Usually, my Back Issues articles are a little more relaxed and sort of like informal mini-essays and musings about single issues or limited runs but Watchmen is going to need a little bit more than that, I fear. I’ve written about Watchmen before, specifically as part of my Master’s dissertation, and it’s no small feat; the maxiseries has been picked apart, scrutinised, and analysed perhaps more than any other comic book or graphic novel thanks to it inspiring “the evolution of comics into ‘graphic novels’. [Ironically,] the creators hoped literally to deconstruct the superhero genre and break its stranglehold on the American industry, but in fact tightened the grip” (Newman, 2009). Watchmen is typically the first, and finest, example of the literary worth of comic books, looming “over the [genre] like the Colossus over Rhodes” (Douthat, 2009: 50), and was not only “chosen as one of the Greatest One Hundred Novels in English from 1923 to 2005” (Shephard, 2009: 213) but also long regarded as unsuitable for other mediums.
So, because of all that, and more, this is easily the most complex edition of Back Issues I’ve had to put together so I think it’s only fair to expand upon my usual format in order to best delve into the intricacies and layers of Watchmen.
Published: September 1986 to October 1987
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Published between September 1986 and October 1987, Watchmen was the brainchild of noted comic book writer Alan Moore; Moore, who was born just down the road from me in Northampton, had achieved much success in his home country with V for Vendetta (Moore, et al, 1982 to 1989) and at DC Comics thanks to his groundbreaking work on The Saga of Swamp Thing and, after DC acquired the rights to Charlton Comics characters, devised a murder mystery scenario that would star such Silver Age characters as Vic Sage/The Question and Ted Kord/Blue Beetle. Although DC managing director Dick Giordano was receptive to Moore’s premise, he denied the use of the Charlton characters so as not to damage their reception when they were folded into the main DC Comics lore so Moore collaborated with artist Dave Gibbons to reimagine the concept with an entirely new cast of characters.
Lacking the usual advertisements and attractive cover designs (Reynolds, 1992: 108-109), Watchmen incorporated a sophisticated adult narrative in which Moore explored new avenues of the superhero genre; Moore sought to subvert the usual expectations of comic book heroes, grounding them in reality (for the most part), and tackling the genre with a serious, contemplative direction. Filled with dense imagery and complex themes, and despite several delays, Watchmen was a critical and commercial success; it’s still the only graphic novel to make Time magazine’s 2005 list of “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels” and DC have long pursued Moore to produce prequels, sequels, and other spin-offs of his seminal work. Despite Watchmen’s success, though, and DC going ahead with these aforementioned continuations and licensing numerous adaptations of Watchmen, even officially folding it into mainstream DC continuity in 2017, Moore has publically distanced himself from DC’s ventures and even refused to have his name associated with Zack Snyder’s live-action adaptation and the HBO limited series.
Rather than portray super-powered heroes, Watchmen focuses on middle-aged, mostly retired, ordinary people and, with one exception, poses the question: “What if superheroes were real?” and its influence on the genre resonated for decades thanks to its stringent focus on dark realism and increasingly complex, adult themes. Watchmen takes place in an alternative version of 1985 where, because of the presence of superheroes in the 1940s and 1960s, the United States won the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon remains as the President of the United States, and the world stands on the brink of all-out nuclear war thanks to rising tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Amidst this bleak alternate reality, Watchmen retains the murder mystery plot Moore originally conceived; the story begins with Edward Blake/The Comedian, one of the few government-sponsored vigilantes still active after vigilantism was outlawed, being hurled to his death. Walter Kovacs/Rorschach, who stubbornly refuses to retire or compromise to any authority, investigates the murder and uncovers what he believes to be a plot to kill off former “masks” but, in attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery and warn his fellow former costumed heroes, stumbles into a plot to cause near-genocide.
