The Watchmen is a graphic novel that forever changed the landscape of how the world views comic books and just how genuinely well-written and well-executed the medium could be. Made onto the list of Time’s best books of all time, Watchmen brought politics, personal demons, and a society on the verge of crumbling to the masses and presented it in a way that sparked something in many.
From the unignorable flaws of the Comedian to the brevity of Dr. Manhattan and his utter isolation, as if stranded by his own genius (literally at one point), Watchmen showed us flawed superheroes that were really just broken people seeking something in the same desperate way we all seek something just out of grasp.
When something of that scope hits, it only makes sense that there will be books published that look at that work and the underlying messages that Watchmen sent, well ahead of it’s time. And being a huge Alan Moore fan and huge Watchmen fan, I jumped at the chance to review “Watching Time: An Unauthorized Watchmen Chronology”, though those feelings turned to slight terror once I saw just how massive and epic in scope it is.
While “the chronology of the Watchmen” sounds simple, what you get here is a fine-line dissection (in the best ways) of a universe not wholly unlike our own, yet still unfamiliar to many. You think you know Watchmen, but you don’t until you truly finish this book. For fans, it adds more layers to an already layered universe. And for noobs, it shows just how impressive Watchmen truly is in scope.
The same could said about the scope and ambition of Watching Time as well.
First Off, Shoutout to Author
Sometimes you can underestimate a final product, and I may have done that here. This is not so much a simple chronology as it is a microscopic lens held up to this magnificent piece of work, ultimately making even more sense out of it by laying it all out in a way people can understand. Author Richard Handley had his work cut out for him, and when you see the final product, you cannot help but stop for a second and acknowledge how massive an undertaking this would have been for anyone. Well done, sir. We geeks recognize and acknowledge.
Add to that the simple fact that he makes this bevy of information palatable, even though it feels like it is being delivered in tomes, just speaks to his gift of prose. When you see the section titled Thermodynamic Miracles, do not be scared into thinking this book may be too lofty for you. It is written for the fans, so it is written in a language accessible by all. The best is, you will realize you are smarter than you thought you were by the time you finish this book. While words like thermodynamics may have once struck terror into your heart, as you read Watching Time, you realize Watchmen already taught you much about all of this. This book just expands on it a bit, and in doing so, reminds us why were are all so enamored with Watchmen still, after all these years.
Because it is a miraculous piece of work and took conditions akin to a perfect storm to get made.
Timelines Within Timelines (within other timelines)
The forward alone of Watching Time gives you a pretty straight forward behind-the-scenes look at Watchmen’s timeline from the perspective of both story and the great men who made it (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, among many others who had to ‘okay’ things and such) and shows you that even MAKING the initial Watchmen was an huge undertaking that could have been a book unto itself. From the moment it was conceptualized in March of 1982 to the publication of the first issue in June of 1986, its birth was as epic as it should have been. This was no small feat to create, and to bring all the pieces together so tightly is often unheard of, but that is just what they did in those four years.
And the funny thing is, that is just the forward of this book and already, you have more insight into its creation than anything that has come before it.
The Journal Aspect (at First)
The actual book begins with Rich’s journal, told in first person much like Rorschach, telling us how the author was not a big superhero fan (at first, with the Killing Joke changing all that for him, as it did with many of us). He talks about how something in Watchmen spoke to the ennui in him when he was reached college. It is a rather brilliant take on the source material, satirizing it while paying homage to it. It is a juxtaposition Handley plays with a lot in the intro of the book, and the end result is absorbing for those of us who adore the source material being discussed here, which Handley is clearly very passionate about, and that passion is contagious the further you delve.
This is not some dry, soulless ‘fact Almanac’ about Watchmen. This is a personal and longitudinally impressive examination of a book that changed the author’s life whilst also bringing validation to the medium. Finally seen as true art and truly powerful, whereas before Watchmen comics were ‘for kids” (though twas never the case, just good ‘ole propaganda, which also gets discussed in Watching Time, as propaganda was very important to the ideas and vision of the story Watchmen tells). Sometimes when us geeks write, it can sound robotic and impersonal, but Richard Handley’s writing feels more like a discussion with a geeky friend who knows more than you. It feels casual and fun, and never dry or intimidating.
Though there is a LOT to take in here, make no mistakes.
The Timeline Itself
Do you see the above picture? Now tell me, when you heard “chronology of Watchmen“, did you think it would start in 2,000,000 BC? Please don’t pretend you did, as none of us could have. But this is so comprehensive, we should have. There is not a single aspect of the Watchmen’s theories and people and ideas that Handley leaves untouched, and though the scope can be daunting at times, you will always find yourself pushing further on the timeline because it is mind-blowing once you see it all laid out like this. It starts making Watchmen feel less like a story of fiction but more like something that happened on some alternative version of Earth (which DC fans will know well. We will call this Earth 34 because why the hell not?). There does come a point where you will expect to see “April, 1979, Dr. Manhattan ponders which came first, the chicken or the egg and gets an answer”. It doesn’t go quite that deep, thankfully, but this is a huge body of work, a massive timeline, and it shows you aspects of the story that you may have never connected before.
I honestly just keep sitting here being awed that someone actually put all this together. The work that must have gone into this book is staggering to think about. Which, in turn, makes Watchmen itself an even more vast and impressive book than you thought it was initially. It is to the point where, were I to give this book a genuine, thorough review, this would be as long as the novel. This is more like me telling you I was awed by it and if you are a fan, you should pick it up because you might be, too.
Twists and Turns
Another killer thing about Watching Time is that it is not as linear as you may think. I mean, look at that above byline for that chapter. I feel like dude should be given a literary award just for that wordplay. But also, sections like that break up the feel of reading a timeline and make it feel like fun little “side missions” where we get to focus more on one of the Watchmen’s mindsets.
Obviously all who have read (and seen) Watchmen will want a little more than just a timeline, and this book offers that by these little aides spread throughout. It is very meta how many timelines intersect how many timelines here. It sometimes felt like I was reading something put together by Christopher Nolan. Though inception jokes are as old as Inception at this point, this book really is Watchmenception. You knew this rabbit hole was deep, but you have no idea just how bottomless until you open the first few pages of this book and leap in.
It’s a fun hole in which to fall, though. And Richard Handley Handley’s it perfectly, not missing a note. See what I did there?
Single, Tiny Complaint
My only fault I could find with the book had nothing to do with the writing nor the content, so the author can rest at ease. Simply put, the book could’ve used more art. Though the info is there by the ton, it sometimes ends up feeling a little tiring and some splash pages of shots from the comic or even other artists interpretations of the characters and such could’ve made longer stretches of reading a little more bearable.
See how much that pic just helped with the flow of this article? Heck, even some photos of Handley himself assembling notes and putting this all together would have been cool to see (and would have been a workable angle around the ‘unauthorized’ aspect of it all) and would have broken apart the text heavy prose a bit at times. But if that is my sole complaint (and it is), this book is coming out ahead.
A Must For Watchmen Fans
Do it for Rorschach. The screaming voice of justice who was silenced for wanting to do the right thing, even if it is harder than doing the wrong thing. Do it for every nerd who was ever beaten up for carrying a comic book under their arm at high school. Do it for the fact that more people need to understand that some of the best fiction ever created has been in comic book form, as validated by Watchmen and this very examination of it.
But above all else, read Watching Time for you. If you are a fan of the graphic novel (as most geeks are), then this book will take that appreciation and insight for Moore and Gibbon’s work to great new heights.
Who watches the Watchmen? Well, we do, that’s who. But Rich Handley seems to watch them a little closer than most, and that deserves some applause in this case.