The White Mountains by John Christopher (1965)

Twelve years and 28 novels into his career as a prolific author of science fiction and miscellaneous adult novels, Christopher’s publisher suggested he try writing novels for teenagers. I wonder if it had anything to do with the way one of his most recent novels, A Wrinkle In The Skin, rather movingly captures the close relationship between a man and an orphaned 11-year-old boy.

Anyway, the first fruit of this new direction in Christopher’s writing was The White Mountain, the first novel in what turned into a science fiction trilogy for teenagers, titled The Tripods.

The future

It is some time in the future and the mysterious tripods, metal hubs standing on three 60-foot-high legs, have conquered the earth. Humans have been reduced to serfs in a recreation of the medieval feudal system. There is no technology beyond carthorses and horse-drawn agriculture. Some people have travelled a bit and seen the ruins of the big cities which ‘the ancients’ lived in in the Old Times, but everyone is taught they were the Dark Times, the world was overpopulated, people starved and dropped like flies due to diseases. People don’t talk about it, or the ruins, or anything else controversial.

Children run free till they turn 14 at which age they are ‘capped’ – they are scooped up by a tripod, their head shaved and a metal device implanted in their skulls which neutralises any attempts to rebel. The day of a child’s capping is a feast day in their village amid much celebration: it means they officially become a man or woman, can do an adult’s work and get an adult’s pay.

The novel is told in the first person by 13-year-old Will Parker who lives in the village of Wherton (page 22). There are other boys his own age, some of whom he fights with (such as his bully cousin, Henry), some of whom are his best mates. One is Jack, another cousin, who has made a secret den in one of the ruins of the Old People outside the village. Jack drops a couple of hints about the Old Days and the Old People. The official story is all was darkness and chaos till the Tripods came, but Jack asks how, if that is true, the Old People could have made complex and impressive devices like the pocket watch from the Old Times, which Will’s father is so proud of?

Capping and a vagrant

But then Jack turns 14 and is himself capped. Will witnesses the big village feast and the moment Jack is snatched up by the long looping tentacles of a tripod and taken up inside its hemispherical ‘head’, reappearing half an hour later with his head shaved and what looks like a web of wires (the ‘darker metal tracery of the cap…like a spider’s web’) embedded under his scalp. There’s a big feast to celebrate Jack’s capping, hosted by the lord of the manor, Sir Geoffrey. Next time he gets Jack on his own, a few days later, Jack dismisses all his former talk about the Old Days as nonsense. The capping has eliminated his rebellious and sceptical spirit.

Sometimes the capping process goes wrong and the cappees become brain damaged, mentally unhinged. They are booted out of their own communities and wander the country and are called Vagrants. Each village has a Vagrant House where vagrants can stay for a while and be fed before moving on.

Around this time a vagrant appears bumbling round the village. Will gets into conversation with him. He quotes the Bible a lot and says his name is Ozymandias. Will finds him interesting and, even though his father tells him to stop hanging round the vagrant house, Will meets Ozymandias a few more times. At one of these meetings, Ozymandias reveals that he has not been capped at all. The vagrant tells him about free, uncapped men living in the White Mountains over the sea and far to the South (by which the reader imagines he must mean the Alps).

Ozymandias swears Will to secrecy then explains how he can make his way south to the port of Rumney (presumably a corruption of Romney, a former port on the Kent coast), find a ship across the sea captained by one Captain Curtis, and then head for the White Mountains. He takes out of a secret seam in his jacket a map which he gets Will to promise to hide.

Escape

All these revelations from Ozymandias have crystallised his sense of unease about his own future capping, especially when he saw what it did to his best friend, Jack i.e. stopped him from thinking.

So Will builds up a stash of food secreted a bit of a time, with a view to running away. But then disaster strikes. His cousin Henry’s mother dies. Henry comes to stay for a bit, which is OK, but then his mother announces it’s going to be permanent and the boys are going to share the same room.

Nonetheless, one dark night Will gets up, sneaks out of bed, puts his clothes on, slips out of the house and along to the den Jack used. He is getting his stash of food and equipment out when hears a voice behind him. Henry woke as he got up to leave and has followed him. They have a brief fight which Henry wins, ending up on top pinning Will down. But instead of turning him in… he wants to come too! Will can’t think of any alternative and so reluctantly agrees.

They set off and their journey south is described in detail. One night they hear someone riding towards them and run for it but Will falls twisting his ankle. They have to rest up in a ruined cottage. Waking to find his pack gone, Will thinks Henry has deserted him. But he soon turns up, with fresh food he’s pinched from a far, and it turns out he’d hidden the pack for safety. After three days hiding out, Will’s ankle has healed and they continue south.

Rumney

They come down into Rumney and find a likely sailors’ inn. But Will has barely bought a drink before he is seized by a yellow-bearded sailor who is about to press gang him, when (luckily) Captain Curtis arrives and takes Will and Henry off Yellowbeard’s hands.

