Watchmen

Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Serialized in twelve issues in 1986 and 1987; published as a compilation in 1987.

Like many snooty bibliophiles, I always try to read an acclaimed book before the movie adaption comes out. Reading the branded tie-in edition would wound my pride. Reading the book immediately after the splashy debut of the movie preview pricks my vanity, too, but honestly, I’ve been meaning to read Sean’s copy of Watchmen for years. Truly.

I have to admit, however, that Watchmen was never at the top of my list. As much as I like to say that those who dismiss an entire medium or genre are intellectually lazy fools, I myself have a lingering prejudice against graphic novels. The hypocrisy and snobbery of that embarrasses me, but I do most of my reading on subway cars, and I feel uncomfortable carrying a book-length comic around with me.

The inevitable irony, of course, is that my own self-consciousness just delayed my enjoyment of a great book, for Watchmen really is as good as people say. A few years ago, Time included it on a list of the hundred best English-language novels written since 1923, and although the attempt to impose “objective” rankings on artistic work always makes me uncomfortable, the esteem in which Time’s critics held the book is not misplaced. Watchmen isn’t just “great for a graphic novel” (whatever that means); it’s great, period.

In the counterhistorical world of Watchmen, real-life superheroes began popping up in the United States in the 1930s, around the time they first appeared in comic books. These costume-clad crime fighters didn’t have true superpowers, but some were well-equipped and well-trained, and at first, people appreciated the adventurers’ efforts. By the 1970s, though, the public had turned against them, and their brand of vigilantism was officially outlawed. Only government-sanctioned adventurers could continue to work; the others retired or went underground.

The bulk of the novel is set about a decade later. The Cold War is at its peak, and U.S. supremacy depends heavily on the one truly superpowered superhero, Dr. Manhattan, a scientist who acquired godlike abilities in a nuclear accident. But the star-gazing Manhattan isn’t entirely committed to human affairs, and other forces are at work, and by the story’s climax, a third World War seems inevitable.

Such a limited summary doesn’t even begin to describe the complexity of Watchmen’s narrative, though. In fact, referring to a single narrative is misleading. Writer Alan Moore artfully interlaces multiple plot threads, jumps between past and present, toys with perspective, and tells stories-within-stories—all leading to a climax that pulls everything together to devastating effect.

Art and text are inextricably interwoven to create this masterpiece. I had ignorantly assumed that Watchmen would be an illustrated novel, with pictures secondary to text, but I soon realized that the interplay between imagery and words is integral. Together, they create allusions and echoes and symbolism and some of the best dramatic irony I’ve ever encountered. The effects are almost cinematic at times, and yet the density of the storytelling is such that most movies couldn’t begin to compete. Watchmen uses its medium perfectly, borrowing effective techniques from film and literature while also exploiting the particular strengths of comics.

Together, Moore and Gibbons tell a challenging story that ultimately is about morality: navigating between right and wrong, good and evil, in an impossibly messy world. To some extent, several characters embody contrasting ethical frameworks and philosophies—absolutism, relativism, consequentialism, determinism, nihilism—and several turns in the tale demand that readers reassess their judgments about the adventurers and their actions. Our understanding of who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are is not static, and the book’s conclusion flatly refuses to settle the issue for us.

Frankly, that ambiguity is probably essential to the longevity of Watchmen. (Warning: Oblique spoilers—yet spoilers nonetheless—to follow.) The novel’s Cold War backdrop, contemporary during its publication in the 1980s, is less relevant now, and the climax surely read differently then than it does today. Post 9/11, we’ve learned that any unity brought about by a terrifying attack from a vaguely defined adversary is only fleeting, even artificial. Without a clear enemy and clear goals, the fearful splinter and the cataclysmic unifying event becomes a mere political wedge, a tool for authoritarians.

Today’s readers know that firsthand, which perhaps makes the conclusion of Watchmen even darker, though no less effective, than it was intended. We might not be superheroes, but now we can the story’s future, and we know that anyone who attempts to inflict a horrific tragedy as a tool for good is not only dreadfully misguided but also doomed to fail. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and depair indeed.