Throughout its twelve issue run, Watchmen alternates between this plot, weaving in numerous side plots and supplementary materials, and exploring the origins of our main characters and the legacy they continue. As a result, the narrative constantly shifts between the present day and the Golden Age of superheroics in America, when ordinary civilians, former wrestlers, and cops took to wearing garish costumes and fighting crime as the Minutemen of the 1940s. Age, however, inevitably caught up with the Minutemen and they either died, quietly (or publically) retired, or disappeared from the spotlight as a new generation of costumed adventurers, the Crimebusters, came to prominence in the 1960s. Unlike their predecessors, however, the Crimebusters were forced to retire by the 1977 Keene Act, with only Rorschach defying this law and government-sponsored operatives like the Comedian and the God-like Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan remaining active. Because of the abundance of real-life costumed heroes, and the general disdain of vigilante activities, the world and society is a very different place; comic books retain pulp stories such as horror and pirate tales and there is a bleak feeling of desolation and despair in the general public despite all of the technological advances brought to the world by Dr. Manhattan’s awesome power and the ingenuity of the self-proclaimed “World’s Smartest Man” Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias thanks to Manhattan’s mere presence stunting the aspirations of mankind (to say nothing of the looming threat of nuclear war).
Watchmen’s characters, though inspired by numerous classic Charlton Comics superheroes, contain a deep inter- and metatextual insight into the world around us as it is and could be, subverting comic book expectations by portraying flawed heroes who are confused, struggling to define their identities, and quite capable of failing, being seriously injured, or dying, and is a story unbound from mainstream DC continuity. Moore does not have to be concerned about ostracising an iconic character like Clark Kent/Superman from the rest of humanity, for instance, meaning Doctor Manhattan is free to have a complete character arc in one standalone text. In addition, “the superheroes of Watchmen also lack any supervillains to measure themselves against. They are forced to confront more intangible moral and social concerns” (Reynolds, 1992: 115); Watchmen also forgoes the need to trawl through back issues researching each character because exposition is incorporated within each chapter and made readily available throughout. This affords Watchmen many advantages not readily available to other comic books (or their adaptations), with the most obvious being that it brings the constantly malleable comic book medium closer to the static preservation of the literary novel: “With its array of carefully crafted oddballs and interconnected plot lines, [Watchmen] reads like a superhero story filtered through Dickens […] aimed at flaws in the era’s comic books: unchallenging narratives, flat characters, simplistic morality” (Suderman, 2009). Conversely, Watchmen also carries limitations; essentially, Moore had to secure an emotional attachment with the reader without being able to rely on a character’s proven popularity as one could with Superman, for example.
For the most part, despite its large ensemble cast, Watchmen is told through the eyes and narration of Rorschach, a brutal and uncompromising vigilante who was heavily influenced by the Question, Rex Garine/Mr. A, and Bruce Wayne/Batman’s more aggressive style of vigilante justice. Indeed, Rorschach has largely been regarded as Watchmen’s most iconic and popular character but Moore rejected the idea that a character as extreme, uncompromising, and right-wing as Rorschach should be idolised: “You’re not going to have any friends because you’re going to be crazy and obsessive and dangerous and frightening” (Reynolds, quoting Moore, 2005: 117). Watchmen contains numerous other characters commenting on Rorschach’s questionable methods, mentality, and sanity; he’s given a distinctive, gravely, monotone voice (one of only two characters to have their own unique speech bubbles), is generally regarded as being rather pungent, to say the least, and doesn’t hesitate to torture or kill in order to advance his never-ending crusade. Aesthetically, Rorschach takes on the suit-and-fedora combination of a cynical noir detective (circa-1950), appearing a lot closer to his closest Charlton counterpart, the Question, than Moore’s other characters. Even their masks are similar, with both the Question and Mr. A hiding behind blank, expressionless visages and Rorschach’s entire individuality expressed through a mimetically shifting inkblot mask (a face-obscuring impediment that uniquely portrays his shifting emotions through a variety of constantly shifting patterns). However, Rorschach’s aesthetic similarity with the Question clouds the definition of Rorschach’s character considerably.
