‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’. In other words, ‘Who will guard the guards themselves?’ .
The undercurrent of this question is all over the novel and pretty much rocks the boat, both literally and figuratively.
In 1970s of America, a bunch of costumed super-heroes have been sent out of job due to a Government act, banning them and terming them illegal. Circa 1985 – the sudden murder of one of them triggers concerns afresh, bringing the now-retired vigilantes to investigate and face the new, unknown adversary.
Watchmen is a cult for a reason, for more than any cat and mouse chase game, a gore action drama or a stunning collage of panels, it is a stunning psychological thriller. The range of thoughts and its far-reaching juxtaposition on the psyche of its six main characters is a mayhem one gets wilfully entangled into with each passing chapter. The brushstrokes that speak more colors than black, white and blood red is a testimonial to the ribald reality of many; the many that resides in one mind and rejigs frequently over the bare bones of right and not-so-right. I began with rooting for the ruthlessly-committed-to-cause, Rorschach, the brittle, with devil-may-care attitude member of the gang whose raw intuition gets the ball rolling at the first place and ended with granting him a reputation that was dodgy, shaky and at times, plain vulgar. My initial impressions of Doctor Manhattan, the H-Bomb Man, the most precious strategic asset of the US of A, bordered on awe and empathy but those were driven to roll over a mountain of quandary at the climactic declarations. Pretty much every superhero in this novel grapples in waters of insecurity and vulnerability, choosing banks of decisions riding on both rationale and whim in varying degrees. Moore’s character arcs, however, are magnificent. From disintegration of belief to unleashing of ambition, from fragmented friendships to sworn brethren, from low-lying egos to inflated theatrics, the distinct journeys are what make this book stand out.
And magnificent is the storytelling. Parallel storylines, non-linear narratives and chapter end-notes sit refreshingly on the remarkable illustrations. The story is upped many levels by the nuanced atmospherics generated by Gibbons’ and Higgins’ artwork – the attention to detail, the contrasting color play, the panelling diversity, everything adds to the experience of reading something urgent, intense and essentially intimate.
Intimacy is something which, again, makes this work so enduring. The power equations that dictate the goings in this world, both past and present, find ample reflection in this novel. And eventually, we come back to the question – Who guards the guards themselves? Who checks the people with power? And who validates their actions?
Sadly, there aren’t any clear answer to this question, neither in reality nor in Moore’s world. However, both witness this dance unfold and hold us enthralled, one (or many) watchmen at a time.