Second last article of Volume II? I think it’s time to do something special. And there is nothing more special in the world of superhero fiction or speculative fiction or comic books than Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. If you read one book in your life as a citizen of the United States of America or Canada with a basic pop culture background, it should be Watchmen. This book should be on the must-read list for every person who has ever heard the word “superhero”. This is one of the most fantastic, groundbreaking, innovative and frankly awesome works of fiction ever produced in any medium, let alone one seen with such disdain as comics. Honestly, the colossally impressive amount of work put into the panels and bubbles of this series impresses me even today, 25 years after the initial publication of Chapter I. It impresses me today, even on my second read-through. Anyone who hasn’t read this book, read it. Anyone who has, read it again. It is as rewarding the second time through as it is the first, and this time you can afford to slow down and take it all in.
The first time I read Watchmen, it blew past me in three hours on a Thursday afternoon in the summer. This is the first layer of Watchmen: a damn good detective story starring people who wear costumes to fight crime. There are more twists, turns and intriguing questions than in your typical four-star feature film. It begins with Rorschach, an indelible portrait of objectivist black-and-white morals in the form of a “hero”, investigating the murder of a man named Edward Blake. Edward Blake was formerly known as The Comedian–a “costumed adventurer” in the exclusive employ of the United States government for the last decade of his life. The year is 1985, and Nixon is in his fifth term as President. Juxtaposed with Rorschach’s investigation of the death of a Comedian are the stories of the disparate men and women who put on costumes to fight crime after seeing it in comic books and thus changed the face of the world. From the dawn of masked vigilantes, the world has come a long way–all the way to the brink of what looks like inevitable nuclear war. The clock ticks closer to midnight with every passing day.
And that’s the first thing my brother said would impede any live-action adaptation on film: the book is no longer relevant because we no longer live under the Cold War and the eternal threat of the bomb. My brother is a smart man–much smarter than I–and like anyone who reads this book and the character of Dr. Manhattan or Ozymandias can tell you, sometimes people of extraordinary genius miss things that others find blindingly obvious. For instance, my brother thinks that Watchmen is primarily about the bomb. He’s wrong. It is set at the height of the bomb scare, and that is its setting in the most important ways, but that’s not what Watchmen is about, first and foremost. Watchmen is about heroism. Watchmen is, first and foremost, an examination of what makes us want to be heroes. What makes us want to put on costumes and fight crime.
For people (and thus characters) like Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk, it was a matter of taking up someone else’s mantle–for Dan, as a matter of fandom and admiration, for Laurie as a matter of family and obligation. As costumed adventurers, they are Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II respectively. Others, like Rorschach and The Comedian fight crime due to a horrifically black-and-white, right-and-wrong mindset inherited from American politics. Unsurprisingly, Rorschach is the most popular character of the book, despite being written as a parody of Objectivist morals. Just goes to show: we really love fascism in our fiction. Judge Dredd anyone? And for people, and thus characters, like Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan, gifted with truly superhuman abilities, it’s less a matter of desire. Dr. Manhattan is naturally used as a tool by the Government; Ozymandias cannot resist his urge to heal the world of all its afflictions.
And this is barely scratching the surface of a work of such incredible narrative depth and complexity that it makes my head spin. There’s foreshadowing on backshadowing on things you’ll only realize on second reading. Dave Gibbons has gone on record saying that Alan Moore’s panel descriptions for Watchmen were ridiculous–something like half a page of ten point Courier font, single-spaced, for one 1/9th panel. And yet, Alan Moore has said that upon re-reading the book, he’s found details in the pages that he knows he never wrote and he knows were inserted there by Dave Gibbons. Both of the creators behind this book were driven to create an experience that could not be communicated through any medium but comics, and they succeeded. They absolutely succeeded in writing a comic that’s not only a relevant social commentary on political issues of the day, but a comic book that is a criticism of other comic books from their inception to the time of writing. Every character, every plotline, every nuance of the fictional universe–all of it is used to talk about comics and what makes them unique and what makes them special. The book itself is a superhero story about superheros that critiques superheroism.
I have a criterion in addition to “absolute perfection” to distinguish between something ordinarily perfect and something truly special. Something truly special doesn’t just do its job without any flaws–it changes the way we do the same job going forward. It fundamentally changes the way we approach the medium it takes place in. There are plenty of films that have done this, but Watchmen is the only comic book I know of that has done the same. It changed the way we saw and wrote comic book heroes, and sure, we may not have taken the right lessons from Watchmen–insisting on writing grim and dark melodramas instead of aspiring to the complex psychological and sociological and metafictional web that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons weaved with their words and images. But Watchmen changed the way we look at comics. And you know, I think that deserves a little more, don’t you?