Certainly, his semi-psychotic personality and unnerving grasp of his duel identities make him a character unique in his own right (while the Question could be more ruthless than other heroes of the Silver Age, Rorschach’s willingness to bludgeon criminals places him more in the vein of the darker anti-hero birthed around the time of Watchmen’s publication). Additionally, Rorschach’s psychosis stems so far that he considers his masked persona to be his “true face”, while his counterparts easily slipped in and out of their duel identities. It could be argued that Rorschach’s aesthetic is a question of homage, perhaps sincere respect for a peer’s work, and a simple case of cultural influence (rather than plagiarism justified by some extreme characterisation and the bleakness of Watchmen’s context) but Rorschach also adopts filmic conventions of the hardboiled noir detective, comic book conventions of the mysterious masked vigilante, and realistic issues concerning identity and purpose, inviting (if not forcing) the reader to look at themselves and the world around them differently. Since “[Watchmen] originated […] as a way of ‘using up’ third-tier characters — Blue Beetle, Captain Atom etc — that [DC] had picked up along with the defunct Charlton company” (Newman, 2009), Moore incorporated those familiar designs into these relatively obscure characters and reinterpreted them into his fictional world in order to depict just how psychologically broken a vigilante would be in real life: “You’re probably going to be too obsessed with your vendetta to bother about things like eating or washing or tidying your room because what have they got to do with the War Against Crime?” (Reynolds, quoting Moore, 2005: 117). Rorschach believes that beating, maiming, and killing criminals will bring about change within society and, as Moore’s template for a real-world vigilante, tells us that society is tainted, corrupted, and poisoned, and that to fight against such vices one must be as uncompromising as possible in the service of justice.
Honestly, I could focus my entire analysis of Watchmen on Rorschach alone but he’s not the only character in the series; in the past, when he was slightly less unhinged, Rorschach worked side-by-side with Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl, a character based heavily on Blue Beetle and who also has more than a little influence from Batman in him. Having inherited a modest amount of wealth, Dan put his resources towards continuing the legacy of Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl and costumed adventurer, buying up numerous properties, designing useful gadgets like night vision goggles and Rorschach’s grapple hook, and even building himself his own Batcave (the “Owl’s Nest”) and a military-grade airship, Archimedes. Nite Owl exemplifies the neutered, powerlessness of Watchmen’s once-lauded costumed heroes; having developed a paunch and a largely lethargic attitude in his retirement, Dreiberg is as pragmatic and realistic as Rorschach is cynical and uncompromising. Surrounded by the dusty relics of his once colourful life, Dreiberg is a man living in a limbo between the past and the future, literally and figuratively made impotent by the changing state of society. Indeed, it’s only when he finally reassumes the role of Nite Owl that Dreiberg finally awakens from his apathy, immediately becoming a more physically and mentally competent character who is morally disgusted by the plot he and Rorschach uncover.
The only female member of the Crimebusters, Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre is an angry and repressed woman who was forced into the life of a costumed adventurer from birth by her oppressive and controlled mother, Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre and former member of the original Minutemen. As a result, like many children forced to live their parents’ broken dreams, Laurie carries a lot of repressed emotions and resentment within her; she is the only one of the Crimebusters to be grateful at being forced into retirement but finds herself little more than token baggage due to her relationship with Dr. Manhattan being the last remaining thing keeping the God-like figure invested in America’s interests. Laurie’s boiling emotions and feelings of repression and resentment also stem from her utter disgust and rage at the knowledge that the Comedian once tried to rape her mother and the verbal abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather. Though she similarly detests Rorschach, she finds comfort in the presence of Dreiberg, who offers her a sympathetic ear and the attention and respect she so craves. Eventually, she is able to reawaken his passion not just sexually but for life in general and they come to help each other rediscover the thrill of being costumed heroes…sadly, this comes right as the world teeters on the razor’s edge of full-scale nuclear war.
This is primarily due to the sudden self-imposed exile of Dr. Manhattan to Mars; once a simple, unassuming scientist, Jon Osterman was caught in an “intrinsic field” and ripped apart atom by atom only to reassemble himself into a glowing blue figure who perceives past, present, and future simultaneously can manipulate, create, and transfigure matter in any way imaginable. Effectively a God-like figure, the mere presence of Dr. Manhattan is enough to bring the Vietnam War to an end and to keep the Russians in check as a living nuclear deterrent. However, Dr. Manhattan’s higher state of being eventually renders him emotionally closed off to humanity; able to perceive the future but unable to change it, he describes himself as a puppet who can “see the strings” and comes to regard humanity as a squabbling, self-destructive speck in the grand scheme of the universe. Laurie remains his sole link to his humanity and, when his increasingly detached mentality creates distance between them and he is bombarded with allegations of causing terminal cancer in those nearest to him, he exiles himself to Mars and seems poised to abandon humanity to their fate in order to focus on the chaotic beauty of the universe.
