Written by Alan Moore
Art by Dave Gibbons
Published by DC Comics
, Copyright 1986
Warning: Spoilers appear in this writeup
Watchmen started as an idea Alan Moore had while working for DC Comics in the early 80s. DC had just acquired the rights to the Charlton characters, and Alan had just reunited with David Gibbons, who was also working for DC. The basic idea was to take some old second- or third-string characters, sort of happy-go-lucky types, and "suddenly drop them into a realistic and credible world." However, DC didn't want Moore using the recently purchased Sentinels of Justice (Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Nightshade, Question, etc.), because of the changes the characters would go through in such a work. So, Moore and Gibbons had to come up with new characters. These characters became the Watchmen.
The comic broke ground on all fronts. Many of the design elements in the story had never been seen before, such as the comic-within-a-comic idea, or the written supplements at the end of every issue. Also, the symmetry of issue 5 was another idea that hadn't been previously seen. Many of the tricks that are used in Watchmen now seem old and tired, due to overuse, but when they first were used in Watchmen, they were incredible. The Black Freighter story, for example, plays such an important part in the narrative. It fits right into the action in which it is referenced, as well as parallelling other parts of the story. It's been suggested that the Black Freighter is an allegory for the story of Adrian Veidt, and that parts of it also resemble the story of Dr. Manhattan. Also, the author of the story plays a supporting role in the novel. The constant symbolism inherent in the novel is also remarkable. For example, the clock, drenched in blood, slowly counting down, can be thought of as the doomsday clock from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The symbolism of the Nostalgia perfume, especially with regards to Sally Jupiter, is constant. Also, Dr. Manhattan is obviously referenced as God or Jesus in many parts of the story. This novel has so many levels, each time it's read, new secrets can be discovered.
Where the novel really breaks ground, however, is Moore's take on the “masks”, as the costumed heroes are known. These aren’t your typical superhero types that are common in previous comics. No, these guys are real, and have real problems. Each and every mask in the story faces deep-seated emotional problems. It isn’t anything as simple as Batman losing his parents, or Peter Parker watching as his uncle dies, either.
Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, can best be described as a Nietzschean Superman. Veidt’s megalomania is on par with that of most super villains, but the scary thing is his scope of planning. For example, long before he ever even dreamed of planting a monster in the middle of Times Square, he gives close associates of Dr. Manhattan cancer. To carry out his plan, he simultaneously invents genetic engineering, teleportation, cloning, and furthers the development of psychic powers, all in secret.
Rorschach is completely insane. He is violent, paranoid, psychotic, and anonymous. He doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of another identity behind the mask. He’s so twisted, when escaping from prison; he kills a man in the bathroom, yet his reaction is so slight, his companions are completely unaware of what just occurred. He exists in a state of pure good and pure evil. He is not cognizant of the difference between speeding and a serial killer. It's all bad, and it all must be punished. He lives in a world with no gray at all. Many consider Rorschach to be the main character, but Moore states that this is not so.
Dr. Manhattan’s transformation is so complete; he’s no longer human in any way but form. His estrangement from any sort of emotion is incredible. He doesn't feel any emotion, and had "a kind of quantum view of the world." He no longer empathizes with the very desire to live. It’s only at the end that he actually cares, forced by Laurie Juspeczyk to reconsider his desire to leave humanity to its fate.
The Comedian is also a twisted character. His nihilist, violent, aggressive persona makes him the least likely “good guy” of all. He is dead almost before the story starts, but through other’s perceptions and memories, we are painted a picture of a bloodthirsty killer who takes what he wants and damn the consequences. He’s also, at least to me, the most interesting character in the novel, maybe because of his mystery. We never actually see the story from his perspective, and the only thing we know about his character are from others perceptions and memories of him. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan both speak of him as one who “got it”, one who saw the great joke of life and chose to laugh.
Sally Jupiter is also a conflicted character. She was most definitely hurt by the Comedian, but she still loves him, as evidenced in more than one occasion, even enough to bear his child. She’s also stuck in the past, remembering her glory days through her daughter and the Tijuana bibles given to her.
Laurie Juspeczyk and Dan Dreiberg are by far, the most normal of the superheroes we encounter, except for maybe Hollis Mason. All three of them seem well-rounded, normal people, who just chose to dress up in a costume and fight crime. An overbearing mother pushed Laurie into crime fighting, and she seems to accept her fate now. Hollis and Dan are actually the kind of superhero we expect. They both have very noble notions, with lots of cool toys, and are very committed to making the world a better place. They don’t have any overreaching plans of world domination, or any deep-seated emotional problems, and they don’t glow blue, either. The only weird thing about them is that they actually were costumed heroes.
The costumed hereoes also painted a darker, more realistic picture of humanity than we are used to. Most of them grew up without a real father figure. Rorschach never knew his father and lived with an abusive whore of a mother. Veidt's parents were both killed while he was very young and he lived a life of freedom to do whatever he wanted. Laurie was never told who her real father was, and if she had been, she would have found out he was a killer and a rapist. Dr. Manhattan's father trashed his dream of becoming a watchmaker and became estranged from his son, so much so that Jon never bothered to correct the government's mistake in telling his father he was dead. Really, the only character who mentions a normal father figure is Hollis Mason, who talks about his family in the supplements at the end of the early issues. Dreiberg never mentions his family, but he has deep seated issues as well, such as being sexually impotent without his costume. These are not your everyday superheroes.
Watchmen broke new ground for comics and paved the way for modern writers such as Garth Ennis and Neil Gaiman. It also gave birth to many of the dark superhero comics present today. It is by far the most influential comic of the last 20 years and one of the most influential ever. Its legacy will live on for years to come.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons
All quotes from the interview in "The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore" by George Khoury
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