The pair are quickly smuggled aboard Curtis’s ship, the Orion, where they have to hide as most of the crew are capped. Half way across the Channel there is an incident, where six tripods appear and careen and swish around the ship their long legs ending in floats, giving out long booming calls. They playfully raise big waves which threaten to overturn the ship. Captain Curtis explains they often do this, it appears to be for fun, some ships actually sink but that’s not the purpose.

They dock in a port in France and Captain Curtis rows them ashore in a dinghy then wishes them good luck. However they’ve hardly gone any distance down the road before doors open, men appear and they are seized. Turns out someone’s been vandalising local boats and the inhabitants think they’ve caught them red-handed.

Now Captain Curtis had emphasised that they were under no circumstances to talk, as this would instantly reveal them as foreigners. Refusing to talk, Will and Harry are thrown into the cellar of a tavern, not before they’ve glimpsed an odd-looking lanky boy with glass over his eyes. The reader realises that Will has never seen glasses before.

They make a few half-baked attempts to loosen the bars of the cellar but then the door is unlocked and opened. It is the lanky kid. He can speak English and offers to take them back to a boat. When they explain they are heading south, he says he can help with that, too. Why? It’s never really explained although he immediately warms to the idea of a place where there are no tripods and no capping.

He introduces himself as Zhan-pole which we realise is Will’s phonetic spelling of Zhan-pole. Henry immediately nicknames him Beanpole and it sticks. They set off south and Beanpole reveals that he also is fascinated by ‘the ancients’, reckons they were strong and powerful, reckons they had machines driven by power of steam. He reckons people could fly by building big balloons filled with steam not air. He read about sailors’ telescopes and found some discarded lenses from which he constructed his home-made spectacles. Henry ridicules these ideas but Will is fascinated.

Shmand-Fair

Beanpole says they can use the shmand-fair to travel south. Those of us with basic French realise he means the chemin de fer or railroad or railway. And sure enough he leads him to a place where long curving metal rails are supported on wooden sleeper, and box-like carriages are pulled by horses. They stow away on one of a set of carriages and are merrily pulled south by the horses for a full day, as the shmand-fair passes through villages and stops to have goods loaded or unloaded.

Towards evening they slip out unnoticed at a stop, then head steadily south-east towards what Will’s map indicates are the ruins of a great city.

Paris

They travel across Paris which is in ruins and utterly deserted. The main streets are pocked with trees and shrubs. There are cuboid rusting metal objects with metal wheels and white skeletons inside. Beanpole reckons they were vehicles which made their way under their own steam without horses.

They come across vast shops with mannekins in the windows. They find old, old tinned food. There’s steps going down underground beneath a rusted sign reading METRO. Down into dark tunnels which wind on and descend even further till they come to a Metro train, a row of carriages on the rails. Inside the carriage they find what are obviously old rifles and sacks of round things with corrugated surfaces. These are grenades. Beanpole pulls the pin out of one but the effort makes him drop it and it rolls under the carriage, which is just as well for all concerned – before it explodes. It dawns on all of them that this must have been a last hideout for men trying to resist the tripods. Everything Will sees reinforces his sense that his society is not natural; it is an imposition and a tyranny. They decide to put some of the ‘eggs’ in their packs.

They continue onto the Île de la Cité past Notre Dame de Paris, but the bridges on the other side are down so they have to retrace their steps till they find a damaged bridge which still has a full span. They trek across a massive Paris cemetery and finally emerge into country on the other side.

The Castle of the Red Tower

They head south for several days into what I suppose is the valley of the River Loire, famous for its castles. A fever has been creeping up on Will and he collapses into a feverish state. They hide him in a shed, but next thing he remembers is faces looking over him and then waking up…. in a wonderfully comfortable feather bed!

This is maybe the longest and central section of the book. They have been taken into The Castle of the Red Tower and its courteous aristocratic owners, Sir Geoffrey and Lady May and their daughter Eloise, along with umpteen knights and fine ladies and then a host of servants. It is part of their noblesse to help wayfarers, hence the hospitality they extend to these two foreigners and a gawky native.

The womenfolk take a shine to Will partly because their sons have been sent away on service. Lady May enjoys mothering him and Eloise likes talking to him in a sweet and soulful way. His two friends remain outside this magic circle. When they meet they discuss what to do and the idea recurs that the other two should go on ahead (they won’t be so missed) and Will catch them up.

Meanwhile the days turn into weeks, Will recovers and the family show him the full gamut of hospitality, favours and training. Will learns to speak French and to ride a horse well, well enough to go hunting. Will thinks he might be sort of falling in love with Eloise till one fateful incident. Eloise always wears a turban. One day, walking along the battlements of the castle, Will playfully pulls it off. This subtly wrecks their friendship for Will is shocked to see beneath her shorn skull, the tell-tale signs of a cap. He hadn’t realised she was that old. He hadn’t realised she was capped. He had been hoping somehow to take her along with them to freedom. Now that idea evaporates. For Eloise, Will pulling her turban off like that was rude, the act of a barbarian without manners. Ordinarily any man who did that to a recently capped young woman would be flogged.

