers a powerful experience that examines the nature of stories and human imagination. It has remained critically acclaimed and in wide circulation for the better part of 2 decades after its conclusion, garnering respect in both comic book and wider literary circles. It will likely be difficult for me to adequately describe what makes it so special, but hell, let’s give it a shot.

I meant what I said about how difficult it is to talk about Sandman, and that difficulty starts first and foremost with trying to peg down what genre we should categorize it into. On the one hand, there are a fair number of horror elements on display, as several issues revolve around the literal stuff of nightmares. That being said, there are also plenty of light hearted moments to be found, with stories ranging the gambit from simple parables to intriguing thrillers. And running through all of these disparate offerings, we have elements of fantasy, mystery, and Shakespearean intrigue. So clearly there is a lot on the table, but no matter which volume you pick, there are two constants which are apparent in every story: they all in some way feature the exploits of Morpheus, and the fact that Sandman is a comic book for adults.

I don’t say this because the book is chock full of gore and erotica or anything like that; rather, Sandman is adults-only because it challenges the reader to actively engage the story, to ponder the scenes on the page, and to ask questions about what stories are and how they shape us.

The main character himself is part of the Endless, a family comprised of the anthropomorphic embodiments of fundamental forces that shape human existence. And this is just the tip of the ice berg for a creative cast of characters comprised of angels, demons, gods, monsters and nightmares, in settings that range from the heart of Chaos to the gardens of Destiny, and everywhere in between.

Undoubtedly, the spectacle of these sights, handled by a variety of artists over the course of the series, are large part of what helps Sandman gain such a firm grasp upon the reader’s imagination.

Our journey takes to the original performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Shakespeare and his men put on a show for the court faeries, and we learn that stories don’t have to be real for them to be true.

We see Morpheus converse with the Caliph of Bagdhad as the mortal ruler seeks to immortalize his city by surrendering it to the land of dreams.

We follow Dream to the depths of Hell, as he reminds its denizens that even the most vile creatures in existence should respect the power of dreams.

As you no doubt have noticed, these scenes are remarkably different from one another, and indeed many of Sandman‘s 10 collected volumes contain a wide variety of self-contained stories. Yet woven between these disparate elements, we find unexpected connections between characters and plot seeds that germinate and converge in long-running arches. It is in this way that Gaiman displays his mastery of his craft, delivering a vast range of engaging, intelligently written stand-alone stories while simultaneously playing a long game that pays dividends dozens of issue down the road.

That, perhaps, is the aspect that makes Sandman so special: the intricately crafted nature of it. Sandman is a story that is at times beautiful, at times frightful, and constantly thought-provoking, with Gaiman displaying a level of craft and sophistication throughout.

This is a story about stories themselves, and while it may be difficult to describe, it is not at all difficult to enjoy.

Comics You Should Have Already Read By Now: Maus

Hello friends, and welcome to another installment of Comics You Should Have Already Read By Now, a series which examines some of the best comics in the industry and discusses what makes them so very good. Today, we’ll be taking a look at what is perhaps the most highly regarded graphic novel of all time: Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. Indeed, Maus is so highly regarded that it received the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first graphic novel ever to do so, largely because they had to invent a new category, “Special,” just so that they could give it the award. This book is even prestigious enough to find a spot as required reading in many high school and college curriculums across the country. Heck, if you look for it at the book store, you’ll probably find it in the biography section, which is usually considered to be much more high-brow than the lowly graphic novel section. What is it that makes the book so highly esteemed? Let’s find out!

Let’s start with a brief summary of the work. First published in a collected volume in 1986, Maus tells the true story of Spiegelman’s father Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. Through a series of interviews conducted by his son, Vladek describes his experiences in prewar Poland, being forced into hiding, and living in and being freed from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Along the way, we watch as he and his loved ones struggle to survive the degrading conditions around them. Unfortunately, many of them are lost along the way, including Vladek’s father, in-laws, and even his son, Richiu. Vladek’s experiences during the Holocaust are only half of the story, though, as Spiegelman incorporates his interview process into the narrative, effectively making himself a character in his own story. It is in this way that Spiegelman weaves together the story of his father’s past with an intimate portrayal of the relationship between Art and his father.