While the costumed adventurers of Watchmen exhibit considerable physical ability, none of them are inherently superhuman save for Dr. Manhattan; able to teleport, alter his size, and transfigure atoms, Dr. Manhattan is a literal God walking amongst mortals and his arrival spells the end not only for all-out war against the U.S. but the majority of human achievement, too. His abilities mean that environmentally-damaging fossil fuels will soon become a thing of the past and he is generally heralded as rendering usual notions of costumed heroics completely redundant. Yet, the world still spins and teeters on the edge of global meltdown; the public, initially in awe of Dr. Manhattan, eventually learn to simply co-exist alongside him and take him for granted, meaning that the entire world is sent into a mess of confusion and worry when he suddenly teleports away to Mars. The linchpin of Watchmen is the Comedian; a brutal and violent vigilante who has lived through both generations of costumed heroes, the Comedian is an absolutely reprehensible individual who takes a perverse pleasure in violence, conflict, and war. Blake’s experiences in Vietnam see him killing and torturing countless Vietnamese soldiers (and, he openly admits, children); he even shoots the mother of his unborn child point blank when she scars his face with a shattered glass bottle and delights in bringing his extreme methods to the rioters in the seventies.
Given that the Comedian starts the story little more than a twisted, broken corpse on the streets of New York, much of his story is told through flashbacks and the memories of other characters; an antagonistic individual with a twisted world view, Blake is, nevertheless, the only one of the Crimebusters to recognise that the world is spiralling towards all-out nuclear war and that all of their schoolboy heroics will be rendered meaningless when the world is little more than a burning cinder. Still, he catapults the plot into action when, prior to the story’s beginning, he stumbles upon a mysterious, uncharted island and a plot so gruesome and outlandish in its scope that it breaks even his spirit. While few characters mourn his death, the Comedian’s discovery is directly responsible for his murder and for Rorschach’s uncompromising investigation and is the one thing, in all the atrocities he has both witnessed and willingly taken part in, to bring the Comedian to tears of despair.
His discovery is the private island of Adrian Veidt; Veidt, once the flamboyantly-dressed costumed hero known as Ozymandias, was the only member of the Crimebusters perceptive enough to predict the coming of the Keene Act and to retire two years before vigilantes were outlawed. He then put his incredible intellect and self-made wealth towards building a multimedia empire; he not only publically revealed his identity and capitalised on his popularity with a line of action figures, he also strived to create renewable sources of energy and numerous consumer products, always with the aim of advancing humanity towards a greater destiny. Modelling himself after Alexander the Great and obsessed with Egyptians, their culture and society, and their fascination with death, Ozymandias came to see that it was only a matter of time before humanity destroyed itself, whether through nuclear war or environmental collapse, and thus began a ten year plan to unite the world in a way so ridiculous that it had to be taken seriously. To that end, he commissions scientists, artists, and writers to duplicate Dr. Manhattan’s teleportation powers and genetically engineer a horrific creature with which he can fool the world into uniting against a common, extraterrestrial foe.
Watchmen is a dense text, perhaps the most intricate and complex comic book series ever published, reading far more like a visual novel than a traditional loud and bombastic, action-packed comic book. One thing that often puts me off about Watchmen is just how intense its narrative can be; with a detailed, intricate, and deliberately unorthodox art style and panel arrangement, and bolstered by numerous supplementary materials, Watchmen is a slow, methodical tale that emphasises a deconstruction of the genre, character exploration, and contemplative themes on the nature of humanity over fight scenes. Indeed, there is very little in the way of action depicted in the comic at all and, when fights do that place, they’re generally a brief and brutal scuffle than emphasises realism over grandiose action sequences.