Despite this Will is totally incorporated into the aristocratic lifestyle, visiting poor villagers to dispense charity, socialising with neighbouring wealthy families, and Lady May says she has influence with the king and can have Will formally granted the tank of gentleman. Of course, this would require being capped and giving up his ability to think freely. That is what this long central section dramatises: Will’s temptation to give in, to conform, to acquiesce in a life of ease and privilege – at the price of his mental freedom. Sure, all the people around him in the castle are capped, but they are happy.

Is it worth forfeiting the free life of the mind in exchange for security and happiness?

The castle is due to host a big tournament stretching over many days. It brings all these conflicts to a head. On the second day Henry and Beanpole come to see Will and announce they will be slipping away to continue their journey south under cover of the general confusion caused by the hundreds of knights and servants who have arrived for the tournament. Will promises he will follow them, in a day or two, a week at the latest. They look at him and imperceptibly shake their heads. Basically, they think he is lost to the cause and don’t expect to ever see him again. They walk away with their backpacks filled with food nicked from the castle kitchens, various tools and buried at the bottom, those hand grenades from Paris.

Back at the tournament, a young woman is always crowned Queen of the Tournament and to nobody’s surprise this year the Queen is young Eloise. Willis disconcerted when a huge tripod clumps up to the tournament grounds and parks itself, unmoving, monitoring everything. Will is convinced it is watching him.

That evening Eloise comes to see Will in his bedroom and is full of excitement. She says she’s come to say goodbye but Will doesn’t understand. Then she explains that whoever is crowned Queen of the Tournament is then sent away to serve the tripods. He is shocked not only at this news, but at the joyful look on her face. Any lingering fantasies he had about building some kind of future with her come tumbling down. That decides him.

In the middle of the night he gets up, dresses, takes a pillowslip down to the kitchen and fills it with cold food, slips over to the stables and saddles the chestnut gelding he’s been used to riding, named Aristide (page 134). He heads south on the horse with a view to catching up with Beanpole and Henry but then becomes aware of a powerful thumping sound. It is the tripod which had loomed over the tournament. Before he has time to bolt, the tripod’s long tentacle loops down and scoops him off the horse and up into the gaping hole which has appeared in its ‘head’.

He regains consciousness lying on the bank of the river with Aristide grazing quietly nearby. In a sudden panic Will reaches for his head and gasps with relief when he feels all his hair, still there, unshaven. He has not been capped. Dazed and confused he mounts up onto Aristide and hastens away: the castle will be waking up, they will come looking for him.

Three boys in flight

Later that day he sees two figures toiling up a field in the distance, canters over and it is Beanpole and Henry. He dismounts, spanks Aristide on the bottom so he’ll wander off to be found by locals. Now the three are reunited. The other two are surprised and Henry in particular drops barbed comments about Will abandoning his ‘life of luxury’ but Will makes it sound like all part of a carefully crafted plan instead of, what the reader has actually seen, a turmoil of confused impulses.

They have the map and head south aiming for a pass in the hills. There is a river and this is joined by another one which is dead straight and has locks when the level changes. None of them know about canals but, again Beanpole shows he is the intellectual by speculating that it was built to carry boats on and carry goods.

It is a long journey south. Days pass in endless tramping and detailed notes on the changing weather. They go hungry, eat what they can forage and occasionally burglarise a cottage pantry of some cooked food and have a feast.

Tailed by a tripod

However it soon becomes clear that they’re being trailed by a tripod. No matter where they go and whatever direction they take, after a while it (or one like it; they all look the same) hoves up behind them. The land slowly climbs, there are pastures of cows and goats and alpine valleys. Days pass. They become more and more tired and hungry. Soon they are tearing up roots, foraging for berries. Cold nights sleeping on the bare earth in pine forests. They discuss whether they could catch a snake and what it would taste like raw.

One morning Will is lying on his back with his torn shirt and Beanpole sees something. In his armpit is a circular shape. On closer examination they realise it is some kind of metal implant. Obviously a tracking device. Henry leaps to the conclusion that Will is a traitor who acquiesced in having the tracker implanted. They must knock him out and leave him. Beanpole points out that Will voluntarily told them about being scooped up by the tripod, but remembering nothing. As a solution Will says they must split up and he’ll make his own way to the mountain refuge. Yes, says Beanpole, but it will still track him there. OK, replies Will, he’ll head back north to decoy the tripods. But that way he will almost certainly end up being capped and the memory of being scooped up into the tripod’s innards makes him go pale with fear.

Beanpole says there’s only one way: to cut it out. And so Henry holds Will down, they give him a leather strap to bite on and Beanpole uses a knife they found in Paris to cut it out. It involves quite a bit of gouging and Will is in agony, but eventually it comes free, a coin-sized metal button. They throw it away and press on. But then they hear a terrible sound, a booming ululation across the hills – it is the hunting call of the tripods. They know what the boys have done, and they’re coming to get them.

Killing a tripod

The chase really is on now, as the three boys hurry up the exposed hillside hearing the thump of tripod feet behind them. There’s only one bit of cover, a copse of bushes so they head for those and throw themselves into the middle. Moments later the tripod is above them, ripping up bushes with its tentacles getting closer and closer. Suddenly they remember the ‘eggs’ (the grenades) they found in the Paris Metro.

