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The Abyss Gazes Also Into You: Watchmen 20 Years Later

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When Disney and Pixar released The Incredibles in 2004 — a story about a world in which superheroes were forced into hiding, and a mysterious villain is killing off all the old heroes — I thought, “well this seems familiar…” But any further introspection was silenced by the wildly entertaining, if not particularly insightful, film.

Five years later, Warner Bros. and Fox announced the release of a film adaptation of a graphic novel called Watchmen, and I remembered why the plot of The Incredibles seemed so borrowed. I first read Alan Moore’s 12-issue comic book limited series in 1986-87, before it was deemed a “graphic novel” by DC. The praise the comics received upon their first release was astounding, and the critical community universally agreed that Moore had revolutionized the medium and unmasked the superhero mythos.

As a young adult, my beliefs tended to be contrary to whatever was popular at the time, but I couldn’t disagree with the critics about Watchmen. The story was so novel: superheroes had been outlawed since 1977, leaving them to drunkenly reminisce about the “good old days” — until The Comedian is murdered, which begins a complex murder-mystery, neo-noir plot, carried forward by Rorschach, another “hero,” as he seeks answers and justice.

And if the story wasn’t absorbing enough, the writing was haunting, covering material far deeper and darker than comics before Watchmen ever ventured to explore.

After watching the preview for the cinematic adaptation in late 2008, I decided to read Watchmen again — which had conveniently been collected into and repackaged as a single volume since I read it last — if only just to prepare myself for the movie.

Just holding the graphic novel in my hands I seemed to suddenly be filled with angst, and when I began reading it, I understood why. Though the plot of Watchmen is set in the 1980s of an alternate USA — one in which Nixon is serving his sixth term as president and the nuclear apocalypse is imminent — the controversial political undercurrent is strongly reminiscent of the late 1970s and the anti-American sentiment that suffused the country at the time.

Furthermore, the disenchantment practically leaped from the pages: superheroes too busy protecting themselves from the world to try saving it, Bob Dylan and Nietzsche quotes ending every chapter, the irony of a news vendor shouting, “See apathy! Everybody escapin’ into comic books and TV!”

And of course, the climax, which subverted everything we thought we knew about heroism in the modern world.

I can’t remember feeling so full of pessimism and so interested in aesthetic difficulty since I was in college, reading Joyce’s Ulysses for the first (and only) time. Finishing the novel I felt deflated, disillusioned. It made me think of the paradox of youth: that we never want it until we no longer have it.

Watchmen was and truly still remains a masterpiece, a comic series that transcended the boundaries of the medium and became a piece of literature, a piece of art, a monument to its time and place. But reading it again as an adult is tiresome, and too full of self-consciousness to be enjoyed, which is what adults for the most part want to do with movies and media.

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  • Did the change to the ending of the movie bother you? While not as good, I thought it worked in the context of the film