416 pages, DC Comics, ISBN-13: 978-0930289232
Comic book superheroes are basically fascist vigilantes, with Superman and his dedication to truth, justice and the American way being the exception that proves the rule. Both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, the two greatest examples of graphic storytelling, deal explicitly with the underlying fear the ordinary citizenry have of the demi-gods they worship. The one inherent advantage that Watchmen has over Frank Miller's classic tale is that it requires no knowledge of the existing mythos of its characters because Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, the Comedian and the rest of the former members of the Crimebusters.
The brainchild of writer Alan Moore (Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, From Hell) and artist Dave Gibbons (Rogue Trooper, Doctor Who, Green Lantern), Watchmen was originally published by DC Comics in twelve issues in 1986-87. Moore and Gibbons won the Best Writer/Artist combination award at the 1987 Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards ceremony. The central story in Watchmen is deceptively quite simple: apparently someone is killing off or discrediting the former Crimebusters superhero team. The remaining members end up coming together to discover who and the why behind it all with the payoff to the mystery is most satisfactory. But what makes Watchmen so special is the breadth and depth of both the characters and their respective subplots: Dr. Manhattan dealing with his responsibility to humanity given his god-like powers; Nite Owl having trouble leaving his secret identity behind; Rorschach being examined by a psychiatrist. Each chapter offers a specific focus on one of the characters, yet advances the overall narrative.
Beyond that the intricate narrative, Moore and Gibbons offer two additional levels to the story. First, each chapter is followed by a “non-comic” section that develops more of the backstories, such as numerous excerpts from Hollis Mason's autobiography “Under the Hood” or Professor Milton Glass’ “Dr. Manhattan: Super-Powers and the Superpowers”, an interview with Adrian Veidt, or reports from the police files of Walter Joseph Kovacs. Second, almost every issue has scenes from “Tales of the Black Freighter,” a comic-book within a comic-book being read by a kid near a newsstand, which offers an allegorical perspective on the main plot line.
This book is so incredibly brilliant, my words alone can't do it even a fraction of the justice it deserves. A graphic novel that changed the way we think about comics, written by transcendent literary genius Alan Moore, Watchmen offers a look at superheroes as they would appear in real life. Driven only by enthusiasm and determination, without the benefit of superpowers (except for Dr. Manhattan, the science-born hero), these heroes live in the US of an alternate Earth, where they have fought through the 20th Century, meeting with public support, distrust and sometimes hatred. These heroes are more realistic versions of traditional superhero archetypes, bearing the faults and shortcomings of rational behavior and honest human nature. For instance, the crusading vigilante (Rorschach) is a mentally-disturbed murderer, the all-powerful science-born hero (the aforementioned Dr. Manhattan) is so all-powerful he lacks concern for the world around him, and the technological genius inventor (Nite Owl) is out of shape and overly dependent on his gadgets. This alternate world is equally different and unusual, history having been changed by the superheroes: Richard Nixon is still President in 1985, the US won the Vietnam War easily and World War III looms on the horizon.
These are the driving themes behind Watchmen, a graphic novel so stunningly well-written and well-drawn that I do not hesitate to recommend it to even the most ardent skeptics who look upon comics with disdain, never thinking to read anything remotely associated with them. Watchmen represents the perfect synergy between the use of pictures, the potency of the written word, and the sublime power of symbolism that drives artists wielding either brush or pen to record their art permanently on canvas or paper. A worthy investment that stands tall amongst the great literary works of the latter part of the 20th Century.