Watchmen & V for Vendetta: Exploring challenging ideas through complex characters

On the recommendation of a friend, I began my comic book education with Watchmen, and immediately followed it with V for Vendetta.

Starting with the first words and images, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons subvert the very genre in which they work. The style of Gibbons’ art is consistent with what I remember from “regular” comic books (something I found mildly distracting at first), but both the subject matter and the composition — within and between panels — reward careful scrutiny, revealing patterns, echoes, and reverberations throughout the book. I expect a second and third reading to reward me with even more.

Watchmen in particular reveals a structural complexity I would never have expected from a comic book, interleaving a disturbing pirate tale throughout the modern-day story — a counterpoint to the rhythm of the primary plot. The narration within the pirate story provides ironic commentary, while its own plot and imagery build into a symbolic backdrop against which the present-day “real-life” story unfolds. Rorschach’s journal provides the bulk of the narration, and over the course of the book one begins to question whether he’s really a reliable narrator.

I say “modern-day story,” but Watchmen is set during the Cold War, while V for Vendetta is set in a post-apocalyptic England at the turn of the millennium, 15 or more years in the future from the time of the graphic novel’s writing. Both stories are overtly political, and a product of their times. As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I remember the apocalyptic dread that permeated adult conversations, and how that dread trickled down (like some sort of horrific Reaganomics) to my friends and me.

We speculated about what would happen if the Soviets attacked. Living in Japan surrounded by American military bases, with recent memories of the Hiroshima Peace Museum to fuel our imaginations, there was no doubt in our young minds that we would be vaporized long before ICBMs ever reached the distant United States. I’m sure I’m missing allusions and references to traditional American comic books, but it’s hard for me to imagine a teenager today understanding the geopolitical context that gave birth to both of these graphic novels.

WatchmenUnlike the one-dimensional heroes of my cousins’ comics, Moore’s characters demonstrate a complexity more typical of Steinbeck or Hemingway. I don’t use that comparison lightly. There is a darkness in the souls of the Comedian and Rorschach born of cynicism and sadism — these men are psychopaths forged in the fires of a broken society, nothing like the classic heroes Spider-Man or Superman.

As strange as this may sound to those who don’t read comic books and graphic novels, Moore’s characters feel like real people. Nite Owl is an aging, overweight “billionaire playboy” (echoes of Batman) who struggles with the boredom of forced retirement. Silk Spectre’s origin story is horrifying on multiple levels — no radioactive spiders here!

The omnipotent Doctor Manhattan — the only character with traditional superpowers — looms in stark contrast to the other characters, a foil that serves to highlight both the flaws and values of their humanity.

Similarly, the power of “V” lies in his distance from the norms of human behavior. The fascist antagonists aren’t wrong that V is a terrorist — he blows up Parliament and various other London landmarks, and murders numerous political elites over the course of the book. He abandons and then tortures his protege. But in doing so, he forces Evey to shed everything in her spirit but her powerful core, empowering her to carry on the revolution after V’s inevitable death. V frees Evey as an individual and sets in motion the liberation of England. Is V evil? By any definition of “civilized” conduct, yes. Nevertheless, V forces the reader to confront what he or she would be willing to do to stand up for the freedom that we all take for granted today.

What I appreciate so deeply about both Watchmen and V for Vendetta is what I’ve grown to love in the science fiction of Robert Heinlein. Alan Moore presents characters and ideas that I don’t necessarily like, that I can’t necessarily relate to, that I frequently disagree with vehemently, but that force me to think and to reflect. Through Watchmen, I’m forced to take the idea of vigilante justice seriously, and to question the moral sacrifices I would be willing to make for the greater good. Through V for Vendetta, I’m forced to consider my own pacifist political views within the context of the tension between fascism and anarchism.

Unfortunately, this tension is all too real and continues to have a lingering effect on my city of Seattle, as well as the United States and the rest of the world in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. What makes both Watchmen and V for Vendetta timeless literary classics is the way Moore explores timeless questions of right and wrong within a believably human context.

You don’t have to agree with the decisions that Nite Owl and Silk Spectre make at the end of Watchmen (or how Rorschach describes the unfolding story), nor with what V and Evey do in V for Vendetta, but you do have to think. And that’s what really matters.