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America wins the Vietnam War. The Watergate scandal is never exposed. Tension between the US and Russia and the looming threat of World War III. History has been changed by the emergence of costumed superheroes . . . but who watches the Watchmen?

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Watchmen is an American comic book series published by DC Comics in 1986 and 1987, created by the British trio of writer Alan Moore, illustrator Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins. Its primary theme, the idea of masked vigilantes into a gritty and realistic world, is something that marketed subsequent superhero fantasies to a more literary, mature crowd. With modern and contemporary fears of the time, such as the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation, Watchmen adds to this grounded layer, grounded superheroes. Superheroes that feel silly in their costumes, that question the very nature of what they do, that stubbornly resist or meekly bend, becoming puppets of the government or being destroyed by the insistence on their values.

In other words, these vigilantes are painfully human. The Watchmen are a former group of costumed vigilantes who have flaws, desires, dreams and fears, who must disband once the United States passes the Keene Act, which prohibits ‘costumed adventuring’. And the only member who can genuinely be considered a superhero is the iconic Dr. Manhattan, who through an accident at a nuclear plant becomes a superhuman blue entity who can control atoms and matter. The rest of the cast have no special abilities as such, but are compelling and memorable characters. Rorschach, Nite-Owl, Silk Spectre, the Comedian, Ozymandias. All play key roles with different views on the state of their world, and what they are prepared to risk to ‘fix’ it.

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There is plenty to like about this collection. Illustrations are detailed, realistic, and the structure is consistent throughout, with each page divided into a nine-panel grid, but for a few select scenes where the drawing takes a page and does the talking. A villain who isn’t hopelessly inept with a morally reprehensible plan that could save the world. A comic within a comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, which are intersected between panels in certain chapters of Watchmen and seemingly provide juxtaposition to events occurring in the real world. Within the panels of the comic there is genuine excitement, suspense, violence and tragedy.

Watchmen was adapted into a live-action film directed by Zack Snyder in 2009, which I admit I haven’t watched. But the comic collection is a classic and absolutely worth your time if you have any interest in graphic novels and the origins of gritty, realistic universes in which superheroes fight to protect.

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Between 1980 and 1991, the comic anthology magazine Raw serially published a piece of work titled Maus. Soon after it was released in its entirety as a graphic novel, and in 1992, Maus by Art Spiegelman (the joint editor of Raw at the time) became the first graphic novel to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman was born not long after the end of Second World War, in 1948, to his Polish Jewish parents Vladek and Anja, survivors of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the genocide of over six million Jews by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The family emigrated to the US in 1951, where Spiegelman grew up with a keen interest in comics, eventually becoming a cartoonist. His mother committed suicide in his teenage years and his relationship with his father was strained, to put it mildly.

Maus will go down as one of the most important graphic novels of all time. With its delicate subject matter it manages to inject raw emotion, sensitivity, love and humour into one of the most horrific and despicable events in the history of mankind. Spiegelman depicts the Jews as mice, and the Nazis as cats, and the cartoon-ism the animals give the story highlights the unreal situation millions of Jews found themselves in. For the most part the book covers two narratives; the first, scenes in New York focusing on the relationship between Spiegelman and his estranged father Vladek, and the second, Vladek’s tales and recollections from Poland during the war, including attempts to evade and hide from the Nazis, their inevitable capture and subsequent incarceration in Auschwitz, and finally their eventual escape.

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The art style of Maus is simple and high contrast, with little more than black and white being used in the panels. This can give a feeling of heaviness, of weight. Sometimes, when the dialogue is squeezed into frames, things get a little claustrophobic. Other frames have no text at all, leaving the images to do the talking. Both are done with purpose and for maximum emotional effect.

While Maus makes some references to the ‘bigger picture’ of events in Poland, Germany and the rest of Europe, for the most part it is a tale of Vladek and his own experience and survival. Running in parallel to this are scenes with Spiegelman and his now elderly father Vladek, as he shares his memories for Spiegelman to record in an attempt to write Maus. We also meet characters like Vladek’s second wife Mala (Vladek’s wife during the War, and Art’s mother, committed suicide in 1968) and Spiegelman’s wife Françoise. These scenes are incredibly deeply moving and personal when intersected with Vladek’s recollections of the treatment of the Jews. Spiegelman’s relationship with his father is complex, with Vladek is often painted in a negative light: his reluctance to part with his money, his racist views and a constant and unfair comparison of Mala to his deceased wife Anja. His miserly and stubborn traits, while being key to his survival in the camps, are what annoy Art decades later. But overall there is love and respect between the two, even if their father-son relationship is not an orthodox one (but when one has been through what Vladek went through, how can there be?)

There are also touching moments where an older Spiegelman, working on the later Maus comics presumably after his fathers death, is weighed down by guilt after the success of the first issues. A poignant frame shows a depressed Spiegelman working away on top of a pile of dead Jews. How can his problems possibly compare to what Vladek had to endure? It was around this time that I had to put the book down for a few days. It should go without saying, but Maus isn’t an easy read.

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In the final few pages Spiegelman includes a polaroid of Vladek. It genuinely affected me – not just the jarring contrast between illustration and photograph, but the reminder that this was a real man, not a cartoon mouse, that faced and survived these unbelievable ordeals.

Maus is a difficult piece of work to define. Part biography, part memoir, part historical non-fiction. In truth it doesn’t require such labels. In bridging the gap between history, art and story-telling, Maus is one of the most important pieces of literature of the last century. It remains vital that such atrocities are never repeated, and while the inherent violence of the world continues, hate should never be allowed to prosper as it did during one of the darkest periods of human history.