The first thing that is likely to jump out at you as you read Maus is, well, the mice. Throughout both eras depicted in the novel, Spiegelman employs a visual metaphor in which he represents different groups of people as different species of animals, with Jewish characters as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs, to name a few. The beauty of this style is the way in which it applies a disarming simplicity to events both complex and unimaginably horrific. If one were to go into the story not knowing what to expect, they might be tricked by the cartoonish mice into thinking that the book is going to be a watered-down retelling of the Holocaust; this notion is quickly dispelled, though, as the book uses those same cartoon mice to depict gruesome events, including a child being brutally murdered by a German soldier, or Jews being publicly executed and displayed in the streets (see below). The result is a jarring juxtaposition of stylized symbolism and stark realism that makes the brutality on display hit the reader with a far greater impact.

Furthermore, the metaphor used in Maus also serves as a parody of the propaganda used by the Nazis themselves and their anti-Semitic forbears, who were fond of comparing Jewish people to rats and other vermin. Spiegelman’s artwork deconstructs this dehumanizing label and applies it to the whole of the human race. As the story progresses, the work demonstrates how these labels fall short of describing reality; as shown by the image below, such caricatures create preconceived notions that blot out the facts about a person, skewing our perceptions. Through Maus, we are given an understanding of how absurd these labels are, even as they are used for narrative and artistic effect.

With such strong artwork at his disposal, Spiegelman gives a gripping and memorable take on the Holocaust. Maus goes a step beyond this, however, and also delivers a riveting depiction of the profound issues that followed the survivors across generations. As stated above, half of Maus is devoted to telling the story of Artie interviewing his father, and through this we are given a deeply personal view of the relationship between the two men. This is given to us with a degree of honesty that is seldom found in writing, as Art leaves himself extremely vulnerable by putting himself on display for his readers so that we see his pain just as much as Vladek’s. And a large part of this pain is his inability to relate to his father because of the Holocaust. At one point, Spiegelman admits to his therapist that no matter what he achieves in life, it would feel petty and insignificant compared to surviving Auschwitz. The alienation between the two men is probably best illustrated, though, in the prologue of the story. The scene takes place during Artie’s childhood; after being teased by his friends, the young boy runs to his father seeking comfort. Vladek, however, has no comfort to give, but rather the harsh lessons his own life had taught him, which spills over into his interaction with his son.

It is in this way that Maus delves into aspects of the Holocaust that are often left out of the history books: the way it changed the survivors, and how it affected the way they fit into society and interacted with their loved ones. As I said, the story in Maus is a personal affair between Artie and his father, and in no way should they be taken to represent every family with Holocaust survivors, but their story holds large lessons about trauma and alienation that apply to many people. Maus incorporates these issues as Spiegelman pours himself into his work, producing powerful results.

Now, I’ve spent a while here heaping some well-deserved praise at Maus. As good as Maus is, though, we cannot look at it in its entirety without asking some difficult questions. Is it right for Spiegelman to be making money on a story about the Holocaust? Isn’t that disrespectful to those who lost their lives? Is it even possible for any project to adequately describe an event as large and as monstrous as the systematic extermination of millions of people?

Scathing questions, to be sure, but keep in mind that I’m not the one who came up with them.

These are questions that Maus asks about itself.

Spiegelman’s work displays a self-awareness on a scale that is rarely seen in any medium. Maus is a book that understands that the Holocaust is bigger than any graphic novel can describe. It understands that death on such a scale is too complex an issue for any one story. And it questions if it is right for someone to achieve fame and success by depicting human suffering.

This last point is brought powerfully to life in the opening pages of the chapter “Time Flies.” In one of the most striking sequences I’ve ever seen in a comic book, Spiegelman moves us away from both of the story’s previous timelines and brings us into what was then the present, during the time in which he was actually publishing Maus. The issue opens with Spiegelman, his metaphor reined in and his mouse mask showing, sitting at his desk reflecting upon the process and success of his work. As the frame widens through subsequent panels, however, he depicts himself working upon a pile of corpses.

