The Watchmen is the seminal graphic novel written by Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Sandman, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. I consider this book to be the high point in illustrative storytelling as it shows the fall from grace of the superhero group because of their own human weaknesses.
This book won the prestigious Hugo Award and it’s easy to see why. Moore works a lot with symbolism and subtext within this book and it is masterfully captured by the artist. You can read and re-read the
book and still catch things you never saw before.
Released in 1986, the book is at odds with then President Reagan’s and then British Prime Minister Thatcher’s dominance of the 80s and strikes out against complacency and the idea of what it means to be a hero and even if the world is worth saving.
Striking in concept, the book is laid out in 9-panel grid, which allowed the artist to give a uniform structure. The grid is unlike the more common variable size/number of panels. Many of the details the artist puts into each panel move the story toward the impending countdown
of the doomsday clock as nuclear disaster nears. This is mirrored with the twelve chapters (or issues) released, one for each hour on the clock.
Heroes span the generations from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s when superheroes were welcomed, to the 70’s when laws were passed to limit their legitimacy, to the 80’s. Some retire and have others take
over their costumed identities – to varying degrees of success. In this alternate universe, Richard Nixon is still president, and nuclear war threatens with the Soviet Union.
Rorshach is violent and slightly unhinged, but is also the only character who never lies – he always acts valiantly even if it’s brutal.
The Comedian has committed horrible crimes against both heroes and villains but it’s his death that startsthe story on its course.
Dr. Manhattan is the only character with real super powers and those gifts are as alienating as they are fantastic.
His girlfriend, Silk Spectre tries to ground him to his humanity but he sheds that too eventually.
Nite Owl is a legacy hero who finds the thrill of superheroics again with Silk Spectre.
Ozymandias is the golden child, and the only one of the team to be successful after retiring from crime fighting.
The villain sets the former heroes against themselves by using their past against them and unleashing an unstoppable Armageddon.
One central theme of this book, which has been studied on college campuses, is the idea of action versus inaction. If the world is going to end and there is no way to stop it, do you do anything? The twists along the way inform the characters’ decisions and allow the audience to grasp the life and death situation they face as they come out of retirement to save the day.
Watchmen deserves a lot of credit for the trend toward dark, complicated, and twisted superheroes, to the point where the term “hero” comes into question.
Originally, Moore and Gibbons were going to reboot some superhero characters from another company that DC had just acquired. However, when DC editorial saw what Moore and Gibbons were planning on doing, they decided to go the miniseries approach. This allowed the creative team the ability to create analogues for the main characters (to do with as they please) and the superheroes that DC had just acquired could be assimilated into their main comic universe.