DC Comics, 1987 (2005 revision), 464 pages, C$86.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-4012-0713-7
If all goes well, 2009 is going to be the year of Watchmen. Twenty-two years after its groundbreaking 12-issues 1986-1987 run, this graphic novel classic is finally coming to the big screen, and everyone who has thus far managed to avoid it soon won’t have any excuse for picking it up.
I won’t be among those. In the past fifteen years, I’ve read Watchmen several times, in two languages and three different editions. It was one of the first graphic novels I ever owned, and it’s still one of the best. With the movie coming out and the holiday sales around me, I decided to be the ultimate fanboy, and finally get myself a copy of the ultimate, no-expense-spared, re-colored Absolute Watchmen, even if it would prove to be one of my costliest purchases of the year. What can I say; at some point, it’s good to admit being a fan.
It’s even better when considering what one gets from the Absolute Watchmen package: Not only the graphic novel itself, but a handsome full-page slip-cased hardcover edition, along with notes regarding the making and impact of the series, glimpses at the script and miscellaneous bonus artwork. As an extra hefty bonus, the entire series has been re-colored, keeping the old-school style but with the precision of the latest digital technology. (This re-colored version has been kept as the source of the latest reprints of the book, even in cheap paperback editions.) If you’re a real fan with some money to spare, this Absolute Edition is likely to remain the definitive edition of the book for a while longer.
As for the graphic novel itself, well, it’s still just as good as it ever was. A blend of increasingly-alternate history (now that the story’s 1985 seems farther away than ever before, Watchmen is slowly gaining a patina of historical fiction), superhero-fiction, literary sensibilities, action and crackling dialogue, Watchmen marks the turning point of an era in graphic storytelling. It’s the end of the old-school superhero tradition and the “nine-panel grid” era and the beginning of the graphic novels movement and ambitious new thematic vistas for superheroes. The skill in constructing the series, issue by issue, page by page, is still inspiring after all those years. The references, allusions, symbolism, character moments and background complexities of it all remain the standard by which other comparable work is judged. It may not be perfect, but it’s close.
No, the movie won’t be as good: Reading the comics, it’s striking how what the most impressive thing about Watchmen is how fully it exploits the peculiarities of its format, from the nine-panel grid to the type of transition and interleaving that are only possible with comics. Despite the film-makers’ best intentions, I doubt that they’ll do half as well.
But no matter: Regardless of how the movie turns out, Watchmen-the-book is going to stay on the shelves, ready for another generation of readers. As for me, I’ve found my favorite edition of the story, and that’s the one that’s going to stay in my library until I get an itch to re-read the story again. Most probably moments after seeing the movie’s end credits.
[January 2009: Watchmen already selling like hotcakes, the biggest literary movie tie-in product is a companion book called Watching the Watchmen, co-written by the series’ artist Dave Gibbons. The bulk of the book is a series of sketches for the series, straight from Gibbons’ archives. But the most interesting things about Watching the Watchmen are scattered in-between the sketches, as Gibbons writes about the process of creating Watchmen, and its impact. It’s interesting, but hardly earth-shattering: For anyone who’s less than a convinced fan of the series, there’s nothing truly essential about this companion book, especially if you have already read the back pages of Absolute Watchmen. It may be a cool gift, or an extravagant indulgence, but otherwise I’d recommend investing in a copy of the definitive absolute edition.]