It’s been years since I read Maus for the first time, and more than anything else, the memory of seeing this for the first time is the thing that sticks with me. Not only is it a powerful image, but it is also extremely thought-provoking. Through this sequence and the pages that follow it, Spiegelman brings us into the very process of creating Maus, into his own doubts and reservations. We are made to ponder difficult questions about depicting tragedy and the way in which we remember history.

And really, I think that this leads neatly into the thing that more than anything else makes Maus so special: the totality of it. It is at once a story of survival from the Holocaust, the story of a son’s struggle to relate to his father, and a commentary on how we understand art and deal with the past. Maus is a book about ideas that might just be too big for us to consider, and a masterful work of art that stands apart in the medium.

Thank you for reading, and please feel free to comment below!

Comics You Should Have Already Read By Now: Watchmen

Hello, friends! Taylor here! And I’m exciting to be bringing you something new today here at Outright Geekery: an examination of some of the greatest comics ever written in a segment we’re calling Comics You Should Have Already Read By Now. The aim here is to shine a spotlight on some of the best material to have ever graced the comic medium, and to break down the components of the stories that add up to make the books so good. Basically, think of this as our site’s version of a book club meeting, where we can get together to talk about the all-time classics.

With this in mind, what better book could there be for our initial outing than the one that many people, myself included, consider the greatest comic book ever created? And so let’s dive into Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.

Before we get started, though, you should know that I meant what I said when I named the segment “comics you should have already read by now;” I’m going to be writing with the expectation that you have already read Watchmen. Remember, this is going to be a discussion about the things that make the book good, not a review encouraging you to run out and buy it. As such, I am going to be talking about the book in its entirety, which includes the ending. Naturally, this means that this post will contain quite a few spoilers.

Those of you who haven’t read it have been warned.

Now that that’s out of the way, let us begin.

A Brief Synopsis

Set mostly in New York City in the year 1985, the world of Watchmen is one not dissimilar to our own; it has the same history, the same leadership, and is also embroiled in the tension of the Cold War. Indeed, the only major difference between the real world and the world of Watchmen is the existence of superheros. Yet while there is only a handful of these costumed crime fighters, only one of which actually has super powers, they influence several key events of the 20th century in a profound way. A few examples include the god-like Dr Manhattan almost single-handedly winning the Vietnam War for the United States, the Comedian, a sadistic government agent, ending the Iranian Hostage Crisis and assassinating JFK, and the ingenious Ozymandias reshaping society with a number of inventions.

Our story picks up, however, long after the glory days of the superhero, in a time when vigilante activity is abhorred by society, and the world seems to be on the brink of nuclear annihilation. It is in this climate that the Comedian is found dead, setting off a chain of events in which his fellow vigilantes become embroiled in a wide-reaching conspiracy in which the fate of the whole world is on the line.

With this as our backdrop, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons give us an intricate and brilliantly crafted tale filled from cover to cover with complex, engaging characters, clever plot-twists, and compelling philosophical issues. In fact, there is so much to talk about in Watchmen that it is often difficult to point to any one thing that makes it so good. Rather, I would argue that the thing that makes Watchmen stand out the way it’s individual components work in concert with one another to create a finished product that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Now, we could spend hours talking about all the things that Watchmen does well. But rather than try to tackle the book in its entirety, I want to attempt something else; I want to try to break down the two things that, more than anything else, make Watchmen the greatest comic ever written. In my opinion, these things are Moore and Gibbons’ intimate understanding of comic books as a medium and of superheros as a genre.

Understanding of Comics as a Medium

At this point, I’d like to take a step back from Watchmen itself and talk briefly about storytelling in a general sense. Even before the dawn of civilization, human beings have been telling each other stories. With this much time to refine the formula, we’ve pretty much worked out all of the various tropes and conventions that we can use for telling tales, and applied these techniques across a number of different media. Fast-forwarding to the modern day, we now have a wide range of formats for telling stories, including film, prose,  and comic books.