As the tripod rips up the bushes Beanpole and Henry get to their feet, pull out pins and throw their grenades at the tripod’s leg. They both explode but leave the leg completely unharmed. Will gets ready to throw but next thing he knows is in mid-air as a tentacle has grabbed him and is lifting him towards the grim opening in the tripod hub. At the last minute he pulls the pin from his grenade and chucks it into the opening. A few seconds later there is a dull thump and the tentacle goes limp, relaxing back down to ground level, loose enough for Will to wriggle free. The three boys stare up at the tripod, leaning to one side and completely inanimate. They’ve killed it.

Hunted by tripods

They unleash a storm of angry tripods. As they run run run as quick as they can, uphill away from the dead one, they suddenly see a silhouette on a western hill, then another from another direction. They chop and change routes but realise more and more tripods are approaching. Where to hide, it’s all barren hillside, only heather. Eventually they spot a large rock by a stream. Periodic floods must have worn away a groove at its base. The three boys throw themselves down into this runnel, squeezing in, head to foot, hidden by the overhang of the rock. And there they lie hiding for all of one long night, all the next day and into dusk and the night of the next day, and then all of the next day after that till they are dizzy with dehydration and hunger.

When hours have passed without any tripod activity they eventually stumble out of the crevice, drink some water and head stumbling up the hillside. There follow more days and nights of complete exposure and hunger, struggling through wind and rain. Will’s wound festers and Beanpole has to cut out the infected part and then treat it with herbs he knows about.

We are nearly at the end of the story and this reader felt absolutely shattered. They come down out of the hills into a lovely plain with a vast lake. Maybe it’s meant to be Lake Geneva. They steal food from a farmhouse and sleep in the hay of a barn. Next day they’re making their way across open fields of crops when two tripods come up behind them at speed. At first they and the reader think it’s all over, but the tripods are playing some kind of elaborate game, tossing something gold and flashing between their intermingling tentacles and run straight over the three boys.

And beyond the lake, and beyond the hills on the other side, for the first time they see the outline of the mighty white mountains, the Alps, rising in the distance.

Sudden ending

And then the novel ends, very abruptly. There are no more gruelling descriptions of their endless starving trek, thank goodness. Instead the narrative jumps ahead to a point where their journey is complete. In barely a page and a half we learn that  to , with barely two pages the boys found their way unhindered up to the peaks of the Alps where they discovered that free men have carved a network of tunnels into the rock, where they live, and from which they are planning some day to re-emerge, to fight the tripods and take back the earth for a free humanity. THE END.

Christopher versus Wyndham

Comparisons are odious but it highlights their respective strengths and weaknesses to compare Christopher’s novels with John Wyndham’s. Basically, Wyndham’s are in a different league, for several reasons:

I think the most important is the lack of thinking in Christopher. Characters have a few thoughts and ideas, sort of. But Wyndham’s books are packed with ideas, with characters who spend most of their time pondering the situation, thinking things through, having long thoughtful conversations, arguing interpretations.

You can’t help thinking that the entire situation, the world conquered by aliens and humans effectively neutered, could have prompted a vastly more thought-provoking novel than Christopher’s. For example, Will’s conversion from being a totally obedient conformist to suddenly realising the tripods are evil and that he doesn’t want to be capped, happens very lightly and easily. I didn’t feel any dramatic tension or depth.

Similarly, there really was scope to have some very interesting thoughts in the Castle of the Red Tower section about whether human beings might not, in fact, be a lot better off being capped and obedient. The life the book describes actually seems a lot better than the life of the poor in our own day and age. What’s not to like? Will eventually rejects it with a few feeble sentences about wanting to be ‘free’. You know for a fact that John Wyndham would have spent pages working this through and presenting the choice in much more thought-provoking way.

And because Wyndham’s characters have much larger and more complex mental lives and psychological range, this means when they get scared you get scared too. His books are much more thrilling because you experience them in a much fuller, psychologically deeper way.

Instead what you get in Christopher is a relentless focus on physical slog. I say this because a lot of The White Mountains reads eerily similar to the majority of A Wrinkle In The Skin in that both are relentlessly detailed descriptions of long and gruelling journeys made on foot with not enough food and the characters sleeping in the open, battered by the elements of wind and rain and cold.

These journeys are told in an extremely simple, straightforward chronological order, one day following the next, followed by the next followed by the next, and after a while it feels like a series of weather forecasts, with characters endlessly noting the state of the sky, clouds or mist or rain or drizzle or fog and so on and so on.

Any kind of mental activity comes a very poor second to this exhausting focus on the physical. If you are in the target age range for this book, of maybe 11 or younger, and if you hadn’t read many science fiction stories, I think the book invokes powerful tropes, mixes up a number of interesting settings (abandoned Paris, a medieval castle complete with tournaments) and, in the final close pursuit by the tripods, probably conveys enough jeopardy to keep you gripped and thrilled.

