Unlike most nerds and intellectuals, I had never heard of the acclaimed graphic novel “Watchmen” before Associate Professor of English David McGlynn put it on my plate in his course called “The Graphic Novel.” The cult following that “Watchmen” drew — well, frankly, it scared me. Things with cult followings usually intimidate and discourage me from partaking in the medium: I have never seen “Pulp Fiction,” “Dead Poet’s Society,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” or “Reservoir Dogs,” and of the cult classics I have seen, few impressed me. “Donnie Darko” is not all that great, and “Fight Club” certainly did not impress me. So, needless to say, I was nervous to jump into one of the bibles of the graphic novel genre, and after reading it, I was even more nervous to disclose just how much I hated this book.
My dislike for “Watchmen” perturbed my classmates and irked my professor. They would question and refute me, and ultimately made me feel the same way those fanatical overzealous groupies of Stanley Kubrick made me feel once I revealed my take on David Fincher or Quentin Tarantino. Maybe I am just a simple person, or maybe I am not as intellectual or well versed in the highbrow field of movies and books, which would be a major bummer since I’m an English major. “Watchmen” vastly disappointed me and its assumption of relevance and gravity is inexorably disproportionate.
I am far from being a connoisseur of graphic novels. Before this graphic novel course and besides Japanese mangas, I had only previously read “Maus,” “Funhome,” “This One Summer,” “As the Crow Flies,” and “Persepolis.” All of these I have thoroughly enjoyed, at least to some extent. Yet the moment I opened up “Watchmen,” I was at once overwhelmed by the illustrations. The colors, for one, are so striking and vigorous that they do more to distract than to compel. I understand art styles are personal and aesthetic preferences play a major role in comic book reading, but I could not get over the unattractiveness of the spreads. Despite not being an expert in comics, I have read my fair share of books with differing art styles, and even have enjoyed books whose art style did not mesh with my own preferences. I found the tedium of the jewel-toned nine-panel pages in “Watchmen” not only aesthetically unpleasing but downright offensive. I understand that the book is trying to portray a world that complements the book’s themes of dysfunction and ugliness. However, if this stylistic choice negates any pleasure gained from reading the book, then it fails to be a good graphic novel.
Looking past the ugly graphics, I found myself hating every character. I get it: A good novel contains well-developed characters with flaws. However, there was not a single character in this entire book that I felt invested in. Without a character to engage with on a deeper level, it was difficult to carry myself through to the end of the novel. The characters of “Watchmen” were all either boring or just plain assholes; they are neither provocative nor compelling. Do not mistake the endless flaws of each character for a resonant and strong personality. If there is not one redeeming trait about any of the characters, there is no way to form a complex and elaborate relationship from the reader to the character, which is why I felt so blasé toward every character.
Beyond these criticisms of the art and the characters, my main gripe with this book is the way it fails to lend itself to interpretation. For one, I found the story to be very limiting in any analysis that is to be made of it. It seemed there was only one way the author and artist wanted me to interpret this book, and it felt suffocating knowing any of my own readings were canonically wrong due to the glaring symbolism and overt and excessive usage of the same repeated motifs. This book is anything but subtle: The symbols are all but forcibly thrust down the throat of the reader. They are unconcealed, undisguised and take no amount of intellectual capacity to recognize.
Now I know what you are thinking: “Simone, you complete idiot. All novels have symbols and motifs and themes. How is this different than any other book? Also you are a dumb woman who will never understand the comic oeuvre like me, a man? Also my IQ is over 300 and I love watching “Rick and Morty,” a show for intellectuals like me.” And this is me telling you that in any good book, the motifs should vary enough so as not to be so straightforward that the meanings are manifested by the work and not by the reader’s interpretation.
Let me take a book that probably all of you have read in your ninth grade English class: “Lord of the Flies.” This book is absolutely teeming with symbolism and imagery! However, William Golding utilizes this symbolism in a way that is more obscure, meaning it can be interpreted in many fascinating ways. For example, wounds are a major theme in the book, and can be seen in many different contexts. Beyond wounds on the boys’ bodies, we get imagery of the scar that the plane creates in the topography of the island. Further, questions surrounding inherent good and bad are raised through the symbolism depicting wounds and violence. There is so much to unpack and so many different ways to interpret innocence and violence through this repeated motif. However, it remains hidden enough so that a degree of thinking is needed to come to a conclusion. It is nuanced.
Rather than shoving a smiley-face pin in your face a thousand times like “Watchmen” so brashly does, good novels like “Lord of the Flies” require thoughtful and contemplative deliberation in order to form introspective and astute evaluations. It is because of artless execution that all of the analysis that could possibly be performed on “Watchmen” has already been done. It is because of this unsophisticated style that nothing anyone says about “Watchmen” seems all that intriguing or shrewd. It really feels like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons are holding my hands and guiding me through this book as if I am completely boneheaded and incapable of doing my own thinking.
This book’s authors make me feel like a moron. This book’s fans make me feel like a moron. I am not a moron. In all actuality, there is no higher thinking involved or required in reading this book. Instead of serving you a plate of chili, Gibbons and Moore serve you a can of kidney beans, tomato sauce, peppers, chili powder and ground beef. Everything is laid out for the readers, already deconstructed into each significant message. There is never an “Aha!” moment where you figure something out, because Moore and Gibbons deconstruct everything for the reader in the first place. This book’s graphics are obnoxious. The characters are useless. The reading experience is far too curated.
I thoroughly disliked this graphic novel and think its cult following is unwarranted. Maybe it is through its ease in interpretation that “Watchmen” has gained the guileless pretension that it has. Maybe I just hate this book so much because its fans are so obnoxious. Maybe I should just stay away from consuming media that is strangely popular on Reddit. Anyway, if anyone wants my copy of “Watchmen,” you can have it for free. It will be in the dumpster next to Hiett Hall.