WATCHMEN was created by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons (as well as colourist John Higgins) in the mid-1980s, as a set of twelve comic issues telling their own standalone story. There was reason to expect it would be a success. Moore was already a well-known writer, everyone else involved were skilled as well, the subject matter matter of a superhero conspiracy kind of story seemed perfectly engaging. That it would become arguably the most successful standalone comic of all-time was not expected, but is the emergence of a classic ever particularly suspected before the fact?
The spine of the comic (it tends to be called a ‘graphic novel’ as some kind of ‘it’s a film, not a flick!’ mark of pedigree, very much a part of the comic’s crossover success with those that wouldn’t typically concern themselves with such things) is a murder mystery, where the ruthless objectivist Rorschach hunts down the apparent conspiracy behind the unsolved murder of the government agent the Comedian. This plot gives a natural way for Rorschach to check up on all former ‘superheroes’ (of course, there’s only one man with supernatural abilities in the stories, and all else are ‘LARPers’ for their own reasons). There’s Doctor Manhattan, the godly entity that sees his own experience of time non-linearly, there’s Laurie Juspeczyk, the cynic pressured into joining the superheroic business by her former superheroic mother, there’s Ozymandias, the ‘smartest man on the Earth’ who successfully transitioned his crimefighting career into being a magnate CEO, and there’s Dan Dreiberg, the overweight owl enthusiast struggling with impotency both literal and figurative.
[spoilers for the comic follow]
Moore once said he had plot for six issues, but twelve to write, and so issues frequently give over to explorations of characters – their backstories, and so forth. This style of ‘solo character issues’ would have a lot of influence, particularly on TV showrunner Damon Lindelof, who would mimic the same format on his shows LOST, THE LEFTOVERS, and…well, WATCHMEN (an adaptation by way of sequel to the comic). Form and structure are really the key aspects of the comic. The plot does dovetail into the wider themes Moore examines, but the real artistry of the comic isn’t in its plot, or even its characters (which tend to the archetypal), but for its mastery of form.
Artist Dave Gibbons had the idea of rendering nearly every page in a strict nine-panel structure. This grounds the action and enables Gibbons to render things extremely legibly and cinematically in how it offers the easy opportunity to create match cuts, J-cuts (with the frequent spillover narration thought bubbles), symmetrical panels, and so on. The readability of such a structure perhaps contributed to the comic’s success with the wider public.
A story within the story, the pirate comic TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER, comments on the main story, spilling over and mingling with the present events in allegorical ways that provide a sort of counterpoint through which to examine some of the ideas and themes of the main story. That main story is told through frequent digressions, flashbacks, prose writings (in the form of ‘backmatter’ at the back of a comic issue), text from within the comic’s fictional world, and other techniques that eschew any sort of linear evolution of the plot. This sort of artistry is a large part of why the comic is seen as literary; the command of form and amount of literary and visual techniques employed in telling the story.
The story itself is deceptively simple. The barebones plot of Rorschach investigating a murder mystery is an excuse to reflect on the ideologies and psychologies present of the western world, with the looming (and very real, in the time) thread of nuclear annihilation a kind of crucible through which characters have their perceptions of the world and themselves tested. The objectivist Rorschach, the nihilist Comedian, the liberal Dan, the utilitarian Ozymandias, they all respond to that existential threat very differently, and through depicting that Moore explores the neuroses present in society at the time.
Much ink has been spilled on the comic as a deconstruction of superheroes, but that seems somewhat reductive to me. It’s definitely there – the first Nite Owl regards the first Superman comic as ‘something that presented the basic morality of the pulps without all their darkness and ambiguity…’, an article in a fictional right-wing newspaper equivocates between the Ku Klux Klan and masked vigilante ‘superheroes’, and the comic in general goes to great pains to explore the warped psyches behind those that put on masks and galavant about punching certain peoples. Moore identifies sex and sexuality as a particular motivator for dressing up as a superhero – essentially roleplaying.
But the point to me, as suggested by the comic’s very title, seems less a rumination on superheroes (something, after all, not present in reality), and more an interrogation of the hierarchical act of placing one’s self as a ‘watchman’ over others unasked, and the relinquishment of responsibility to those that appoint themselves the powerful.