But hopefully any teenager who read this good primer would then go on to read much better, deeper, more skilfully described and psychologically stretching science fiction novels, for example the stories of H.G. Wells, not least The War of The Worlds which the tripods so obviously rip off, or those of John Wyndham, which would represent an obvious step up in quality and depth.

Kindling wonder

I suppose one the major things to say in the book’s favour is that it ably creates a sense of wonder on all levels. Obviously all the details about the tripods and the capping and the hints about slave mines and the mysterious cities of the tripods are designed to spark your young teen awe. But there is another payoff from setting it in a future where people have been separated from the past and knowledge of the wider world which is that… the world seems a much larger, more mysterious and marvellous place than it in fact, shows itself to be to most adults. Vast storm-tossed oceans, enormous ruined cities, mysterious machines, puzzling lines of metal rails, eerily straight rivers… almost every element in the book is strange and mysterious, in a way that a novel dealing with the same topics set in the present would take for granted.

Setting the story in this imagined future where lots of human knowledge has been so completely lost has the effect of making the world appear strange and wonderful. Putting to one side the other two dominant themes – fear about the tripods and the sheer bone-aching exhaustion of the hungry trek – this sense of wonder and dazzlement at a world full of mysteries may be the lasting impression the book leaves on younger readers. Which would be a good thing.


Credit

The White Mountains by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1967. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986)

Watchmen was initially published as a limited series of 12 comic books in 1986. It was subsequently packaged up into an omnibus paperback volume, which I bought for my son’s birthday a few years ago.

The pictures are by Dave Gibbons, but it is the complex, multi-layered narrative written by Alan Moore which critics instantly realised as something new and epoch-making in comic books. Watchmen won hosts of prizes and has come to be seen as a founding masterpiece of the (then new) genre of graphic novels, and one of the most influential comic stories ever written.

Its importance stems from:

  • the complexity of the narrative with its numerous intertextual elements
  • the cynical, jaded attitude shown by all the characters throughout
  • and the downbeat ending where the ‘goodies’ (if that’s what they are) do not defeat the baddie

The plot

1. Background

The story is set in a parallel universe in the 1980s. It is essentially the real world but with some key changes. (The story is, naturally enough, set in New York, home of most superhero narratives.)

In this alternative universe, back in the 1930s, various guys and women took up the new fad for caped law enforcers, with the result that there was a rash, an outburst, of masked vigilantes.

Some of them genuinely excelled at what they did –

  • Adrian Veidt who named himself ‘Ozymandias’, was the cleverest man in the world, who developed a corporate empire based on merchandising his own character
  • the ‘Night Owl’ was a technical genius who built gadgets and a flying ship to help him fight crime

Others were more run-of-the-mill, ordinary guys and gals, who liked dressing up and a good fight, examples being the self-named ‘Dollar Bill’, ‘the Mothman’, ‘Hooded Justice’ or ‘the Comedian’.

At the end of the decade these self-declared heroes came together to form a crime-busting association called the Minutemen in 1940. The narrative jumps back and forth between this founding meeting, and later meetings, up to and including a decisive one in the 1960s.

So many masked vigilantes came on the scene during these decades that the U.S. government eventually passed a law in 1977, the Keene Act, banning them. At that point – seven or eight years before our narrative begins – most of them hung up their masks and capes, and settled into comfortable, or less comfortable, middle-aged retirement.

2. The story

The ‘now’ of the narrative, is October 1985.

What triggers the story is the murder of one of the old vigilantes, the so-called ‘Comedian’. He is beaten up and thrown out of a window.

A member of the old gang team, Rorschach (so-named because mysterious constantly changing black and white patterns move across his mask), investigates the murder. We are privy to his thoughts which are written in exactly the tough guy style of Raymond Chandler, describing the city as a sewer and its inhabitants as vermin.

Rorschach starts at the scene of the crime, where the Comedian landed – splat – on the pavement. He goes on to visit Dan Dreiberg – once the so-called ‘Night Owl’ – as well as ‘Dr Manhattan’, to ask them what they knew about the Comedian in his retirement.

The narrative then leaves Rorschach to show us the backstory of the Night Owl, but especially of Dr Manhattan, arguably the most interesting character in the book.

Whereas most of the other Minutemen are just strong, athletic men and women with a fondness for dressing up in tight outfits and punching muggers, Dr. Manhattan is a genuinely genetically-altered superhero. Originally he was Dr Jonathan Osterman, a nuclear physicist who, in 1959, got trapped inside an ‘Intrinsic Field Subtractor’, was obliterated down to his constituent sub-atomic particles, before managing – nobody knows how – to reconstruct himself.

This rebuilt, molecularly perfect Osterman is now tall, statuesque, and a vibrating blue colour.

When he went along to meet the other Minutemen he took the moniker ‘Dr Manhattan’. He has a winningly Zen approach to life, the universe and everything, seeing that he can not only manipulate all metal substances, but can also foresees the future. Humans bore him.

The movie makes clearer what, for me, was rather obscure in the book, which is that it was with this apparently random incident – the creation of Dr Manhattan – that the alternative universe of the comic book diverges from history as we know it.

