In this series of posts, I will review a particular work that has helped to shape both who I am as a person and as a writer. I won’t be limiting these entries to just books, however; expect to see some of my favorite films and albums as well, plus a few that don’t easily fit into a such nice, neat categories. Inspiration comes in a variety of forms; I would hate to leave one out simply because it wasn’t the right type of medium.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the fun part.
Today’s entry: Watchmen.
What can be written about Watchmen that hasn’t been written already? It won a Hugo Award in 1988, an honor awarded for achievement in science-fiction and fantasy. In 2005, Time magazine listed it as one of the Top 100 novels of all-time, the only graphic novel to make the list. In fact, it helped to popularize the graphic novel genre after DC Comics bound the 12-issue series in one book. Because of its success, as well as the success of other bound series like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, libraries began to devote special shelves to them, exposing these works to even more readers. In addition, countless writers, filmmakers and artists have cited Watchmen as an inspiration, and I am no different.
I was two years old when the first issue of the series was published in September of 1986. Obviously, it would be some time before I discovered it. After I did, however, the way I looked at fiction changed. Watchmen introduced me to possibilities I had never even dreamed of when it came to telling a story.
I could write a thesis about Watchmen and its impact on the fiction genre. Its multi-layered story with its flawed, truly human (and superhuman) characters has remained just as intriguing and engrossing as it was when it debuted over two decades ago. Some if its individual chapters could easily serve as fine examples of short fiction—the imprisonment and subsequent psychiatric evaluation of Rorschach or Dr. Manhattan’s monologue on Mars, for example. The entire story, in my opinion, serves as a perfect example of a modern literature. When reading it, you can’t help but become encompassed in the world it creates: a world where the superman exists, and he’s American.
However, instead of discussing the story in its entirety, I will focus on the part that had the most impact on me, both as a writer and as a person. It all boils down to seven little words.
By the way, we’re entering into heavy spoiler territory here. If you don’t want to know how the story ends, you should stop now. Don’t worry, it won’t offend me … provided you stop everything you’re doing and go read the book immediately.
Okay, if you’re still reading, I’m going to assume you’ve either read the book or don’t care to have its amazing ending ruined for you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when I came to the penultimate chapter of the story. Two of the heroes, Nite Owl and Rorschach, have deduced that their old teammate Adrian Veidt, otherwise known as Ozymandias, is behind a complicated plot involving the assassination and exile of some of their old friends and foes. When they confront him with their evidence, he explains how it is all part of a grander plan to bring peace to the world, a plan which involves the destruction of New York by a monster of his own creation. This, he explains, will bring the Cold War between the United States and Russia to an end as the two superpowers will put aside differences to combat the new alien threat.
This practice, by the way, of the villain spouting every detail of his plan to a (usually) helpless hero was parodied and defined in Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles. You know it as “monologuing.”
After hearing this, Nite Owl is understandably in shock, saying, “Christ, you seriously planned all this mad scientist stuff? I mean, when was this hopeless black fantasy supposed to happen? When were you planning to do it?” Adrian’s answer, and the pages that followed, completely blew my mind:
The following pages showed the aftermath of the horror Ozymandias had unleashed on New York City. The pages contained only images—no narration, no speech, no thoughts. It silently showed the death and destruction of millions of people, endured so that Adrian would have his perfect world peace.
I was in shock. The good guys didn’t win. Everything that the story had been building toward—the dreadful end you expected to be stopped just in the nick of time, right as the countdown reached 0:01—actually came to fruition. The apocalypse that the heroes had been trying to prevent happened anyway. It was a startling moment for me, something that rocked me to my core.
And it only took seven words: “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”
These seven words completely went against my preconceived notions of what an author could do with fiction. To put it mildly, it changed everything. It’s a terrifying, yet somehow grounding and almost comforting concept to wrap your writer’s brain around: sometimes, the bad guys really do win.
Seven words. With just seven words, Alan Moore told the audience that the heroes never stood a chance. The villain of this story was too prepared, too dedicated and, lacking a better adjective at the moment, far too good at what he did.
When faced with that kind of adversary, the heroes have to make a choice. They can choose to accept the outcome and move on, or they can continue the fight. In Watchmen, some do choose to move on, accepting the massacre as collateral damage for the greater good of world peace finally being achieved. One of the heroes, however, does not accept it, leaving us with another amazing quote: “No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” Things, predictably, don’t turn out so well for him. His fate was probably the novel’s most poetic, and certainly one of its most emotional scenes. I know it moved me.
Watchmen is one of the greatest stories I’ve ever encountered for reasons too numerous to mention. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s the type of story I want to create—a story that draws you into its own world while forcing you to change the way you think about yours.
I can think of no higher aspiration for a writer.