This all comes to the fore in the ending, where the fatherly, warm Ozymandias kills three million people in New York by unleashing a gargantuan mutant squid upon them, setting off shockwaves and psychic blasts that will haunt many for decades. He does this as a hoax, purporting the creature as an interdimensionally attacking alien, so as to stave off nuclear annihilation by forcing the world powers to unite against a common foe, and in the process follow the pursuit of peace. Ozymandias’ patriarchal assertion of knowing what’s best for humanity is more or less accepted by the main figures in the story – the godly Doctor Manhattan, who sees the logic in the plan and figures the loss of life shouldn’t go to waste, and the liberals Dan and Laurie, who are abhorred by what they see as a mutilation of humanity, but see preserving the new status quo as more humane than the alternative.
Rorschach, the objectivist, professes to ‘never surrender’, and so goes off to reveal the nature of the hoax to the world, so naturally Doctor Manhattan slaughters him to preserve the peace. But, unbeknownst to the ‘superhuman crew’, Rorschach mailed the trail of evidence he’d been uncoveing to his favourite right-wing newspaper before leaving America to go confront Ozymandias. The comic ends with an employee at that newspaper perhaps selecting that trail of evidence. It’s left ambiguous, in keeping with the construct of the ending, which is to challenge and probe one’s moral assertions and ideologies when confronted with a so-called ‘cutting of the Gordian Knot’, that would see colossal violence committed to conserve society in more or less its current form – but peaceful.
Comics are by nature intimate. They are so like cinema in its visual construction, but giving more way to a sort of relationship to the audience, as they dictate the pace, speed, even eyeline of the story. The story of WATCHMEN is non-linear, and a reader of a comic may well experience it non-linearly themselves, flipping back through issues, scanning multiple pages, and so on. This all plays into the ending, where the question of what the reader thinks is basically directly asked of them. Not just what they thought of Ozymandias’ plan, but what they think of the very end – will the employee pick up Rorschach’s journal? If he does, is that a good thing or bad thing? How does it make you feel?
The alternate history concept of the world, with the emergence of superheroes – well, the emergence of Doctor Manhattan – seeing the world progress differently, such as America winning the Vietnam War, all plays into this conceit. Fiction, perhaps even genre fiction in particular, enables stories to ‘smuggle’ in questions about the real world in a sort of safe space where the reader can treat very real issues as thought experiments, or musings on behalf of a character.
When Doctor Manhattan finally sees wonder in humanity, in life (followed up by the grandest statement of the consistent smiley motif), there is the relief of recognition. One of the key issues in the eternal question of ‘who watches the watchmen?’ is the uncaringness of the watchmen, best exemplified by Ozymandias slaughtering millions, but also in the consistently thoughtless way leaders and vigilantes in the story treat not just those they see as insignificant, but those they see as their due as well, their marks, the populations they’re apparently protecting. When the circumstances of Laurie’s birth shock Doctor Manhattan to the extent he finally conceives of humans as creatures of individual worth and value, he is locating the fundamental dignity of a human being. This is what Moore did not perceive what he identified as ‘the Reagans’ and ‘the Thatchers’ of the world as having any care for.
In the decades after WATCHMEN, its influence would seem to be the superficialities of its psychological, ‘dark’ nature, with the superhero genre metastasising into a faux-deep indulgement of arrested development, where the same juvenile power fantasies of the genre were performed in such a way to seem meaningful and thus worthy of an adult’s time, and bestowing some kind of worth upon said adults as well (or, at least, not denigrating them in the bare way that reading literal children’s stories might be perceived to). As for Moore himself, he considered WATCHMEN as purging himself of his nostalgia for the genre, clearing his way to focus on ‘real human beings’ in future works. Ozymandias sought to mutilate the world so as to preserve the existent societal structure, because he did not – or did not care to – conceive of a meaningful alternative. Much the same seemed to happen in terms of the comic’s reception, but for all that, the comic itself remains a titan work of artistry. Five smiley faces, and a bottle of nostalgia.