The divergences become quite drastic because, once he was fully reconstituted, Dr Manhattan put himself at the disposal of the U.S. government who immediately drafted him into their war machine and Cold War strategy.

He was sent to Vietnam, where he appears as an indestructible blue giant capable of destroying all the North Vietnamese weaponry (tanks and machine guns). Thus the North surrender within weeks, and Richard Nixon becomes a hero for winning the war. (In a throwaway line, typical of the density of the references and ideas in the text, we learn that the investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein were bumped off in a multi-storey car park and so never got to report the Watergate scandal, with the result that President Nixon – in this universe – was been elected for an unprecedented third term. In fact, Nixon is on his fifth term when the book is set.)

Dr Manhattan lives with the former ‘Silk Spectre II’, real name Laurie Juspeczyk, daughter of the original ‘Silk Spectre’ superheroine from the 1940s.

(In a digression which is typical both for its complex filling-in of the back story, and for its brutality, we are shown the scene where, after one of the 1940s meetings, the Comedian badly beats up and begins to rape the Silk Spectre before being interrupted by some of the other superheroes who then beat him up. This incident, disturbing in itself – and obviously quite a jarring ‘subversion’ of the superhero mythos – echoes and re-echoes, like so many other incidents, throughout the text).

But Laurie is getting fed up with Dr Manhattan’s lack of emotion (in a great scene she discovers that while he is ‘making love’ to her, his true self is carrying on conducting experiments in his laboratory – the love-maker is merely a clone: he can clone himself at will, in real time).

After a big row, Laurie leaves him and turns up on the doorstep of Dan Dreiberg, ‘Night Owl II’ who, she wanly confesses, is now more or less her only friend from ‘the old times’. After some chat, they have sex – as Laurie’s full-busted figure all along suggests she will – and then don the old costumes and go out in Night Owl’s impressive flying machine to fight crime.

Meanwhile, Dr Manhattan has been persuaded against his better judgement to do a TV interview – but instead of being praised for being a key element in America’s Cold War protective armoury, he is surprised by an investigative reporter who bombards him with accusations that everyone he’s worked with has got sick from radiation poisoning.

Dr Manhattan is hounded off the set and out of the studio doors by the audience and a baying crowd, crystallising his feeling that he’s had it with puny mortals and their silly concerns. In front of this live audience, Manhattan teleports himself to Mars. Here, in complete peace and quiet, he creates a palace from his thoughts alone.

This very public disappearance of America’s most important military asset badly affects the balance of power in the ongoing Cold War, and is a key moment in the plot – for the Russians decide to test the resolve of the West, now that their key weapon has so publicly and spectacularly resigned.

Multi-leveled text

The text is complex and multi-leveled. Here are some of the other elements:

1. Newsvendor We keep being taken back to a newsvendor on a street corner in New York, who reads out the day’s news headlines, news which is echoed on the TV sets which various characters watch or have on in the background of conversations.

The reappearance of the newsvendor in each of the twelve instalments is a device for showing how, over the 12 days of the narrative, the U.S.S.R. invades Afghanistan and then threatens to push on into Pakistan. They have been emboldened to do this by Dr Manhattan’s disappearance. Thus the papers and TV are full of speculation about whether the West will respond to Russian aggression thus sparking a nuclear war.

2. Countdown clock This sense of mounting tension is emphasised by the way that each of the twelve editions of the magazine opens with a big image of a clock whose hands start at twelve to midnight, and move forward one minute with each episode. As if counting down towards disaster…

3. The Black Freighter Throughout all the instalments, what you could call the Main Narrative is punctuated by an apparently unrelated story about a doomed pirate, set in the 18th century and written in 18th century prose. This is a story which appears in daily instalments in a newspaper which is being read by a black kid who buys it from the newsvendor who I mentioned above.

While the newsvendor chats with his adult customers about the impending war, the kid sits propped against a fire hydrant, his mind totally absorbed by the grim tale of a pirate set adrift in a doomed boat full of corpses, and his various ill-fated attempts to escape.

At regular intervals the pictures and text of this Gothic tale ‘take over’ the main narrative set in 1985; sometimes the monologue of the damned pirate jostle alongside dialogue of the ‘contemporary’ characters; sometimes the entire Watchmen strip disappears for a page or so, replaced by detailed drawings of the pirates’ adventures.

The pictures of the pirate narrative are done in a deliberately different style from the main illustrations, using a pastiche of the highly-visible dots you used to see in really old comic books. Not only does this so-called ‘Black Freighter’ narrative routinely invade the ‘main text’, but its words often cleverly counterpoint the thoughts or dialogue of the main characters. For example the ghoulish pirate survivor might be thinking about death on the high sea, while the newsvendor and his customers are worrying about the risk of thermonuclear war and mass death. It’s all dark stuff.

4. Scrapbook This ‘intertextuality’ is also exemplified in the way that each of the twelve instalments ends with four pages of prose which are kind of scrapbooks of texts relevant to the main narrative. For example, the first couple of instalments end with excerpts from the tell-all book supposedly written by one of the Minutemen, Hollis Mason, an account of the early days of the group which he titled Under the Hood. These lengthy prose extracts expand our understanding of various plotlines referred to in the comic book sections.

