Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 28: Applying Critical Reading: “Watchmen”

Last week we talked about reading critically, reading as writers. This week we decided to apply that critical reading skill to Watchmen, the Hugo award-winning graphic novel by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins. We start (once we get past the donuts in our mouths) by breaking it down into character, setting, and plot, and then we further dissect each of those elements based on what we thought of them.

This episode is chock full of spoilers. If you’re planning on reading Watchmen for the first time (or seeing the movie), you probably ought to do that before  you let us ruin it for you.

Writing Prompt: Write an alternate history for 2009 taking stylistic cues from Watchmen.


22 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 28: Applying Critical Reading: “Watchmen””

  1. I hope you brought enough donuts for everyone, Brandon. It’s not polite to choke on your donut unless you’re going to share.

  2. Um.

    Sharing choked-upon donuts.

    What a delightfully evocative image you’ve conjured up there, Mike.

    I’ve neither seen nor read Watchmen. Now I have to decide if I care about spoilers or not…

  3. Thank you so much, you guys, for your discussion on subtlety of setting.

    I am in a writing group and only one other person in the group reads SciFi/Fantasy, and all the others want me to flat out explain the setting in the work. I started worrying that I was being too subtle with passing mentions of the workings of my world.
    You guys put my fears to rest.

  4. This was a really cool episode. One reason was your approach of looking for strengths and flaws. Another was that the principles were discussed in the context of effect. Another was that it looked at all 3 parts of a very specific example. All sorts of story principles can be discussed in this format. I’d definitely like to see more like this in the future.

    If you do decide to do more, here’s an idea to consider for upping the wattage for us listeners: what if you were to forewarn us a few weeks in advance and keep reminding us that in four, three, two, next episode you are going to do a critical reading of X story? That way I can read it early and bring my answers to the table and participate in my head instead of just listening.

    I know, why not just exercise a bit of self-control and wait to watch the podcast until I’ve read it? Because what’s the fun in that? I want to be ready opening night, er, morning. Besides, who want to exercise self-control anyway? It’s totally overrated.

  5. Raethe, Watchmen is definitely worth a read. It’s up to you whether or not you want to spoil it by listening to the podcast, but I’d say read/watch Watchmen first.

  6. I had not originally meant to read Watchmen, but I think I will now. I’m always up for alternative histories and psychological characters :)

  7. I read Watchmen four years ago. It’s the best book I’ve read this century. (I read Moby Dick, and The Old Man and the Sea before the turn of the century.)

  8. A comment on the very interesting conversation about viewpoint and how that brings out character. I love the Watchmen, I really do, but I really got a sour taste in my mouth about the Comedian. I didn’t think the “good” aspects of that character made sense and were believable next to the way he treated so many people, particularly women. It was difficult to see the rapes and murders (often inflicted on the same person) and then see plot develop in a way that I was supposed to “buy” that this guy truly cared about humanity. It just didn’t ring true to me. That was one thing, as a critical reader/writer I took away from the Watchmen in the what not to do category. I spent too many pages saying to myself, “I just don’t believe this guy has the heart to care the way they want me to.” And that’s not a good thing, took me out of the story, made me distrust the author.

  9. Eliyanna: that’s a completely valid reaction. It IS hard to buy, and depending on your own views, it’s impossible to buy. Also, Alan Moore is almost certainly a high-functioning crazy person.

    Moving beyond distrusting the author, what you might consider is how you would write such a character — one who you find completely despicable for his treatment of others — so that his strengths are visible, and so that readers find him sympathetic. It’s a real challenge: take the villian and make him (or her) at once completely and indisputably villainous, while also being likable on some level.

  10. Yes, I do believe that there is at least one Hugo nominee who’s work is easily available on the web, and who’s author can offer some rather unique insight during the podcast…

  11. Great episode.

    I think it would also be good to use texts..shock, horror…not from sci fi or fantasy.

    There is a lot to learn from classic works – why are they considered classics, what makes them great!? Expanding your influences can only be a good thing.