Through its intricate exploration of the morality of good and evil and the deconstruction of superhero conventions, Watchmen poses many unique questions regarding what it means to be human (or superhuman) and how best humanity can truly be saved from both anti-social elements such as petty criminals and organised crime and world-ending threats like war and environmental collapse. Rorschach unflinchingly believes that vigilante actions serve a purpose to the safeguarding of society; together with Nite Owl, he brought down many prominent criminal figureheads, thus sparing countless lives from their influence, and, despite his questionable frame of mind and methods, refuses to compromise this belief even in the face of Armageddon. The Comedian, meanwhile, while sharing Rorschach’s penchant for brutality, views all life as one big, cruel joke and Veidt’s master plan as the ultimate joke, one which would spell an end to his lifetime of conflict, while Dr. Manhattan engages in superheroics simply because he is asked to by the government and takes little to no pleasure in it, or much of anything for that matter, eventually becoming a superman who cares little for the defending out-dated ideals like Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
Peppered throughout Watchmen are a number of side plots and supporting characters, all of whom offer differing perspectives on Moore’s world and the politics and costumed individuals who inhabit it. One of the most prominent is Bernard, a widowed newsvendor who offers commentary on the mounting tensions between America and Russia; selling tabloids and magazines with an affable charm, Bernard interacts with many of the other side and main characters without even realising it and represents the “man on the street” throughout Watchmen. Another prominent character is Malcolm Long, a psychiatrist who is given the unenviable task of psychoanalysing Rorschach after the vigilante is arrested; though initially excited at the prospect of working with such a prominent individual, Rorschach’s unflinching and unsettling demeanour deeply disturb Malcolm and lead to a breakdown of his marriage as he slowly becomes obsessed with Rorschach’s twisted perspective on life. Yet, despite this, both Malcolm and Bernard (and other side characters) come together to help break up a fight in the streets; ironically, though, this brief flash of the inherently good nature of humanity comes right as Veidt triggers his horrific master plan to “save” the world.
It is through Veidt that Watchmen so openly deconstructs pre-conceived notions of superheroes; rather than take to the streets and work his way up the food chain of various criminal elements like the likes of Rorschach, Veidt prefers to tackle the route of not only that problem but the problems of the world as logically and directly as possible. While Nite Owl and Rorschach muse that Ozymandias has gone insane, his motivations are meticulously thought out, premeditated, and planned to minute detail; worst of all is that, despite how extreme his plan is, it has an undeniable logic behind it and, most disturbing of all, is that it actually works! Going completely against type, Ozymandias initiates his plan thirty-five minutes before Nite Owl and Rorschach attempt to stop him, meaning he can monologue about his motivations and justify his actions as much as he likes as his grotesque squid-like creature has already devastated New York. As ridiculous as this squid appears, the seeds for its appearance are sown all throughout Watchmen, as are the hints towards Veidt’s involvement; every panel is packed with details, nuances, and foreshadowing towards not just this ending but also the nature of the comic’s various characters and sub-plots, all-but-demanding repeated reads in order to see how masterfully Moore and Gibbons build towards this gruesome conclusion. Every now and then, the narrative shifts to Veidt’s island where we see characters discuss their work on the creature and even sketch a picture of it and its violent appearance in New York does exactly what Veidt set out to achieve; in the face of such a terrifying mutual enemy, all hostilities between the U.S. and Russia immediately end and an era of worldwide unity and peace is ushered in as humanity makes every effort to fortify their defences against Veidt’s perfectly-orchestrated deception. The only character who refuses to keep Veidt’s terrible secret for the sake of world peace is Rorschach, who literally gives his life for his uncompromising moral integrity and yet still threatens to topple Veidt’s utopia after leaving his tell-all journal in the hands of his preferred tabloid, the New Frontiersman.
