by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Watchmen is a narrative tour de force. It’s a Greek tragedy, slathered with comic book schmaltz and effects, that explores human politics (personal and collective), ethics, morality, and character through the superhero paradigm. In the last twenty years, many titles have followed some aspect of its blueprint. Books as varied as Uncanny X-Men and Transmetropolitan have borrowed from its world, and titles like The American Way and The Authority virtually turned Watchmen into its own genre.
When it was first published in serialized form in 1986-1987, no other writer (except for maybe Frank Miller, whose Dark Knight Returns was hitting shelves simultaneously) had taken such a profoundly psychological look at the superhero genre. During this Bronze Age of Comics, writers were turning to naturalism, but the fascism that we read into Batman’s caped crusader, and the fetishism inherent in Wonder Woman were still only the repressed id of the genre’s writers and readers; it was not yet spelled out as motivation for regular people to put on spandex and fight crime. The trauma of our collective youth manifesting itself in exhibitionist and sado-masochistic fantasies all fed the bigger narrative, but Moore was one of the first to explicitly acknowledge these perversions as plot points and character motivation.
While Watchmen is an analysis of American pop cultural psychology, it never sacrifices its densely interwoven plot: When the Comedian, one of a loose confederate of superheroes, is murdered, his contemporary, Rorschach, sets out to discover if someone is killing “masks.” The story then slips back and forth in time, and across two generations of superheroes, following the narratives of six superheroes and the interplay between their personal lives and public images.
The emotional center of Watchmen is the relationship between Nite Owl, kind of the traditional comic book geek as superhero, and Silk Spectre, the eye-candy heroine, who is pushed into the family business as her mother’s successor. The Comedian represents the über-soldier and patriot — Captain America with a truly sadistic twist. Rorschach is the tormented and dark vigilante who narrates the murder mystery, and whose head we’d most desperately like to escape. The super-genius, Ozymandias, hovers somewhere above morality. Dr. Manhattan (his eerie yet tranquil blue skin is at least a subliminal allusion to the Hindu god Shiva: Destroyer of the World), created from man’s scientific fumblings with nuclear energy, has powers that warp the future of the entire world, and whose sudden disappearance starts the clock ticking toward WWIII.
It’s amazing how effortlessly Moore manipulates time and genre: Watchmen is built on a noir murder mystery overlaid with a romantic love triangle, crossed with a thriller and wrapped in a satire. It’s all those things, and it works due to the sheer brilliance of its seamless construction. Moore avoids expository burnout by telling backstory with newspaper clippings, psychologists’ notes, letters, and excerpts from an autobiography, making Watchmen as dense as it is dazzling. Moore never loses a narrative strand as his characters play out their personal dramas over the backdrop of murder and escalating geo-political tensions, moving back and forth across four decades.
Artist Dave Gibbons creates a 1986 New York straight out of Blade Runner; its purple, green, and brown color palette creates something both murky and vivid. Gibbons must have been inspired by Moore’s literary symmetry, because his panels blend effortlessly from one scene to the next. His mirror-image tableaux lend a cinematic vibe, keeping us abreast of where we are in time. These overlapping narratives and images flex and stretch the capabilities of the comic book format. Moore admitted that Watchmen was meant to be a showcase for what the comic book form was capable of. He and Gibbons definitely succeeded.
Without taking too much away from Moore and Gibbons’ symbiotic masterwork — a true watershed in comic book history — Time Magazine‘s naming of Watchmen as one of the 100 best novels since 1923 (how arbitrary is that?) seems facile, of-the-moment, and overreaching. It is still a comic book and, after all, isn’t a comic book cheating a bit? The traditional novel relies only on the imagery of wordplay to create pictures. Besides, even though Moore explores the kinkiness of grown people dressing up in leotards to fight crime with the right mix of cheekiness and depth, he still can’t resist the occasional dorkiness of comic book dialogue, overcooked inner monologues, and overuse of deux ex machina common to the genre. It’s also hard to tell if Moore is satirizing the misogyny of comics or reveling in it, as every female character seems to get her comeuppance in some way. The satire often walks a line where the reader is left wondering if Moore knows how absurd his story really is.
Rorschach tells a “joke” about a man fraught with depression. The man’s doctor suggests he cheer himself up by going to see the clown Pagliacci, to which the man replies, “I am Pagliacci.” The irony is that this could apply to the author as well: Moore cannot truly laugh at the comic book world because he is trapped inside of it looking out.
Still, Watchmen has many poignant things to say about the hysteria and nuclear proliferation of the Cold War Era (which are, not surprisingly, poignant today), American nostalgia for a past that never existed, and the slippery morality and self-absorption of brilliant people who fancy themselves demi-gods, but Moore never wholly escapes the inherent geekiness of the genre. In other words, the book’s central characters, like Rorschach, still have relatively by-the-numbers origin stories that aren’t nearly as creepy as they want to be. Dr. Manhattan’s creation, by way of mad science experiment, is less interesting that Moore’s unique take on what happens to the soul of a man who basically becomes a god.
But Watchmen’s flaws are part of what endears it to readers. A comic book that doesn’t acknowledge its humble roots as pulp and whimsical child’s play can seem pompous and heavy-handed. A satire on comic books by someone outside of comic book-dom would be condescending. Watchmen tackles some of the weightiest issues in our world by rummaging through a child’s toy box for protagonists, antagonists, and storyline. These toys of the innocent, when married to the failures and neuroses of grown-ups, collude to create an unsettling moral resolution. The story’s conclusion is a shocker, to be sure, that reverberates long after the toy box is closed.
DC Comics: www.dccomics.com/sites/watchmen