Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons probably didn’t intend their story to have the impact it did, and wrote a mock article in Watchmen about owls and birds that inadvertently illustrates the influence this graphic novel would have on the world of western literature
“Is it possible, I wonder, to study a bird so closely, to observe and catalogue its peculiarities in such minute detail, that it becomes invisible? Is it possible that while fastidiously calibrating the span of its wings or the lengths of its tarsus, we somehow lose sight of its poetry?”
Daniel Dreiberg, also known as the second Nite Owl, believes this to be true. Dissecting every part of an owl into facts and figures takes away from the mystery of these marvelous creatures. He adds that he doesn’t believe that facts and sciences should be eradicated or ignored, but admits that approaching a situation without poetry is detrimental. The same can be said for Watchmen.
Watchmen is one of the most — if not the most — prolific graphic novels in the world. There is nothing about the comic that hasn’t been analyzed by historians, literature majors, and sociologists. It’s been on lists of must-read books, and for the longest time was one of the only graphic novels to be on Time Magazine’s 100 best novels. It won numerous accolades, and will most likely never go out of print, much to the chagrin of Moore. It spawned a live-action movie that divides audiences, numerous prequels written by people other than the creators, and inspired an HBO series. It’s safe to say that if anything, Watchmen is revolutionary.
Watchmen was originally intended to use the recently DC-acquired Charlton Comics characters, but Moore and Gibbons’ intent didn’t jive with the top brass. They wanted to break them apart, or even outright kill them off. The publishers weren’t happy with this, thinking that their characters were far too valuable to end so abruptly. Moore reluctantly obliged (probably with a guttural growl), and created brand-new ersatz characters far too similar not to be homages. With this artistic freedom he was able to take recognizable archetypes and have free will to do whatever he wants to them without worrying about retcons, reboots, or other publisher oversight to the main universe. Thus, the Crimebusters and the Minutemen were born. Instead of creating a simple superhero story set in the 1980s, the artistic duo created a beautiful allegory about politics, philosophy, and ethics. In the past years, this closed world opened its doors, and not only did other creators add to it, but it’s starting to seep into the DC universe with Doomsday Clock.
Watchmen was written at the apex between the Bronze Age and Modern Age of comics. Some people consider this time to be the ‘Dark Age’ of comics, where stories were geared to older audiences, exploring themes such as guilt, political scandals, drug use, vigilantism, and the self. A lot of Frank Miller’s work falls in this category, while Chris Claremont also dabbled in it every so often, just enough to wet his toe. Watchmen stands out because it was the main trendsetter for the grim and gritty reality to be the standard. Unfortunately, the grittiness of reality soon became the norm, and ironically morphed into an unwilling parody of itself. Concepts of morality went to the extreme, ethics needed to be shattered, and lives were torn asunder, while havoc reigned upon the extremes of black and white. Today, this type of teeth-clenching, rain-soaked cynicism is looked on with eye-rolls for being a little too out of touch.
For those who never read this masterpiece, Watchmen takes place mostly in 1985, in an alternate timeline where superheroes and vigilantes are deemed illegal, with the exception of government-issued, costumed fighters. The USA won the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon’s scandal never came to pass. This unfounded success was primarily due to the interference of Doctor Manhattan, an omniscient being of infinite power who sided with the Americans. The USA became a terrifying powerhouse, and knew that with him in their pocket, nothing could stand in their way. Though the story primarily takes place in 1985, it occasionally flashes back to other decades, during a different political climate.
The story starts off when on a typical New York night, a middle aged man is murdered, defenestrated from his high-rise apartment. When the police arrive, they discover his sordid history, and can’t piece together either the motive or who would be able to defeat someone with his physique. The victim, Edward Blake, is an unknown to most people, but to the paranoid detective vigilante, Rorschach, he is The Comedian, a government operative and former superhero. While Rorschach investigates his murder, the lives of his contemporaries are put into jeopardy.
Watchmen broke boundaries and changed the medium. Alan Moore’s writing is impeccable, as the 12-issue mini-series uses new mediums besides comic book dialogue. Most chapters focus on a single character or moment in history, and ends either in an essay, an interview, or excerpt from a book. This format was different from the norm; however, it doesn’t distract from the story, and instead uses it as a brilliant form of exposition. The setting, which takes place mostly in New York, is full of life and character, and it’s all thanks to the creators who found a way to rebuild a world without spelling it out to the audience. A lot of credit is given to Moore, but most people forget that this is collaboration between him and Dave Gibbons. Gibbons isn’t simply the artist, but helped build the characters and the world alongside Moore. They ensured that every page, panel, and transition matters.
Watchmen‘s success is founded in the unique nine-panel grid format. Its geometric simplicity is devoid of chaos, and is sincerely beautiful. Every placement of industrial steam to scrap of old newspaper flying across the midnight sky is not simply put there haphazardly, or to cover empty space. Every detail serves a purpose, either as an allegory to the current theme of the chapter, or as a repeating symbol hidden across every page. This mesmerizing symmetry is done no better than in Chapter V, entitled “Fearful Symmetry,” which to its best possible efforts is mirrored near perfectly from the first panel to the last, using this iconic moment as the turning point.
Watchmen deconstructs the superhero story. It brings them into a world where people behave like people, limiting the soap-opera drama and mannerisms. The trench coat-sporting investigator Rorschach is a workaholic with the creed of “never compromise.” As badass as this sounds, his anti-social and paranoid antics are off-putting, especially when he doesn’t take care of his own hygiene or shows little empathy towards his friends. A brilliant character, but one who only sees in black and white; the world is ever changing, but he refuses to play that game. To him, there is good and there is evil — no compromise. Other characters, though they may see the world in a similar matter, don’t go to his extent. Nite Owl II is incomplete without his suit, and is literally and figuratively impotent in his own world. Doctor Manhattan can literally do anything, but sees humans as simple creatures at best, and at worst, they’re ants. Characters like these make Watchmen memorable. They’re complex and faulty, have conflicting ideologies, and make mistakes. Watchmen didn’t invent or reinvent this deconstruction — it simply did it best.
It’s infamously known that Alan Moore dislikes what Watchmen has become, and its treatment by the publishers. But Moore is also famously known not to like a lot of things. This doesn’t change the fact that Watchmen is a masterpiece and a best seller. With the amount of detail put into every panel, and seeing how every word and name is picked so carefully, it’s impossible to absorb everything in the first read through. Though those jaw-dropping moments may not have the same impact the second or even third time around, they overshadow the smaller and intrinsic details that went unnoticed, simply because they weren’t blatant Chekov’s guns. In its entirety, Watchmen can be reread an infinite number of times, and every new read through will bring in something new. It will remain timeless as long as we don’t forget its poetry.
HBO is releasing a Watchmen series in Fall 2019
Watchmen is widely available at most if not all bookstores, comic bookstores, and online.