Alan Moore’s seminal series Watchmen continues to redefine the graphic medium even twenty-five years on from its original twelve-part serialisation. A complete reimagining of the role of superheroes in the comic genre, Watchmen observes the dark underbelly of vigilantism with little sentimentalism of the weight of the genre’s history. Depicting an alternative American history, in which masked heroes helped win the Vietnam War, Dr Jon Osterman’s departure from earth triggers a bid by the USSR for mutually assured destruction. Osterman, better know as Dr Manhattan, is the only hero who possesses supernatural powers – his ability to control matter becoming the lynchpin preventing nuclear war.
Through a journey that ventures into the past lives of the protagonists as well as their minds themselves, Watchmen explores the themes of good and evil in an entirely novel context; the climactic scene exploring and ultimately vindicating the use of nuclear weaponry in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There is something unsettling about Moore’s depiction of the world, with his political division forcing us to re-understand our view of the world. A traditional bi-partite division of politics into a left and right wing, normally produces a schema in which the left is seen as illogical but moral whilst the right is logical but immoral. However, Moore asks us to re-examine this paradigm, with Ozymandias (fervently declared to be left-wing) acting in a way that proves both logical but highly immoral.
Moore’s own anarchistic views are more than enumerated in works such as V for Vendetta and so it is unsurprising that his work on Watchmen leaves us questioning the role of organised government. However, his depiction of his watchmen is ambiguous; characters such as Edward Blake (The Comedian) are mindless killers, acting on impulse for the highest bidder – this is hardly a positive advertisement for a Nozick-style society. Indeed, it is only through the eradication of vigilantism that anarchism can thrive, as Moore declares in V for Vendetta: ‘In anarchy there is another way, with anarchy, from rubble comes new life, hope reinstated’. It is only once the world has been reduced to rubble by the watchmen that new life, both political and social, can emerge.
The plot that drives the series on is, perhaps, what makes this work so entertaining a read; however, it is the narrative structuring that makes it a masterpiece. An entire meta-text surrounds the work, with each of the twelve comic books concluding with a prose composition examining one feature of the narrative. In issue seven, A Brother to Dragons, we are presented with one of Daniel Dreiberg’s (aka. Nite Owl) articles on Owls, whilst in issue six, The Abyss Gazes Also, we are given a psychiatric report on the most mentally unstable Watchmen character, Rorschach. These embellishments augment the world that Moore has created, breathing life into the series beyond the neatly divided nine-panel page. Alongside this, our reading of each issue is inflected by the quotation that provides the title; in the case of issue six, Nietzsche’s confession: ‘Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you’.
Other textual intricacies abound the text, with the inclusion of a comic within the comic providing a meta-textual counterbalance that both inflects our understanding of the main narrative whilst also supplementing it. However, the script is only one element of this work, and credit must be given to Dave Gibbons for the art. The crisp nature of the drawing and the nine-panel per page layout of the work give Watchmen a cleanly regimented feel. Colourist John Higgins also cannot escape mention, with his vibrant palate enlivening the work. Whilst the entire series is a masterpiece of craft, it is The Abyss Gazes Also in which the distinct elements of production fuse into a wonderfully orchestrated creation. When observed closely, the entire issue, like a literary Rorschach ink blot test, folds over on itself; the panels and writing enacts an intricate mirroring that displays a perfect symbiosis between artist and writer.
Watchmen is certainly the cornerstone of the graphic canon and cannot be avoided but those interested in the medium. It is the maturation of a genre that required this moment of deep self-analysis to rediscover its relevance in an increasingly digital age. Watchmen marks the watershed moment at which graphic literature became an accepted form, worthy of serious critical debate. However, beyond the many layers of the work, each demanding a re-reading of their own, this is a highly entertaining series that does not forget that a good story is as important as though provoking message.
W. J. Humphries