Each type of medium, naturally, has its own strengths and weaknesses. Movies are able to combine audio and visual elements to convey specific moods and emotions that, with talented directors and actors at the helm, can have an extremely powerful effect. Books are able to go into greater length of detail to bring in the reader for the long haul, as well as use well-crafted words that prompt the reader’s imagination to create its own scenery. Comic books, meanwhile, have strengths all their own, several of which are on display in Watchmen.

Let me show you what I mean with three examples.

First, let’s take a look at Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry.” Following the deranged Rorschach as he investigates the Comedian’s murder, we find out that the vigilante has bitten off more than he can chew and is set up to take a fall. I bring it up here, though, because of the way this chapter utilizes a stunning artistic approach that can only be achieved in the medium of comic books. As you read through the comic book, you start with the 3×3 panel layout that is more or less the default for the whole story. As you move along, though, Gibbons begins to throw in a number of larger panels at seemingly random intervals. Nothing special so far, though; this has pretty much been the approach for the whole run. All this changes, however, when we reach this two page spread…

It is at this point that the panel layout begins to mirror itself centered upon the central panel above, so that if you were to lay all of this issue’s pages side by side, the panels would have perfect symmetry. The finished product, then, incorporates into its very presentation the same symmetry that is an iconic part of Rorschach, the chapter’s protagonist, adding greatly to the overall effect of the story. Again, this is an artistic approach that takes advantage full of the way comics convey information, and is not something that could be achieved in another medium.

Another area in which Watchmen takes advantage of the strengths of a comic book can be seen in the way it paces its story. One good way to demonstrate this is to take a closer examination of my personal favorite chapter, “The Darkness of Mere Being.” During this sequence, Dr Manhattan brings Silk Spectre to his new home on Mars to give her one last chance to convince him to return to earth to save humanity (or in a broader sense, to convince him that humanity is worth saving). As the chapter progresses, Laurie’s advocacy for humanity forces her look deeply within herself to find her answers. Consequently, she spends time dwelling on moments that, for better or for worse, defined her life, including interactions with her mother and other members of the superhero community. As the comic moves along, we constantly switch back and forth between Laurie’s memories and her seemingly losing battle to move Dr Manhattan to action, as Laurie uses her own past as a lens through which to examine all the chaos of the human experience. As she continues to be honest about her own past, though, her anxiety builds as she pieces together who she is and where she came from. Ultimately, this all builds to a crescendo as Laurie relives some of her worst memories while simultaneously being reduced to hopelessness as the one being capable of saving humanity stands before her, uncaring. It is in this moment of purest desperation that she comes to the realization that the Comedian, a sociopath, a rapist, and a murderer, is in fact her father. Here, Laurie hits her absolute low point, with her life figuratively collapsing around her while Dr Manhattan’s palace literally crashes upon her.

Yet just when everything seems lost, Dr Manhattan is finally moved by Laurie’s plight, concluding that if the chaos of everyday life could produce people like Laurie in even the most unlikely of circumstances, than human life might be worth fighting for after all.

When read from beginning to end, this is a very powerful and moving scene. Like I said, we spend the entire chapter building up to a fever pitch before reaching the climax, aided along the way by carefully sequenced words and imagery. Altogether, the chapter is made so strong by the pacing it achieves, a pacing that can’t really be used in a different medium.

Don’t believe me? Let’s make the obvious comparison and look at the equivalent scene from the Watchmen film. I just finished gushing about how the comic had such a powerful build up, but in the movie, Laurie’s big realization comes in a matter of seconds when Dr Manhattan uses his powers, at her request, to make her relive a repressed memory. Where the comic slowly, tantalizing leads you into a powerful moment, the movie pushes the realization upon you all at once. As you might imagine, the effect isn’t quite the same. To be fair, though, it’s not really the movie’s fault; they simply changed the sequence so that it would work in a movie format. When telling a story on film, one of the greatest limiting factors is always time, since it’s very hard to keep an audience engaged for extensive periods. Consequently, it’s difficult to justify including too many things that don’t directly advance the plot. When dealing with source material as rich as Watchmen, there is simply not enough time to keep everything. And one of the things we have no time for is to let Laurie and Manhattan have their debate on Mars, leading to the vastly abbreviated version we get in the movie.

