Watchmen: apparently it really happened

There are peculiar goings on with the Nielsen BookScan weekly charts (as published in the “Review” supplement in the weekend’s Guardian) lately. The comic Watchmen is listed as the second most popular book in its category this week, a jump from its position of 5th last week. Hardly that odd! With the hype over the film adaptation, people are obviously trying to see what the fuss is about. Prior to the film’s release several reviewers (particularly in the newspaper supplements) suggested that despite the comic’s cult following it was largely forgotten by mainstream readers, which was a handy way of admitting, “we may be writers on popular culture, but we’ve never heard of this thing before.” With Watchmen, a lot of people are having to catch up with a culture they’re supposedly experts on.

But that’s not what I’m on about here. What’s odd about Watchmen’s placing is the chart in which it’s placed. Nielsen seems to consider the book a paperback non-fiction, along with such publications as Marley & Me and Jamie’s Red Nose Recipes. I had thought it was fiction myself, indeed, science fiction. But no, it seems there really was a bunch of superheroes in the 80s, including a great big blue fellow who reconstructed himself at a molecular level, and there really was a nuclear standoff between the US and USSR that only ended when half of New York was levelled by an artificial “alien” squid. It’s just that I didn’t notice this before.

Sarcasm aside, it’s hard to see this as anything but sneer on books produced in the graphic novel format. They simply don’t belong in the chart for real novels (which, incidentally, is topped this week by Marion Keyes). Personally, there is not much I despise more than when people insist on calling comics “graphic novels”. To me it’s a desperate attempt for comic books to be regarded as serious literature, which only serves to admit that comic books’ standing as serious literature needs to be defended. I grew up reading comics and I’m not ashamed of that. Nonetheless, it’s a genre that does deserve at least a little respect. Watchmen is a book that accomplishes more than most proper novels I’ve read, and if sales reflect that then so should the charts.

It could be argued, I suppose, that Watchmen is more than simple fiction. It is, in fact, a treatise on the superhero genre, and as such is provides a non-fiction discussion on this genre’s usual tropes and literary devices. It’s an interesting hypothesis, and I look forward to an academic discussion on it. However, it’s a hypothesis outside the scope of a sales chart. I can’t see this as anything other than snobbery, which there is far too much of in literature.

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