"It's my all-time favorite comic book outside of Marvel. It's an
absolutely unique story. It has great characterization, it's beautifully
drawn, and there's a surprise on every page."
- Stan Lee
There are a few instances of comic books reaching the public eye, beyond the
horrible over-reactions (Seduction of the Innocent) and the pop-art film
phenomena (Batman, Superman, The X-Men). There's Art Spiegelman's
Maus, the first comic book ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. On the flip
side is the national media frenzy that accompanied Superman's "death"
in the early 1990's. Somewhere in between, but no less deserving of recognition
as one of the most important stories in comic book history, is Alan Moore's
and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen.
It starts off as a murder mystery, starring a bunch of people in costumes.
Only this isn't the normal superhero universe, with tyrannical would-bes attacking
national landmarks and planning bank-heists; instead, this is a world that seems
remarkably familiar to our own, with a few subtle differences. America won the
Vietnam War with a little help from a man known as Dr. Manhattan. Nixon went
on to serve a third term in the Oval Office. Superheroes have been outlawed.
Wait - a comic where the costumes are illegal? But
It's this seemingly small detail that helps make Watchmen more than just another
alternate universe episode, instead building a bridge between the worlds of
comics as we know them and the day-to-day life that we all know firsthand. The
heroes are viewed as vigilantes, and the public has as much fear of them as
respect. Sure, the uncanny powers have done some good for the average Joe, but
what if they decide they want more? What then?
The story progresses through present and past, examining all the happenings
that led from World War II to now. A psychotic paranoid-schizophrenic - and
hero -- named Rorschach begins his own investigation of the Comedian's death,
and heads toward the conclusion that someone is killing off the heroes; his
search brings him and his former teammates to the realization that something
much bigger and more threatening than a dead vigilante is underway, and the
story explodes from there.
In so many ways, Watchmen transcends the boundaries of its medium.
It is, frankly, one of the very few comic stories absolutely deserving of the
term "graphic novel;" the plot is rich with detail, the characters
as realistic and alive as any have been, the dialogue and progression of story
from event to event as tight as one could ever hope. Moore's work on this story
demands rereading, even multiple passes; each visit to the world of the Watchmen
reveals new details and secrets that promote the overall felling of the books.
Gibbons, too, contributes a part that cannot be extricated. The art in the books
is perhaps the firs to attain the wide screen cinematic feel of an epic movie.
As with the plot, there is always something new to discover.
By the end of the first quarter of the tale, it is obvious that the story has
outgrown its original intent. Somewhere around issue three or four, the tale
shape-shifted from murder mystery to science fiction epic. While there are bits
of fiction scattered through the details, the science is grounded in reality
(much unlike traditional comic books); there are times when Alan Moore might
rightly be called the Tom Clancy of science fiction. Even though the tale is
rooted firmly in reality, with a heavy "what if?" factor launching
the tension, the creativity and true gift that Moore possesses is apparent throughout
As an interesting aside, the story had originally been planned with old Charlton
Comic characters, of which DC had recently purchased the rights. Editor Dick
Giordano nixed the idea, noting that the story would hurt the characters (they
were integrated into the DC Universe proper in the late eighties and early nineties),
and so Moore came up with his own characters for the story. Still, next time
you read the story, look for Captain Atom, the Blue Beetle, and the Question.
They're not hard to spot
Even as a lifelong advocate of comic books as a serious art form, I will admit
that superheroes are not for everyone. The serialization of Spider-Man's exploits
is, at heart, for young imaginations that have time or need for flights of fancy.
Watchmen, though, is worlds removed from the average monthly
offering. The story is filled with intricate detail, a complex but clear structure,
and a wonderful examination of archetypes and ages-old moral problems. Yes,
it exists in a medium that is traditionally thought of as "low art,"
but to miss this masterpiece because you think comics are for kids is a shortsighted
failure. If ever there was a reason not to judge a story by its package (to
turn a phrase), Watchmen is it.