Later on, the prose sections become more varied, but always shed new light on aspects of the main story. For example, the end of chapter nine features several ‘texts’ relating to the original Silk Spectre I, Sally Jupiter, namely an interview with her in an old newspaper from 1939, correspondence with a film studio interested in making a movie of her life, a fan letter from a would-be crime fighter, and then a magazine interview with an older, alcoholic Sally Jupiter from 1976.

Critique of Watchmen’s multitextuality

Some readers and critics think these multiple levels give the book greater ‘depth’. I disagree. I think it makes it a lot more complex but complexity and depth are not the same thing.

When I was a kid in the 1970s there were any number of magazines about pop music or teen heart-throbs which used the same approach of coming up with imaginative and diverse visual ideas to vary their appearance and format. These could include letters from the stars, or their horoscopes, or recipes for their favourite meals, or their top fashion tips, or mocked-up pages from their diary, each in the appropriate visual style, using different page layouts, letter heads, maybe notes with mocked-up handwriting of the hearth-throb in question – and so on and so on.

This didn’t make magazines like Jackie any more profound – it just made them more visually imaginative and interesting. Now I really think about it, I remember any number of ‘annuals’ of my favourite TV shows such as Dr Who or Blue Peter, which came up with all kinds of visually inventive ways of presenting tit-bits of information about the stars of the show, or features about keeping a rabbit or the solar system or instructions on how to build your own dalek – and so on and so on.

It never struck me that the proliferation of visually novel ways of presenting all this turned my Dr Who annual into War and Peace. It was just par for the course; they were all like that.

Thus the inclusion of extraneous mocked-up texts onto the end of each instalment of Watchmen didn’t strike me as some radical new innovation, but as an editorial ploy I was used to ever since I started reading comics and annuals.

Thus the clutch of texts tacked onto the end of instalment 10 of Watchmen – in this case all relating to ‘Ozymandias’, the superhero alias of go-getting entrepreneur Adrian Veidt and which include a letter to a toy manufacturer about a new range of Ozymandias merchandise, and the Welcome letter to anyone who’s sent away for a pack of his Veidt Method of Physical Fitness and Self Improvement – these are fun, and they add to the visual and factual complexity a bit – but they don’t add any real depth to the book.

The crime trope

Watchmen mashes up tropes from numerous sources. One of the most obvious is pulp crime novels, the king of which was Raymond Chandler. There are plenty of Chandleresque pictures of Rorschach, in particular, walking down mean streets in the dark with his collar pulled up muttering murderous thoughts about the scum of the streets.

And the fundamental motor of the narrative is a whodunnit – ostensibly to find out who killed the Comedian, whether there really is a conspiracy to kill off the other retired old Minutemen, and why.

Clever and novel many elements of the book may be – such as the idea that superheroes can grow old and vulnerable and themselves be victims of a serial killer. And yet this whodunnit thread of the book is strangely uncompelling – and when the denouement is reached I found it more strange and inexplicable than a dazzling and satisfying revelation.

Maybe it was Moore’s aim to ‘subvert’ the thriller genre – or by mashing up elements from pulp crime thrillers with the superhero genre with quite a bit of pulp science fiction thrown in, to create something bold and new.

Whatever the motivation, this central thread of the plot just didn’t do it for me. I found it a) difficult to wade through the welter of distracting detail to even understand that it was a crime thriller and b) was so thrown by the spectacular side-plot about Dr Manhattan that I stopped caring about the whodunnit element and became intrigued solely by his actions.

As to the denouement, suffice to say that it turns out (as so often) to be one of the gang themselves who is knocking off their own members.

And he’s doing it because (like so many mad fanatics before him) he has become deluded into thinking that the only way to bring true peace to the world is by committing a really awesome atrocity (in this case, wiping out the population of New York – as usual), showing humanity what they are capable of – and thus shaming them into peace.

Sound likely to you?

And so the climax of the book turns out to be nothing to do with the mounting paranoia about a nuclear war between America and Russia which has been steadily promoted by the narrative, and reinforced by the ominous full-page picture of a clock ticking towards midnight! Turns out that that whole threat, much discussed by all the characters from the newsvendor and his customers to all the superheroes, was a red herring.

Instead, the climax of the story is the unleashing of a secret weapon which destroys half of New York (and, in the movie, just to universalise things a bit, also wrecks Los Angeles, Moscow and Hong Kong).

Conclusion

I didn’t feel engaged with any of the characters. I didn’t really believe in them, and I found it impossible to believe in the idea of ordinary men and women just putting on masks, adopting silly pseudonyms and then magically being able to ‘fight crime’.

Either the idea of masked crime fighters is risible or it isn’t – but it is a difficult balance to make it both sad and silly (as it seems to be in the opening pages depicting the Comedian as a raddled drunk and Rorschach as a maniac) and then in the next few pages ask us to believe that Night Owl and Silk Spectre actually can fly round the city in their cool flying machine, rescuing kids from burning buildings.

