By Allan Moore and Dave Gibbons
We have labored long to build a heaven, only to find it populated with horrors.
Set as an alternative history in graphic novel form: 1985, the US has defeated the Vietnamese rebels and their pissing contest with the Soviet Union keeps getting worse. The arms race of the Cold War has been escalating exponentially, the US government developed the Manhattan Project but instead of a bomb, Manhattan becomes a person (classic freak accident turns underdog to super powerful being). This event, of course, further escalates the tensions between the two superpowers, but more importantly it increases the possibility of nuclear attacks–be it preemptive or defensive.
On the other hand we have the rise of vigilantism, these aren’t your mythic gods like Superman or Wonder Woman, nor are they super humans like Captain America or Spider-Man; they’re ordinary people dressed in suits running around trying to enforce justice. Imagine a whole cohort of Bruce Waynes, minus the money, the moves, and the intellect (maybe with the exception of one character but that’s not the point). They’re a bunch of weirdos dressed in the most ridiculous costumes and calling themselves the cheesiest names like Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Silk Specter, and Rorschach. Rorschach being our main protagonist, more or less. But the days of masked heroes end with the Keene Act which outlawed all vigilante activities, unless they’re working as a propaganda machine or running black-ops for Nixon’s administration.
The novel starts with the death of one of the “heroes” called Comedian. We are then led through the investigation and the streets of New York through Rorschach: seeing what he sees, feeling what he feels, experiencing the city through his cynicism, bitter resentment, and journal entries.
Part of being a hero is knowing when you don’t need to be one anymore, realizing that the game has changed and that the stakes are different and that there isn’t necessarily a place for you in this strange new pantheon of extraordinary places.
This is probably one of the best graphic novels I’ve read. It’s incredible. The art has that old school feel (it was drawn in the 80s so it *is* old school) but without it being overwhelmed with sketch-lines and small, unclear details. It has the perfect number of panels on each page. It was especially good in terms of creating the feeling of a close-up and zooming out. It’s really hard to describe the effect but it’s really fascinating. And the text accompanying the art is as good; though it’s addressing issues from the Nixon and Vietnam time, its politics are still pertinent in an unnerving way. You have the jingoism, the authoritarian regimes, the toxic patriotism, the riots and police violence, it’s all there and that’s the scary part. We thought we were over that crap, we’ve progressed and all, right? Nope, it’s still there.
On the other hand we have the novel’s treatment of female characters, and it was far from ideal, barely passing the Bechdel test. But that’s not the worse part. It’s treatment of consensual sex and rape, that’s the real issue. There’s a subplot where one character gets raped by someone she knows and its suggested that she’s to blame because she was wearing “skimpy” clothes therefore asking for it. Then of course the whole episode is brushed off, aside from the few comments it wasn’t a big deal. It drove me crazy because it at first they try to make you think that they’re dealing with it and not excusing it but then it gets worse, it’s that subtle type of disgusting misogyny that gets under your skin. The character ends up liking her rapist and they have a fling for a while. This is exactly the type of rape culture that creates a fertile ground for men and women to get away with rape and discourage the victim from reporting or fighting back.
And not to mention the ultra sexualization of females with the useless suits and the unrealistic body proportions.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, though I’m still pissed off, I have to say the character development was done quite well, especially in terms of Rorschach’s character. It was absolutely fantastic with the backstory unfolding through flashbacks and breaking the fourth wall and the psychiatrist visits that reveal his character in a creative and interesting way.
The last thing I’d point out is the way the novel is set up. The volume has twelve issues, the front page of each issue has the doomsday clock with blood spilling, it starts with 12 minutes to midnight and each issue it gets one minute closer to midnight with the blood coming over the clock. It’s a crafty way to foreshadow the events of the upcoming issue. Then there’s that neat thing where each issue’s title has a literary reference that is later explained in the issue.
Overall it’s a fantastic graphic novel, had it not being for the rape culture perpetuated though the story it would’ve been a perfect 5 stars. So read it for the art, watch out for the insidious misogyny and rape culture. Oh and it’s for a mature audience, definitely not for kids: it’s very dark, cynical and violent so don’t recommend it to your happy-optimistic-Jane Austen-loving friend. There are several sex scenes (not explicit but heavily implied), nudity (again not graphic but clear enough), and whole bunch of swear words so watch out.
Score: It’s somewhere between a 3.75 and a 4 out of 5