Big pictures

By M. HOWELL  |  March 4, 2009

On another level, Watchmen is about masks and disguises. As Dr. Manhattan slips away from earthly desires and concerns, he wears fewer and fewer clothes until he is the literal embodiment of naked power. Dan and Laurie keep trying to take off their costumes and put away their crimefighting personas. For the psychopath Rorschach, his ominous, ever changing mask is his face (at one point, he changes into his mask and gloves and says, "Putting them on, I abandoned my disguise and became myself"). Adrian Veidt dresses as a succesful businessman in public; when he's alone in his Antarctic retreat he dons his Ozymandias garb. The question echoes through the book: when are we truly ourselves?

Finally, Watchmen is about the notions of guardianship and responsibility. It's a universe where nearly all of the major characters act to do what's right, but where those notions of right are conflicting, and the conflicts are a matter of life and death. In Watchmen, people are haunted by the unintended consequences of actions taken with the best intentions. In such a world, to appoint yourself a protector, a guardian, or an avenger puts you on thin ice – even if you're standing near the South Pole. No watchman can escape the question "Who watches the watchmen?"

* * *

Watchmen is visually dazzling. Working within a very structured page layout, Gibbons's art moves like a camera. The very first page is a long pull-back from the smily-face button on the street to the police detective leaning out the window 20 stories up. When Dr. Manhattan takes Laurie on a tour of Mars, Gibbons shows you the planet over their shoulders, shifting only the background as you/they move closer to the Olympus Mons. At a crucial moment of decision in issue number 12, he moves you through the clustered Dan-Laurie-and-Rorschach, isolating each one while keeping you conscious of the others' whereabouts. Gibbons once studied to be a surveyor, and his panels have an absolute sense of place to them: you always know where a character is in relation to other characters or to buildings. You always have a sense of the physical space they inhabit. The action sequences – Veidt's fight with a gunman in his lobby, for example – pack tremendous tension because you're precisely aware of the distance between the two. Gibbons's talent for architectural crafting allows him to create wondrous constructions such as Dr. Manhattan's traveling palace on Mars, an ornate blend of clock gears and minarets that perfectly reflects his character. No one should overlook the contributions of colorist John Higgins to the project, either. In every panel, he's conscious of the direction and quality of the light source, and his ability to use variations of the same spectrum (check out number nine, page 5, for reds, or number 11, page 28, for blues) – coupled with the high-quality reproduction in the Warner Books edition – gives us a rich, shimmering texture to Gibbons's film-noir visions.

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Related: Interview: Zack Snyder of Watchmen, Review: Watchmen, Interview: Alan Moore, author of Watchmen, More more >
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  •   BIG PICTURES  |  March 04, 2009
    Watchmen is that too rare work of popular entertainment, one that succeeds on many levels and that rewards your attention to every level it employs.
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    The winner of several "Best Comics Writer" awards on both sides of the Atlantic, he's best known in America as the author of the DC Comics series Swamp Thing and, of course, Watchmen.

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