Once undermined in the early pages, I found the notion of crime-busting superheroes stayed undermined.

The only character I liked was Dr Manhattan because the purity of his conception and his indifference to the human trivia who surround him lifted him far above the crime-busting silliness of much of the rest of the plot. I immediately sympathised with his wish to get away from silly humans, and found that identifying with this essentially science-fiction character made me more or less indifferent to the Chandleresque whodunnit plot.

Within the world of comic books, Watchmen had a powerful impact because of its complexity: because it created new heroes while at the same time undermining the entire superhero ethos, because of its stylish mix of sci-fi, noir and superhero tropes, because of its downbeat vibe and its very downbeat ending – because this pessimistic mood caught the vibe of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, because of the cleverness of adding in the intertextual elements of letters, quotes from fictional books, magazine articles, added extra complexity and resonance.

But from outside the world of comic books, it still looks as if Watchmen adopts almost all the familiar tropes of the superhero comic book, and subverts few if any of them. And even these ‘subversions’ I found a) difficult to actually understand b) had no impact on me.

Watchmen administered a seismic shock to the comic book genre which influenced a whole generation to write more ‘realistic’ and ‘gritty’ stories. To outsiders like me, it looks like a very clever play on existing tropes which doesn’t, ultimately, change any of them at all.

Art work

I couldn’t understand why the book is meant to mark a great departure in comic book style. The page is still made up of cartoons. All the ‘good’ guys are tall, muscular and handsome.

And all the women are long-legged, slender-waisted and big busted i.e. look like the same idealised, soft porn figures that have been half the point of comic books right back to their origins in the 1930s.

Although there are several women among the original Minutemen, we only really get to know one – Silk Spectre – and her role is to wear a tight outfit and be made love to first my Dr Manhattan then (several times) by the Night owl. But all the women seem to be variations on the same sex goddess trope. I was amused to discover that a number of manufacturers make a ‘Silk Spectre’ costume. Can you see why?

The movie

It took Hollywood  20 years to sort out the rights, the script and to settle on a visual strategy for turning such a complex and multi-layered comic strip text into a movie. The result is that rare thing, an attempt at a really faithful, accurate rendition of the original book.

Watchmen the movie uses all the characters and tells the exact same story, in the same order, as the source book. It even shoots scenes from the same angles shown in the comic strips. With the result that:

1. It is very long – two and a half hours long.

2. This is without the inclusion of the pirate story, the so-called Black Freighter plotline. This was originally going to be included as live-action footage interspersed among the main narrative, as happens in the book, but it turned out that it would have cost too much (some $20 million extra), so someone had the bright idea of making it as an animation. In the event even this animated version of the sub-plot was cut because it would have made the final version of the film well over three hours long. However, the Tale of the Black Freighter is available as a standalone DVD and has been reincorporated into the movie in a Directors’ Cut version.

3. More interestingly, director Zack Snyder’s choice to follow the comic book narrative so closely means that the movie does not follow the familiar three-act movie structure. Instead it follows closely the rather meandering, and sometimes distracted, narrative of the book. Many movie fans complained about this because it didn’t produce the usual feast of fights and fireworks every fifteen minutes – the amount of time a bored teenager can sit through ‘character’ stuff’ before he needs another fix of CGI and explosions.

But I liked the film for precisely that reason. Following ‘book logic’ and not movie screenplay rules, results in a very different feel to the movie. It feels much slower and often rather confusing. I liked that.

The movie was also criticised for the quality of the acting. If we were talking about the real world, I’d agree that the acting was wooden, as was the direction. But I found the Watchmen book itself oddly wooden, opaque, emotionless and flat, and so I thought the movie captured that quality really well.

Since I didn’t believe in any of the characters from the book, finding them all just cyphers drifting through a weird mash-up of science fiction, noir and comic book clichés without any discernible purpose or end, I thought the movie faithfully captured that odd sense of anomie – and that is rare and interesting in a Hollywood film.

Seen from this point of view, i.e. the hope that the film would not follow superhero movie convention, it was disappointing that so much did still fall into superhero cliché – namely the familiar stylised fights, for example where Night Owl and Silk Spectre II defeat a whole gang of muggers with superhuman speed and slow-motion violence; or where flying machines swoop around the New York skyline; or where Night Owl and Silk Spectre have sex in his flying machine, she wearing only her knee-length PVC boots, both of them revealed to have the air-brushed-to-perfection bodies of porn stars.

This didn’t feel like it was subverting very much.

In other words, the film of Watchmen successfully captures the complex storylines and odd mood of the book, and so both audiences and critics – who essentially want the same meal dished up with slight variations – didn’t like it.

The film didn’t make much return on investment with a box office of $185.3 million on a budget of $138 million. After twenty years, a prequel comic was published chronicling the adventures of the Comedian and Rorschach in the earlier days. There’s talk that the Watchmen characters will be adapted for an HBO TV series. Everything is swallowed by the machine. Nothing subverts anything. In time, everything is turned into product.


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