In 1986, DC Comics published Alan Moore's 12-month-long series, simply called Watchmen. Along with Frank Miller's Dark Knight series, which starkly, grimly re-wrote what Batman was about, Watchmen took superheroes out of the world of easy fixes and clean white teeth. The story changed the field dramatically. It presented the characters as all too human, with eccentricities, weaknesses and even sinister facets that belied the colorful surfaces. They were naive, foolish, hopeful, sexual, disturbed, poignantly honorable and beset by sometimes towering demons. Suddenly, a brightly-hued cape wasn't the sign of salvation, but a flag of warning and in some cases, an excuse to fly almost suicidally into the face of a sharp-toothed world.
Among the players is a woman whose life was so determined by her mother that she all but lost a vital part of herself, only to find it again at the 11th hour, before it was too late. There is a man whose childhood was so shaped by abuse, he became an abuser of sorts, yet oddly shaped, such that his main drive was to protect others from the wolves that had consumed him as a boy. There is one who is a startling genius and essentially, ironically, saves the world through his narcissism. There is a man who, through a freak accident, becomes a creature of unimaginable power, near-omnipotent and thereafter, struggles to recover his lost humanity, ultimately doing so not through power, but by opting for a softer touch in his actions. There is one who has fallen into the backwaters of life, steering aimlessly through a sea of regret and is given a second chance, whose terms he rises to meet with strength and grace.
Throughout, there is the undercurrent of a world gone mad by virtue of politics gone equally mad, due in part, as it always is, to ignorance, fear and our inbred drive for self-preservation. Two constant symbols used throughout the graphic aspects of the tale are a clock edging ever closer to midnight and a smiley face with a splash of blood across it. I still have a button made of that image; it seems like both a dark icon and a warning against slothful complacency.
One of the things that takes Watchmen far above the level of mere comics is that between each of the real-time chapters is a related segment that brings into greater detail the things that drive some of the characters or the results of their actions.
In three of them, a former superhero and now semi-retired mechanic who works on vintage gas-powered cars made near-obsolete by electric ones writes a book called Under the Hood. It tries to explain the motivations of those who chose to live in that manner for a time. We are shown the opening chapter of it, an extended foreword of sorts. It describes his time as a boy, helping his father work in a garage. I'd love to ruin it for you, ahem, but I won't. I'll simply give you a taste: "Now, if Denise's theory is correct, I should have your full sympathy and the rest will be a walk…..I guess I had my own individual quirks…I've stood there dressed in something just as strange, with tears in my eyes while people died laughing.""
There is a psychological treatise on one character, presented as a case file with pictures and doctor's notes. There is an essay on how the world's politics have been changed by the presence of these surreal individuals, called Super-Powers and the SuperPowers. There is one by the ornithology professor formerly known as Nite Owl, detailing the underlying poetry in birds. It ends with the sentence "…. we should allow ourselves to pause for a moment and acknowledge that these same claws must once have drawn blood from the shoulder of Pallas Athene." There is an example of a wild, nut-case tabloid article, supporting the heroes as an honorable and necessary clan, but with a crazy, conspiracy-theory slant which accidentally turns out to be partially accurate. Two are magazine interviews with people in the story. Another is a corporate presentation for toys and other products based on the group. It adds color and savor to the linear story proper.
Here are two sharply differing excerpts:
The climax requires that you suspend the rules of traditional literature by a long mile and simply accept its sci-fi nature, yet it is so skillfully woven into the thread of what came before that it seems entirely necessary, plausible and pragmatic. The post-script of the last page leaves the reader hanging on a hook with a wonderfully cinematic twist whereby everything that has been resolved could be undone if a boy picks up one set of papers rather than another. The world could be horribly changed and plunged into chaos due to the choice of a rather dull creature with food stains on his shirt. Wild, yet classic.
In his usual fashion, Alan Moore is somewhat dismissive of his work, focusing instead on the underlying structure and his general thoughts at the time, which are never of a "THIS'll wow the rubes" variety. Some comic writers think in terms of trying to top their last one; Alan thinks in terms of completed wholes, with a beginning and an ending. The fact that he found his best writer's voice through comic books is secondary.
Any field has in it those works which rise above the median and shine. Along with Watchmen, one could point to Moore's V For Vendetta, a dark tale of a post-nuclear, fascist England. There is the aforementioned Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which forever reworked Batman as an obsessed middle-aged man who comes out of retirement for a last run at being a catalyst for change in a disintegrating world. There is Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, an award-winning story of Morpheus, the master of the dream realm, which incorporates classical works, long-standing mythologies and superheroes alongside original ideas and twists all his own. There is Mark Waid's Kingdom Come, a potent story of responsibility discarded and the price paid for indecisiveness, beautifully painted by Alex Ross, whose art has a depth untouched by virtually anyone else in the field. These stay readily available as trade paperback collections. I have loaned Watchmen and Kingdom Come to a few skeptics and they always returned them sobered by the experience of reading them. Any of these can sit proudly on a shelf beside more traditionally noted works by Williams, Twain, Hammet or Wodehouse. Their depth, power and whimsy make their medium irrelevant.
I have read that there is a film version of Watchmen in the works and I do not take this as a good thing. Its too long and complex a story. At they very least, it should be a mini-series, as a 2-hour presentation will surely gut it, with only the surface aspects getting their due.
If read in a single sitting for the first time, it is both horrifying and hopeful, a symphony of breath-taking and disturbing variations on old themes. There's nothing new under the sun, but some of the hybrids are stunning. Watchmen stands rightfully alongside the better stories I have ever read. It does what a good story SHOULD do: it takes you to another place and makes you feel, broadly and deeply. In that, despite, its wild twists and improbable turns, Watchmen is a sobering success, because in several original ways, it partialy answers Juvenals's philosophical question Who watches the watchmen? Considering the increasing barrage of information and numbing events coming at us every day, you know the answer to that, like it or not: we do.