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Comics of 1986 # 4: Watchmen
© Chris Roberson
April 25, 2008

What can be said about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen that hasn’t already been said?

Anyone who’s had anything to do with comics in the last 20 years has at least heard of it, more than likely, and probably read it as well. Next year, when the questionable film adaptation hits the big screen, audiences everywhere will know the name as well (though whether they’ll know it only as the title of the latest crappy superhero flick remains to be seen).

It is the only comic book ever to win a Hugo award. (Granted, it was a one-year-only award for "Other Forms," a mixed bag that included a collection of Harlan Ellison stories, an unproduced screenplay, the first three volumes of George RR Martin’s Wild Cards series, and Tom Weller’s "Cvltvre Made Stvpid," a fact that’s often omitted from its laundry list of achievements).

It was the only comic to appear on Time Magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels of the modern day. It is consistently cited as an influence or inspiration by comic writers and artists, novelists, and filmmakers. The trade collection has been in continuous print since it was first collected some twenty years ago.

Watchmen is, in short, the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful comic ever. The trade collection has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, including more than fourteen thousand copies since the beginning of this year alone.

Somewhat rare for a work that receives such sales and plaudits, Watchmen deserves every bit of it. It is, I think, one of the most skillfully complex and subtle works of sustained fiction ever produced in the comics medium, and certainly the most complex and subtle superhero comic ever produced.

And like any successful work, it has spawned countless imitators.

Unfortunately, as is all too common, the imitators invariably managed to mimic only the surface, with none of the substance. What makes Watchmen so truly remarkable is the depth of the story, the level of detail with which the world is presented, and the unparalleled structure of the storytelling itself.

The aspect of the story that most imitators choose to copy was instead a few character traits: the “grim & gritty" antics of Rorschach, primarily.

The only storytelling trick that entered the lexicon of popular comics was the use of "aspect to aspect transitions," as Scott McCloud later called them, mirroring the last image of a scene with the first image of the following scene.

Looking back on Watchmen all these years later, it’s sometimes too easy to view it in its finished, completed form, and to forget what it was like as the issues were released, one at a time, month after month.

Preview images had appeared here and there in the months leading up to the book's release, in the pages of Amazing Heroes or in DC Spotlight, a free promo comic DC distributed at cons and comic shops.

Readers like me were already fans of Moore’s from his work on Swamp Thing and Miracleman and such, and of Gibbons from his work on Green Lantern and the Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything."

So we were already primed for the series, ready to enjoy it. But when that first issue arrived, with that amazing design work, the typography, the text pages in the back, the incredible amount of detail in each of the 9-panel grid pages . . . it was a revelation. We knew we were seeing something new, something important.

Watchmen is an achievement that has yet to be duplicated in the field of American superhero comics. There have been works that have approached it, perhaps, but nothing has yet reached the same level of artistry, and certainly none have exceeded it.

Will anything ever surpass it? It remains to be seen, but it would certainly be interesting to see the attempts.

To see who else made the list, check out the Comics of 1986.

Chris Roberson writes things and publishes things. The publishing stuff is at MonkeyBrain Books. His latest novel is The Dragon's Nine Sons.

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