Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen has a reputation for many reasons, including:
- It’s a modern classic of superhero tales in the comics format.
- It reflects a turn toward the gritty and critical in superhero comics that arguably revitalized the subgenre in the late 1980s.
- Alan Moore himself is a grand old man (if a notoriously grumpy grand old man) of the format, and his work is worth reading.
- Dave Gibbons is a landmark artist who was working at the top of his game, and his collaboration with Moore created a complex, compelling title.
- For readers who love getting meta about their stories, this title is a targeted deconstruction of superheroes.
Lest you fear we’re disparaging a classic, please read our Classic Fantastic of Watchmen here. We get it, we really do.
Who we would argue it’s not good for? A reader who’s never read a comic or graphic novel before.
For decades now, when a reader expresses interest in trying comics, a well meaning fan inevitably recommends they read Watchmen. This recommendation was most recently noted in NPR’s solid list of recommended titles Let’s Get Graphic: 100 Favorite Comics And Graphic Novels. This list was coordinated by Petra Mayer, and judged by G. Willow Wilson, C. Spike Trotman, Maggie Thompson, Etelka Lehoczky, and Glen Weldon. We’re not here to nitpick the list, which includes titles we love, nor the selection process, which we all know from experience is complicated when you’re whittling down piles of works into a definitive list. (Seriously, don’t snark on the list or the judges.) This article was just the most recent in mention after mention, by comics fan after comics fan, that noted in its annotation for Watchmen, “There is a reason people still press it into the hands of those who’ve never read a comic before.”
We at No Flying No Tights, all of us readers’ advisers and comics enthusiasts, are here to say: please stop giving Watchmen to people who have never read a comic before.
Our reviewers weigh in on why Watchmen is not the best choice:
Allen: I think giving out Watchmen to someone who doesn’t have much experience with the superhero genre (or comics at all) isn’t that great of an idea. While Watchmen does have a good story that challenges the expectations of the superhero genre, the point could be lost on those who don’t have much experience with superhero books. It won’t have the same impact.
Roy: I absolutely 100% would *not* recommend Watchmen to someone new to comics, nor would I recommend it to someone with limited experience with superhero comics. The things that make Watchmen the most interesting, I think, are the ways that it deconstructs gold/silver age heroes, and the ways that it plays with the form. If you’re not familiar with the history of superhero comics, you miss the meat of the book; it becomes just another in a long line of dark, gritty super hero books. It’s hard to appreciate how much Watchmen changed the scene of superhero comics if you’re not familiar with them in the first place, and, especially now, over a quarter century later, when the kind of deconstruction that Watchmen engaged in has been done to death, it’s easy to miss that it was really the first.
It’d be like handing someone who had no understanding of literary fiction or western literature a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita. Sure, it’s an interesting story in its own right, but you’re missing most of the context. At worst, there’s the possibility that you’re going to be put off the medium because you’re being given something without being first given the foundation/tools to fully appreciate what is being done.
Thomas: Arbiters of good taste should always take care that their recommendations do not turn into browbeating over “if you didn’t like/understand this work then you probably do not like or have a place in the medium.” I have met plenty of adults who love all of the kinds of stories comics offer but weren’t asked what they might want to read first.
On a more specific version of the question, editor Matthew asked: Would you recommend Watchmen to someone who is familiar with comics in general, but has very limited experience with superhero comics?
Robin: No. If I want to introduce a genre to someone, I wouldn’t start with a title that requires knowledge of the tropes, characters, and clichés that were present in that genre 30 years ago. My goal in introducing someone to superhero comics would be to showcase the intelligence, adventure, and myth-making that make the stories, art, and heroes so long-lasting and enjoyable. I’d prefer to start with the well-crafted titles that show the positive side of superhero stories before recommending the darker, critical story that rips the genre apart.
Roy: if you want to give someone a grim-dark super-hero book, there are more accessible ones to give them than Watchmen (like Batman: Year One—which I love, despite its (and its creator’s) many flaws).
Thomas: Librarians know which comics are creating new comics readers, and it’s not Watchmen. As others have noted, Watchmen is great, it’s a proud flagpole of a certain comics era that is still felt today, but it’s not intro-level.
Wondering what you should recommend instead of Watchmen? Check out our next post which covers best practices for recommending titles to a new comics reader to encourage a positive, engaging experience that may make a new fan.
Thanks to Matthew Murray, Allen Kesinger, Roy MacKenzie, and Thomas Maluck for chiming in on this discussion.