– This post was originally published on my now-defunct site, New to Comics. –
New to Comics is a segment where I look at various comic-books, explaining their background, reviewing them, and breaking them down for readers unfamiliar to the medium. The title is a reference to a former university project that I carried on as its own site for several years before laying it to rest.
We’re starting off a new year of New to Comics with the most influential and arguably one of the most important comics of all time: Watchmen, by Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons.
Published by: DC Comics
Written by: Alan Moore
Art by: Dave Gibbons
WHAT’s THE STORY?
Watchmen is a twelve-issue limited series written by Moore for DC Comics under their Vertigo imprint. The series was initially pitched by Moore as a story featuring DC characters that had been acquired from former competitor Charlton Comics (such as The Question, Blue Beetle and Captain Atom), but as you will see if you read the book, it would have left them unusable; forcing the editorial to instead push Moore to create his own characters for the piece.
The series was originally published across 1986 and 1987, before being republished as a collected edition in the latter year. The series would go on to influence a number of stories to come, and could be blamed as being responsible for the dark and gritty tone that pervades a lot of people’s ideas on what a ‘good’ superhero story is; hence why we get the sort of take on superheroes like Batman and Superman as we do in Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (ie. the wrong take). It’s staying power in popular culture is so strong that the logo and some of the more prominent characters are easily identifiable to all, comic-fans or not, and as such, the story has been heralded as not just a good comic-book (or graphic novel) but also one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever produced.
Real Name: Jonathan Osterman
Affiliation: The Crimebusters (Watchmen)
First Appearance: Watchmen #1 (September 1986)
Hailing from another universe, Jon Osterman was the son of a watchmaker, whose future prospects were obliterated by the dropping of the Atom Bomb on Hiroshima. Seeing that human history had forever been altered, his father altered Jon’s path, steering him away from watchmaking and towards nuclear physics. Years later, tragedy struck, as in hoping to recover a present from his lab coat for his girlfriend Janey Slater, Jon was trapped in a test chamber for ‘Intrinsic Fields’ and was disintegrated. Months later, however, empowered by the catastrophe, Jon began to will himself back into existence and was subsequently reborn as the God-like Doctor Manhattan, the first and only superhero on his world. In this higher plane of existence, Jon began to experience time in a non-linear fashion, and after his transformation joined the superhero team the Crimebusters, fought in the Vietnam War, fell in love with the vigilante Silk Spectre, exiled himself to Mars, and eventually left the Solar System to explore other galaxies. Years later, he would reemerge once more, this time in the DC Universe, where he had been using his powers to alter their reality.
WHAT’s THE PLOT?
The story follows a group of superheroes in the late eighties. After the murder of ‘the Comedian’, the vigilante ‘Rorschach’ begins pursuing leads on what he believes to be the start of an attack on the super-hero community.
Meanwhile, the only being with actual powers in this universe, the nigh-omnipotent Doctor Manhattan, struggles with his humanity slipping away alongside his miserable girlfriend Laurie Juspeczyk – the former ‘Silk Spectre’. These events lead these characters to reunite with other former heroes, such as Dan Dreiberg, the ‘Nite Owl’ and Adrian Veidt, also known as ‘Ozymandias’ – the smartest man in the world.
But when Doc Manhattan’s problems go public, the world starts itself on a steady march towards a cataclysmic World War Three.
IS IT ACCESSIBLE?
Due to the fact that the original story of the ‘Watchmen’ was told in a finite, twelve-issue series, readers, fortunately, don’t need to have any prior reading done to understand what’s going on. Of course, since the original debut, prequel and sequel comics (Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock, respectively) have been written, but Watchmen works perfectly well by itself. Some might even argue it works better if you just read the main series and ignore the extras.
However, due to its nature as a superhero parody, it might help to have some other comic-book reading under your belt before you tackle Watchmen, as reading the subject matter it’s parodying will highlight just how extreme some of the characters in this story are.
It’s your choice, obviously. Regardless of if you’re a comic-book fanatic or not, Watchmen is a good read with interesting things to say about the human condition.
WHAT’s THE VERDICT?
There’s no denying that Watchmen is very deserving of all the praise that it gets. Although not necessarily in the way some might think.
(Yo, producers at Warner Bros. take note of this.)
Yes, this is a dark, gritty and a rather morbid tale; one that at times I felt the need to put down and take a break from because it can be just so depressing; but that’s obviously not why it’s good.
The reason Watchmen is so good is that it’s phenomenally written. Moore’s weird and abrasive quirks aside, he’s a darn good writer. The book is packed with an uncanny level of detail – not just in the main narrative or Dave Gibbons’ beautiful, meticulous art, but also the fact that it has a side narrative revolving around a comic-book one of the characters in this comic-book is reading. And then on top of that, there are also collections of fictional newspaper articles, excerpts from books, confidential files, company notes and a whole ton of extras that bookend each issue. And that makes this a very dense book.
That is, perhaps, the only pitfall of Watchmen. Reading through it can seem a daunting task when you first pick it up. While it is an extreme parody of superhero comics, there isn’t that much actual superhero action for the first half of the story, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that, in the beginning, things seem to be going nowhere fast as things occasionally lull in the first few issues.
However, perseverance is the key. Because what Watchmen may lack in spectacular super-heroics, it makes up for in rich characters, each with their own unique and fascinating psychology and riveting histories. In fact, it may be the backstory issues that are the most interesting, despite the fact they put the break on the central plot.
The reason for this could be because of how extreme Moore’s parody is. It’s a fascinating deconstruction of both superheroes and their fans.
The character of Rorschach makes this especially evident, due to his widespread appeal, despite the fact that, when you think about it, these characters are anything but cool. Rorschach is a broken, psychotic bigot. The Comedian is a merciless rapist. Doctor Manhattan is an apathetic god.
These are hardly inspiring role models, especially when contrasted with characters like Superman. And that’s exactly why Watchmen works. Like real people, these heroes are so far removed from the heroic standard, so twisted and vile in characterisation that you have no idea what’s going to happen or why anyone in or out of universe looks up to them. And yet, you can’t help but relate, at least on some level, and consequently, be invested in every step of the journey.