Perhaps the most prominent side story in Watchmen is “Marooned”, a story within the pulp pirate comic book Tales of the Black Freighter; read by a young boy who frequents Bernard’s newsstand (and who is also called Bernard, indicating the commonalities people can have, however small and seemingly inconsequential or coincidental). “Marooned” depicts a sea captain who is left the sole survivor after his ship is destroyed and his crew killed by the titular Black Freighter, a ghost ship of sorts filled with malevolent spirits. Driven half-bad from hunger, isolation, and paranoia, the sea captain fashions a gruesome raft out of the bloated corpses of his men and the remains of his ship, and endures ravenous seagulls and even sharks in his obsessive quest to return to his family and beloved home of Davidstown. Upon arrival, though, he finds that the Black Freighter has beaten him there, its ghoulish occupants threatening his family and townsfolk, so he resolves to attack and murder them with little hesitation in order to protect his wife and children. However, in that moment, he realises that Davidstown is unmolested, that he has killed both an innocent couple and his wife, and that he is the true monster of Davidstown. Resigned to his fate, he willingly swims out to board the Black Freighter and take his place amongst his own kind. Initially somewhat jarring in its inclusion, “Marooned” directly parallels the story of Veidt’s unwavering obsession with committing unspeakable acts for the greater good and is a subtle allegory towards many of the other stories and themes seen in Watchmen, particularly those revolving around blind obsession and distorted perspectives on morality.
Even after all these years, Watchmen continues to be a commendable piece of fiction; by subverting and challenging the norms of both superheroes and comic books, Watchmen tells an intricately-crafted, methodical examination of the genre in a way that is gritty, mature, and entirely relatable. Forgoing bombastic comic action for introspective and unapologetically bleak deconstructions of clichés such as the faultless superhuman and the colourful costumed characters we’ve come to expect from comic books, Watchmen is extremely heavy-handed with its themes of obsession and musings on the morality between good and evil in the face of worldwide conflict. Watchmen is, honestly, a bit of a paradox in that it’s not for everyone but anyone who is a fan of comic books should really take the time to read it to see just what the medium is capable of. Largely considered unfilmable for years, Watchmen has nevertheless been adapted into a live-action feature, an award winning HBO series, and even a pretty simple videogame but, if you’re one of the many who sympathise with Moore’s abhorrence for adaptations of his work or don’t really have the time of patience to tackle this admittedly-dense text, you can always fall back on the excellently produced motion comic (Hughes, 2008 to 2009) which is easily the most faithful adaptation of Watchmen.
Still, I would recommend giving Watchmen a read; while I initially didn’t much care for it and preferred the movie (and, truthfully, I still do), I have come to appreciate it much more over the years for its intricate detail and subtle nuance. Moore may dislike people popularising Rorschach but he’s a fascinating character and easily the most interesting and complex of the comic’s varied and multifaceted original characters and, similarly, Dr. Manhattan is a startling glimpse at what it could mean should an all-powerful superhuman like Superman grow tired and apathetic towards humanity. Watchmen’s depiction of society’s reaction towards costumed heroes continues to be relevant and influential to this day and the comic inspired a wave of introspective, mature takes on the genre and changed the industry forever by actually taking comic books, and superheroes, seriously and propelling them into mainstream attention in a way that had never been done before.
How do you feel about Watchmen? Did you read it when it was originally published in its twelve issue run or did you first discover it as a graphic novel? Which of Moore’s original characters do you find the most, or least, compelling and why? What do you think of Watchmen’s methodical pace and heavy-handed themes? Perhaps you feel it’s a bit too impenetrable and overhyped; if so, why? Would you like to see a version of the story told with the Charlton Comics characters as Moore originally intended? What did you think to the comic’s sudden and dramatic ending? Did you care for Watchmen’s numerous sequels, prequels, and adaptations; if so, which was your favourite and, if not, why is that and what do you think about Moore’s attitude towards adaptations of his work? Whatever your thoughts about Watchmen, feel free to leave a comment below and pop back next Wednesday for my review of Zack Snyder’s big screen adaptation.
I remember seeing an issue of the original Watchmen comic in the ’80s, but I didn’t take the step of reading it. Many years later, after hearing recommendations about it, I borrowed the graphic novel from the library. I immediately enjoyed Watchmen for the story’s complexity — and how the heroes were different than the standard muscle-bound superheroes. The Watchmen felt like deeper characters to me, more from a novel than comic characters. I thought some of the side stories slowed down the main narrative. I skipped several side stories to read the main narrative first, then I went back to the side ones. They were imaginative, but not really necessary. Still, I enjoyed the overall graphic novel.
I agree that the text is very dense because of all the side stories and such. I’m the same, I often skip over some of the stuff that’s not connected to the main plot, and I can totally see why it much not be immediately appealing to some readers but I think it’s definitely worth a look as it really is a highlight of the potential of the genre.
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