by DANIEL WALTERS & r & & r & Watchmen & r & by Alan Moore & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & atchmen isn't a comic book. Sure, it looks like one, what with all the pretty pictures and feats of derring-do. And the characters seem awfully comic-booky. There's Rorschach, the vigilante in an inkblot mask. There's the Comedian, a cigar-chomping cynic. There's Ozymandias, the gymnast genius who dresses like an Egyptian. And there's Dr. Manhattan, the scientist-turned-omnipotent-energy-being in the requisite science lab accident.

But Watchmen -- named one of Time's 100 best novels, and with a movie set to premiere in March -- is worshipped in the comic-con community for deconstructing comic book clich & eacute;s and transcending them. It's literature, they say.

They're right. It's clear that the author -- crazy person Alan Moore -- is trying to produce a work of brilliance, and sometimes his gambit works. Watchmen zigzags back and forth between masterpiece and mess, never pausing for mere mediocrity.

A chapter with Dr. Manhattan -- unbound by time or space -- blipping maniacally to and fro among present, past and future, experiencing the highs and lows of an entire lifetime nearly simultaneously, isn't just literature, it's poetry.

But Watchmen drowns in its own nihilism. It's a superhero comic without any heroes. The Comedian's a rapist. Dr. Manhattan's godlike powers leave him apathetic, not empathetic. Rorschach has an unflappable sense of morality: He's the type who'd break your kneecap for removing your mattress tags. As for Ozymandias, his ends justify his means -- and he has some mighty brutal means.

Moore's characters are either Manichean or Machiavellian -- or too impotent to really matter. As with V for Vendetta, also by Moore, viewers are forced to root for either Psychopath A or Psychopath B. Maybe Moore is trying to provide some insight to the human condition, but when he stacks the deck -- all 52 cards -- with Joker-equivalents, his cast ceases to be human.

Traditional comic books are flawed in that they work purely in a palette of black and white, pitting pure righteousness against unfathomable malevolence. Moore, however, makes a worse mistake: He only paints with shades of black.

Summer Parkways @ South Hill

June 14-20
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