  12. @ John Brown: Thanks for that link. That’s definitely a good post there. I wish I could have enjoyed BITTERWOOD but it just didn’t do it for me :(

  13. S.M.,

    I had a hard time with parts of Bitterwood as well. I couldn’t buy into the dragons for some reason. I kept seeing men in plastic suits. So I’d get to a good part and that would just take me right out of the story. I understand Dragonforge (the second) is a much more successful story. It’s the book the drew Orson Card in (you don’t have to have Bitterwood to read it). I’m going to be giving that one a shot because some of Maxey’s stories are soooo good for me. His “To Know All Things In The Earth” out on Intergalactic Medicine Show is a favorite short story of mine. Still, no book is for everyone.

    Still, that post matches up with my experience writing so well. Craft is critical. And we can learn a lot from stories that don’t work for us. But in the end passion rules the process.

  14. I finally finished Watchmen and listened to this. Personally, I felt the Black Flag story was fantastic, especially the way it was used near the end of the book to “tell” the story of the people around the news stand. The two stories were almost providing commentary to each other, and was a wonderful story telling device.

  15. Hopefully I can add to this commentary instead of objecting.

    You guys critiqued Watchmen as a story. But as Howard mentioned, you need to spend time on the graphics as well. This is because it’s a comic book. And especially in the case of Watchmen, the medium it is in needs to be taken into account. Because there’s a LOT in there that is understood better when you look at it not just as a superhero story, but as a superhero COMIC.

    The Black Freighter bit is a major case in point. The Black Freighter tells a story much more reminiscent of the 40s and 50s “EC” style horror and true crime comics. These stories weren’t being told in the 80s for various reasons, primarily due to the horrid bit of pretend psychology Seduction of the Innocent and the subsequent Congressional witch hunt. They don’t fit.

    UNLESS superheroes are real. Reading superheroes isn’t an escape if you’ve had real superheroes and rejected them as a society. Once you’ve done that, your comic books start seeking other material. Rejecting the voluntary Comic Code Authority approval might come up a lot sooner (the iron grip the CCA had on comics didn’t really end until the late 90s). The Black Freighter storyline is content that responds directly to the setting information.

    That doesn’t clear it up so much in terms of plot, but it explains why it was a good addition for setting, and for the alternate purpose of the work: criticizing the industry responsible for the comic medium.

    Indeed, the CCA is the “Watchman” that watches our (ours, not the ones within the book) superhero watchmen. Ponder on that for a while, because I think explicating would ruin the discovery involved. It’s a very elegant inclusion.

    Of course, that leaves it up for debate whether they’ve taken on too much. Maybe it detracts from the primary narrative, but it wouldn’t have worked on its own, separated from a narrative like our heroes. I loved how it informed the relationship between the newstand owner and the kid, which informed the setting that our heroes operated in. You couldn’t get an objective review of the setting from someone like Adrian (who makes his money partially from having been a hero in the past through merchandising) or Rorshach who hates it all, or even from Night Owl who willingly goes along with it. These two provide us with a “man on the street perspective.” We can’t trust that the cold war is really that bad from our heroes, we need the “peasants,” as it were, to provide it for us.

    And speaking of characterization, the absolute best inclusion of character anywhere in this book is the fact that Night Owl is fat. (Which can bring us back to the illustrations — I don’t remember his weight being discussed, but there’s a panel where he’s nekkid that makes it undeniable.)

    As a parting remark, thanks for this one, guys. It gave me yet another reason to hate Marvel’s “Civil War” storyline. STABBITY DEATH! I already didn’t like it, but analyzing Watchmen reminded me again how Marvel is always behind the curve and trying to copy the major triumphs of DC (DC did Kingdom Come, an epic, PAINTED story, which Marvel followed up with Code fo Honor which was both a much weaker story and less well illustrated. Though I did have to admit that when they released Marvels the story didn’t have as immediate impressiveness it was a significant accomplishment in writing.) In Civil War, they used the conspiracy ending that Moore had in Watchmen, only it didn’t work nearly as well, primarily because the reasoning for it was terrible.

    anyway, done writing.

  16. I’m wondering if you would do another podcast where you go through a few pages of a book, line by line or paragraph by paragraph, and talk about the techniques the writer is using.

    I have been writing for a couple of years now, but I write whatever thought comes out of my head. I’m not consciously using any technique, not writing technique nor storytelling technique. So I don’t feel like a writer, still stumbling around in darkness.

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