Collects: Watchmen #1-12 (1985-6)
Released: September 1987 (DC)
Format: 416 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 978-0930289232
Much more than Zot!, Watchmen is critically bulletproof. Its greatness as a work of comic art is relatively uncontested, even in the contentious world of online comic fandom. It is one of the three titles frequently nominated for the position of greatest comic story ever told (The Dark Knight Returns and Maus being the other two).
I don’t know if Watchmen is the best; I haven’t read Maus or dozens of other stories that might qualify. I know it isn’t my favorite comic story of all time. But I can’t think of a comic that’s better.
Watchmen, for those of you who haven’t read it, is set in a world with real costumed heroes. However, most of the costumed heroes, masked vigilantes who lack superpowers, are outlawed; only the ultraviolent Comedian and the detached Doctor Manhattan, who work for the government, are allowed to operate legally. The story begins with the death of the Comedian. Rorschach, a right-wing, unbalanced vigilante who ignores the ban, thinks the Comedian’s death is part of a conspiracy to kill heroes. The other former heroes generally disagree, but Rorschach continues his investigation.
This synopsis does not do Watchmen justice, of course. Writer Alan Moore created a deeply detailed alternate 1985. Electric cars and non-polluting airships are the norm. Doctor Manhattan — who has vast reality manipulation powers and is the only person to have an actual superpower — has given America a vast strategic advantage on the world stage, since the Soviets have no counter for an actual superman. America won the Vietnam War when Manhattan took a hand in the fighting, and Nixon’s still president. Pirate stories dominate comic books, since real costumed heroes made people less likely to find superheroes escapist. Still, most people seem as miserable as they are in our world, despite that world’s advantages.
Much has been said about Alan Moore’s genius, and it’s on full display here. Moore not only invents a fully realized world, he creates characters with more depth and emotions than most comic-book writers could instill in five years of writing. To me, that’s the real strength of Watchmen — not the plotting, not the conspiracy story (although I like conspiracy stories, and this is an excellent one), and not the art (although Dave Gibbons does a great job). Rorschach is crazy, violent, morally uncompromising, and a thoroughly unpleasant person, but Moore makes him exciting and interesting despite all this. So exciting and interesting that he and his laser-focused world viewpoint are many readers’ favorite part of the book. But there’s also the violent cynicism of the Comedian, a brute who nevertheless has deep insight into humanity’s failings and steals most of the scenes he’s in — despite being dead before Watchmen begins. Doctor Manhattan’s amoral reserve flows logically from the detached, easily manipulated watchmaker-cum-physicist he was before he became a superhero. And the villain … I’m not sure there’s another master planner in comics that I hate so much. Even minor characters, such as the psychologist who treats Rorschach and a newsvendor, also have indelible personalities.
Most writers would give their eyeteeth to have created a Rorschach or Comedian; Moore created both, out of whole cloth, then let the world of Watchmen go. There were no spinoffs, no TV series, no Watchmen Babies15 — and that has made the story strong. There is nothing to water it down, unlike The Dark Knight Returns or any of the longstanding major comic-book characters’ stories. The characters and the world of Watchmen exist only in twelve issues, one trade paperback. And that’s it. Completeness, which is something we never get … ironically, it’s also the point of Doctor Manhattan’s final comment to former vigilante Ozymandius.
There’s also a lightness of touch, avoiding the black-and-white viewpoint common to comics. The villain’s evil deeds at times seem almost secondary in importance to the extreme moral bind he puts the heroes in. Moore has little sympathy, I believe, for Rorschach and his right-wing conspiracies (and his absolutisms), but he and his fellow extreme conservative the Comedian find and understand more of the truth than anyone else. Ozymandius, whose politics are probably much closer to Moore’s own, is blithely unconcerned with the conspiracy’s underpinnings. The ending is steeped in moral compromise. No one is a complete hero; the world won’t allow it.
Moore and Gibbons work together well, almost seamlessly at times. Between them, they cram details into panels that would make modern artists blanch. Despite working in smaller panels than most of today’s artists, Gibbons doesn’t flinch at detail, at expressions, at backgrounds. There’s a wealth of detail in almost every panel. That isn’t a luxury, however: Moore’s writing seems to demand it, rather than being background jokes as Gene Ha16 provides in his collaboration with Moore, Top 10.
I praised the characters, but what really elevates Watchmen to the status of high art rather than just an outstanding story are the themes. They repeat throughout the story, amplify, touch or transfer to other characters. Rorschach’s blots, the radioactivity symbol, clockwork — they appear in unexpected places, surprising the reader with their connections. Moore makes apt allusions to everything from the Bible to classical literature to Bob Dylan. It is Moore at the height of his powers, with an artist capable of keeping up with him.
The only real complaint I have are the garish colors; Watchmen is filled with oranges, greens, and purples. At times, it’s putrescent and hard to read. I understand why, I think: this is a world that is sick but doesn’t and can’t acknowledge it, even as the decay is working its way to the surface. Also, surrounding heroes of the night with ugly, eye-catching colors instead of the blackness they prefer is a perfect symbol of the garishness of costumed heroism — it attracts attention rather than efficiently blending into the shadows.
But that’s a minor grievance; others have put more vitriol and thought into the matter. Some complain about the pirate story read at the newsstand by a young man, which Moore intercuts frequently with the main story. I think it’s woven into the story brilliantly, its themes (if not its images) fitting into the main story like a key in a lock. Also, the story is, itself, brilliant. Others find the text pieces at the end of each issue distracting, but they fill in the corners of the Watchmen universe, particularly excerpts from Under the Hood, a tell-all biography from one of the first generation of heroes.
Others complain about not believing the ending, that the grand conspiracy would not accomplish its goal. That’s OK; Moore doesn’t think that state will last long, and it’s possible nothing is resolved in the end.
It is, admittedly, old fashioned. It was written in the year it was set, 1985, and it reflects many of the tropes and ideas comics had accumulated up to that point. There are few, if any, splash pages, and Gibbons lays out pages in 3x3 grids. Occasionally, a panel will fill an entire row or column, but 3x3 rules the day. The roles and some of the designs of the heroes are based on characters from the Golden or Silver Age; famously, Rorschach was based on Steve Ditko creations the Question and Mr. A, while Nite Owl was influenced by Blue Beetle and Batman. The heroes themselves fill archetypes: genius, detective, polymath genius, alien, token girl.
Moore’s goals for Watchmen seem to be to take elements of past — to revel in those elements — and forge something new, something that hadn’t been seen before, something to build on for the future. In the story, this is seen in Ozymandius deciding to end his successful line of Nostalgia perfume and replace it with Millenium, followed by a forward-looking advertising campaign. Like Ozymandius, Moore tried to close out the old, successful model and introduce a new model, and even if few followed his lead, he succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Well, maybe not his own.
Rating: (5 of 5)