By that same token, a prose version of the same scene would likely have to spend far more time to achieve the same effect as the comic, simply because, as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Where the comic is able use pictures to convey Laurie’s memories quickly as we move back and forth from past to present, a novel would have to spend several paragraphs to set up each transition to a new memory if it wanted to achieve the same level of detail. Where the movie had no time to build tension in the first place, a book would undo any tension it created as it is forced to provide the necessary exposition the shifting landscape requires. Moore and Gibbons, fortunately, knew that this sort of narrative landscape would work perfectly in a comic, and were able to use this to great effect.

Finally, Watchmen also provides us with a great example of a comic book’s ability to use imagery to give the audience story cues with a degree of subtlety that isn’t attainable in films or novels. To observe this, let’s look in on Chapter 11, “Look On My Works, Ye Mighty,” which serves as the climax of our story. By this point, Nite Owl and Rorschach have discovered that their old ally Ozymandias is the mastermind behind the Comedian’s murder and the conspiracy behind it. The chapter picks up with the duo en route to Ozymandias’ Antarctic retreat to confront him once and for all. When they arrive, however, they are promptly and soundly beaten, after which Ozymandias has a polite conversation with his attackers. As he explains his motivations, the action switches between this scene and New York City, where several of the minor characters we’ve been seeing since the beginning of the story have been caught up in a minor street fight. Once Ozymandias has finished explaining the details of his cover up, we finally learn about the plan that was at the center of it: to put and end to Cold War hostilities by convincing the world that all of humanity faced a common foe in the form of inter-dimensional aliens, and to murder millions of people in order to make the threat seem real. Upon hearing this, Nite Owl is incredulous, and asks Ozymandias when he was going to “do it.” Adrian responds with one of the most famous quotes in all of comics…

It is then that we realize, in a terrible moment of clarity, that the heroes are too late, that the villain’s monstrous plan has been carried out, and that millions of innocent people, including several that we’ve come to know over the course of the story, have already been dead for over half an hour. We also come to realize that the events which we had been watching unfold on the streets of New York during this chapter were shown out of sequence. Moore and Gibbons had ticked us into thinking that there was hope for them, when really they were dead all along.

Or did they?

When we go back and read the chapter over again, we can find an important clue that would have let us know from the beginning that the fight next to Bernie’s newsstand had been carried out before Nite Owl and Rorschach entered Ozymandias’ lair: the clocks. There are plenty of clocks to be found around both Antarctica and New York, letting us know that all of our bit characters had gathered at 11:25 pm, the same time that Adrian had pushed some mysterious button (though we didn’t know what it was at the time). We could have known the whole time, then, that the scenes in New York, which all take place over the same span of time from different perspectives, had been played out before the superheroes had confronted each other. The clocks were there, plain to see if you knew where to look, just another detail to be found on the page.

As stated above, the aspect I want to highlight here is the subtlety with which these clues were put before us, and how this sort of subterfuge couldn’t be carried out in books or films. If a novelist wanted to play with the events being out of sequence in the same way, he or she would have beat you over the head with the whole time-of-day thing. When the only bits of scenery the reader can get are conveyed by the words of the author, it’s tough to be sneaky about what you choose bring the reader’s attention to. Here, you’d end up having to say something like “And Bernie checked his watch to see that it was not yet 11:30.” Movies have a similar problem in that the audience would not be able to read clocks very well unless you put them into focus, which would once again be sending out all sorts of red flags. The aspect that makes playing the sequencing clever in the comic is that it there to find but very easy to miss; it would be pretty tough to miss if the clues were given in a paragraph or on a screen. Yet as they have demonstrated over and over, Moore and Gibbons have a mastery over their own craft and understood that their trickery would work perfectly well in the pages of a comic book.

Understanding of Superheroes as a Genre

In addition to using the comic book to its maximum potential as a storytelling medium, Watchmen also demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the superhero genre. The way they go about doing this is to break down the superhero formula and create a deconstruction of it. That is to say that it takes our preconceived notions about who superheros are and how their stories play out and turns them on their ear.

