Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format — please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.
What’s it about?
Watchmen is not your average superhero story. Set in an alternate 1980s, which sees Richard Nixon enjoying his unprecedented third term as President, the world is bracing itself for war as tensions mount between the United States and Russia who are poised to rain nuclear fire on each other through mutually assured destruction. The Cold War serves as a backdrop to the central plot involving the murder of a government sponsored masked vigilante named The Comedian. In the past, vigilantes were celebrated for their work in aiding the police deal with New York’s crime element but due to growing unrest and a police strike, the government passed the Keene Act that makes masked vigilantism illegal, forcing a new breed of heroes into early retirement.
The Comedian’s murder is investigated by Rorschach, a violent masked hero that refused to quit, who believes something big is happening while his former allies dismiss the death as nothing more than a hit from The Comedian’s numerous enemies. Through Rorschach, we are introduced to the notable remnants of the Minutemen, a small collective of heroes made up of the Night Owl II (Dan Dreiberg), Silk Spectre II (Laurie Juspeczyk), Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias (Adrien Veidt). Having been forced out of the crime fighting game, a number of them find that returning to “normal” life has been awkward and stifling. Dan spends his nights reminiscing with the previous Night Owl, Adrien is a successful entrepreneur, and Laurie is Dr. Manhattan’s lover/liaison while under employ of the government. Dr. Manhattan’s self imposed exile sets a chain of events in motion that results in an escalation of the Cold War and Rorschach making a break in his investigation. The remnants of the Minutemen must band together in order to stop the chief orchestrator of the plot before it is too late.
Although Alan Moore has a number of acclaimed comics under his belt, Watchmen stands as his most universally and critically praised works. Backed by illustrator Dave Gibbons, the graphic novel is notable because of how it deconstructs previously held notions of superheroes. During the Golden and Silver Age, masked heroes were champions of morality; paragons placed high on pedestals and only used their powers for truth, justice and The American Way. Moore turns the concept on its head by creating a comic with a cast of characters who carry the weight of being human and suffer from common and complex foibles. The Comedian was a psychopath, Rorschach is a product of a troubled past, Dan Dreiberg is emotionally stunted and Dr. Manhattan, being the story’s only legitimate super being, finds himself growing increasingly distant with humanity. Interestingly enough, if one were to examine them closely, certain characters are funhouse mirror images of mainstream heroes. Dan is very much like Bruce Wayne, with his intelligence and penchant for technology and gadgets, Silk Spectre can be considered a twist on Wonder Woman and Dr. Manhattan shares some similarities with Superman, but unlike the last son of Krypton, Dr. Manhattan doesn’t feel it is his responsibility to protect people.
No discussion of Watchmen can be made without discussion Moore’s unique style of narrative structure. Outside of Gibbons’ nine panel design, Moore includes several stories within stories that flesh out the the world of Watchmen as well as the history of notable characters. “Tales of the Black Freighter,” is a pirate themed comic read by an ancillary character that details the plight of a poor soul shipwrecked by a demonic black ship who struggles to find his way back home. The graphic novel is also interspersed with excerpts from a fictional biography and papers written by (or about) major characters. At face value, these excerpts might look like simple side stories yet their existence is deliberate at integral to the core narrative.
Watchmen is significant because of how it changed superheroes and ushered in the darker and more mature comics we have today. Released around the same time as Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, a new wave of superhero was taking hold. Villains were becoming more violent and disturbed, requiring morally ambiguous vigilantes to take them down. Hardly alone, Watchmen’s popularity made it the shining beacon of the genre.
Even though the setting makes the work feel incredibly dated, its complexity and maturity aid Watchmen to stand the test of time. It also helps that the multifaceted work holds a broad range of appeal. Those bored with stereotypically good (and flat) superheroes will enjoy the work for its multi-dimensional characters. Curious bystanders who normally don’t follow the medium but appreciate exceptional writing will find the nonlinear narrative engaging. Longtime fans of the work will continually sing the praises of Watchmen long after their fourth, tenth or twentieth reading.
And let’s not forget those who have been exposed to the work by its film adaptation in 2009. Although Zack Snyder treated the source material with a high degree of reverence, it takes a few liberties with the climax (earning Moore’s famous ire) resulting in a resolution that is thematically similar but ultimately different from the original vision.
Why should you own this?
Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen, simply put, is required reading and belongs in any and every graphic novel collection. It’s not everyday that Time Magazine sings the praises of a comic and Watchmen is a work that deserves every bit of it.
by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Paperback edition: ISBN: 9780930289232
Hardcover Deluxe edition: ISBN: 9781401238964
DC Comics, 1995, 2013