What is there to say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said a million times before? Easily the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, Watchmen isn’t just a seminal work in the burgeoning realm of graphic novels (that would ultimately allow other celebrated works like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man to exist), but it is simply one of the defining novels of the last 30 years. Simultaneously science fiction, political satire, mystery, superhero (the definitive supehero tale), psychological drama, and a massive deconstruction of every comic book that predated it, Alan Moore didn’t just write the premier superhero story of all time; he made it nearly impossible to look at any superhero tales before or after in the same light ever again. As a child, I was a huge comic book fan, but I grew out of it as I got older because for the most part, the average superhero story wasn’t maturing as I was. Then, my sophomore year of college, I saw that Watchmen was being released in theaters and I felt it was high time to read this story that every one kept praising, and nothing was the same ever since. It rekindled my love with the comic book genre (and produced a drain on my finances thanks to my new comic book addiction), and introduced me to what is simply one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
At its core, Watchmen begins as a murder mystery but to say its morph into so much more would only be scratching the surface of the various layers of this dense and complex novel. In an alternate U.S. history where superheroes are real (though only one has any actual superpowers and is therefore essentially a god amongst men) and Richard Nixon is seeking his fourth term as U.S. President after superhero involvement led to a U.S. victory in Vietnam, one of the world’s superheroes has been murdered. A caustic and darkly comic man known as the Comedian (one of two superheroes still legally allowed to fight crime) was thrown out of his apartment in New York by an unknown assailant and the remaining superheroes (retired or vigilante) are worried that someone may be gunning for former masks. The remaining superheroes include Nite Owl (an aging millionaire [the Batman stand-in] who spends his days reminiscing with one of his predecessors from the 1940’s, the original Nite Owl), Silk Spectre (the daughter of one of the original 1940’s superheroes who only got into the business to please her mother), Rorschach (a psychotic and violent crime fighter who refused to retire and sees the world in starkly black and white terms), Ozymandias (smartest man in the world and most financially successful of the superheroes as he cashed in on his name post-retirement), and Dr. Manhattan (a former nuclear physicist who was transformed into a godlike being that can alter the state of matter at will among many other powers after a lab accident disintegrated him). As Rorschach investigates the Comedian’s murder, the others deal with personal and psychological flaws until they eventually stumble onto a conspiracy that may destroy the world.
Let’s start with the artwork. This is going to be a long, long review, and I guess art seems like the logical place to begin an assessment of a comic book. I’ve read Watchmen in its entirety about 4 times now, and the simple fact that I notice new things (and a large number of new things) every time I read the book should be a testament to just how much detail is crammed into each individual frame of this story. Whether it’s Dave Gibbon’s artwork simply from an aesthetic view point, which can be both beautiful and terrifying (those who’ve been exposed to some aspect of this piece know how gruesome it can get) or its the many recurring visual motifs and symbols that frequent the pages, it is likely you will spend as much time parsing the images of Watchmen as you will reading Moore’s words (and ultimately that is where the true genius lies). It truly takes a special talent to keep up with the brilliance of Alan Moore, and I honestly can’t think of a better author and artist pairing than Moore and Gibbons in this work. If it weren’t for the fact that there are still literary types that can’t get fact that this is a comic book, I would personally guarantee that academics could spend as much time parsing Watchmen for all of the symbolism and deeper meanings that they could Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest, and Dave Gibbons’ art adds richly to the symbolic tapestry of this novel.
Next, the characters. As a grown-up comic reader, when I read a traditional Marvel or DC story, I would say that 75% of my enjoyment from those tales comes more from an attachment to the characters rather than the plotting itself, which is often cliche comic book material. There are so many fun and memorable comic book characters out there, and it takes decades of mythology to turn them into the beloved icons they are today. In 12, 28-page, issues, Alan Moore was able to craft the most complex and distinct characters in the history of the genre. With the possible exception of Silk Spectre (who movie or book remains the least compelling character in the story), these characters all have dense psychological profiles that are explored in-depth and they almost all seem to represent some specific philosophical archetype. Rorschach is the definition of a right-wing deontologist where things are either right or wrong. There is no gray area. The Comedian can also be called a nihilist because he sees how damaged and broken the world is and decides to be a dark mirror of the world. Ozymandias is more of a utilitarian though I can’t get into exactly what that entails without spoilers. Dr. Manhattan is an examination of how an all-powerful deity would view something as mundane as human life (which is to say with bemused indifference). Nite Owl doesn’t really represent one of these philosophies. He was just a bored playboy who had a romanticized fascination with the superheroes of his youth and wanted to follow in their footsteps (which isn’t to say he’s not as emotionally scarred as everyone else).
The way that Moore lays out the story manages to be even more dense (and beautiful) than the artwork itself. Eschewing a linear format, the story jumps all over in time and place, and there is one chapter told from the view point of Dr. Manhattan (whose mind exists outside the normal bounds of linear time) that is arguably the single greatest issue of any comic I’ve ever read in its masterful non-linear story and haunting tragedy. At the end of every chapter, Moore provides several pages of non-comic book material that are presented as either excerpts from books within the Watchmen universe or newspaper articles or similar diegetic material. About halfway through the book, you are suddenly introduced to an in-universe comic book called The Tales of the Black Freighter which seems oddly out of place at first until you reach the end of the story and you realize just how relevant it truly was. The most amazing thing about this comic is that in spite of all of its intellectual pretensions and ambitions (which it fulfills extrrordinarily well), it also manages to stand on its own as an entertaining and engaging superhero story. Even when the mechanics of its ending are a little odd (perhaps the only area where the movie was better), it doesn’t lessen the impact of this story’s brutal and shattering climax.
If you somehow haven’t read Watchmen yet, you have to. Even if you saw the movie and didn’t enjoy it (which a frustratingly large number of people didn’t), you should still read the novel as I know several people who are big fans of the book that don’t like the movie either. It’s one of the most important novels of the last 50 years. It’s really a shame that DC screwed Alan Moore out of the rights to these characters and that led him to sever all ties with the company because considering what he was able to accomplish with a brand new set of characters (though many of these characters are direct responses to certain obscure Silver Age comic characters), I can only imagine what he could have done with established heroes. His The Killing Joke story for Batman remains one of the definitive Batman tales along with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and The Dark Knight Returns. I’m very glad that I chose to re-read Watchmen for this blog because each journey into that dark and twisted world reveals a little more of its secrets and I guarantee I still haven’t discovered all there is to know. Who watched the Watchmen? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I sure as hell know who’s telling everyone else they should read them.
Final Score: A+