Examples of this can be seen in a variety of sources, even in elements as basic as the motivations of the various superheros. If you’ve read a fair share of comic books, you no doubt have seen a wide range of superheros. And while they all have unique elements to their origins, as a general rule, they fight crime because they are essentially good people; they are men and women who, for whatever reason, fight to save the innocent or punish the guilty because it is the right thing to do, and because they want to affect positive change upon the world.

The superheros of the Watchmen universe, however, are largely a subversion of this trend. Rather than having a cast of characters who fight crime out of a sense of morality, Moore decides instead to create characters who behave as people in the real world might. As you might expect of people who dress in flamboyant costumes to commit acts of vigilantism, these characters do not create their alter egos for purely noble reasons. To run through a few, we have the Comedian fighting crime simply because it gives him an excuse to revel in his violent tendencies, the original Silk Spectre who wears a skimpy costume as a way to gain publicity, and Dollar Bill, a man who is paid by a banking chain to act as their living commercial. And those are some of our heroes; our villains include the likes Captain Carnage, a sexual deviant who gets a rise out of being beaten up. Taken as a whole, then, the costumed adventurers of our story are motivated by either a deranged psychosis or a desperate plea for attention; in fact, one could argue that only Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, takes on his identity purely out of a desire to do good in the world. The rest serve as dark parodies of the superheros we know and love, and this doesn’t end with their motivations.

Moore also gives us a number of examples of the minutiae of superhero life being dissected for us to see. We have superheros getting put into peril by their ostentatious costumes (Dollar Bill was killed when his cape become caught in a revolving door during a bank robbery, and the first Nite Owl was nearly taken out by a drunken assailant when his mask was pulled over his eyes). We have Laurie and Dan complaining about when they needed to use the bathroom while on patrol. We have a subversion of the heroic superhero death, as Hollis Mason is killed in his home by a gang of anonymous thugs who mistook him for his younger counterpart, a meaningless death that pales in comparison to the type of symbolic or grand (albeit temporary) deaths we are accustomed to seeing in comics.

In my opinion, however, the ultimate subversion of the superhero formula is the broadest one it makes: the subversion of our assumptions of how superhero stories play out. At the core of their characters, superheros fight, to various degrees, to maintain a status quo, to stave off external threats that would do harm to the world they know. And almost without fail, they succeed in saving the world.

What happens in Watchmen, though? Well, this happens…

The heroes fail. The villain wins, plain and simple, and flat-out tells us that we shouldn’t have expected him to stand around and gloat like an idiot before his plan was complete.

And in the wake of our heroes’ failure, the world is radically transformed, the old status quo be damned.

By playing with our expectations in this way, Watchmen delivers the ultimate sucker punch, one that can only be fully appreciated by those familiar with the archetypal superhero story. After all, only the ones who knew a foundation in all it’s glory can truly understand the gravity of watching it get torn down. It is in this way that Moore and Gibbons, who had an intimate understanding of how superhero stories are told, were able able give the reader an experience of shock that is rarely achieved.

Oh, so much more…

So, I’ve been going on for a little while now. But like I said earlier, we are barely scratching the surface of all the there is to talk about in Watchmen. I’ve barely even mentioned Rorschach, and how he acts in near perfect accordance with Kantian ethics. Nor have we talked about how the Silk Spectre spends the majority of the tale confined by feminine stereotypes before finally liberating herself in the end when she comes to terms with her own identity. Or the way The Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic within the comic, reflects the character arcs of at least three of the main characters, most directly Ozymandias. Or the way various characters react when confronted by Nihilism, and how it shapes our understanding of the story. Or how the story can be an effective tool for our understanding of Cold War society and nuclear paranoia. Or how…you know what, I had better stop there.

As you can see, Watchmen has more meat to it than we could ever pick apart in one sitting. Watchmen is a book with layers of complexity around a powerful and thought-provoking story, that behooves you to read it over and over so that you can absorb the whole thing. And that goes a long way towards explaining why so many people consider it the best comic ever written.

So that’s what I think! How about you guys?