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Who Watches the Watchmen? We All Should...
Reviewed by Kenn McCracken, © 2001

Format: Comics
By:   Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Genre:   Superheroes / Science Fiction
Review Date:   August 08, 2001
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

"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… 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 the story.

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.

Kenn McCracken is Comics Editor for RevolutionSF.

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    Originally published by DC Comics in a 12 issue maxi-series format, 1987.

    Alan Moore: writer; Dave Gibbons: illustrator, letterer; John Higgins: colorist.


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