Watchmen is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the graphic novel artform. Time magazine even included it on its list of 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923 (when Time was first published) – the only comic to be so honored. It has been a best-seller for DC comics for a quarter century, and it is a book that can be found on myriad college syllabi. Watchmen is a book that transcends the comic book medium.
And yet, I think its impact on newer readers – now divorced from the Cold War reality that permeates the narrative –is diminished. In part it is a result of that distance from the political reality of the mid-80s, but it is also due to the fact that so much of what was revolutionary in its storytelling now seems “old hat” to comic readers. And perhaps the most distinct aspect of Watchmen – the fact that it is a complete story told within the parameters of its twelve chapters – has now been diluted by DC Comics’ short-sighted venture with Before Watchmen.
From podcasts I’ve listened to or online comments I’ve read, it seems that too many of today’s readers judge Watchmen solely on its surface narrative – the murder mystery of Edward Blake and the overarching suggestion of a “mask killer.” But to do this is to miss the whole point of Watchmen, in my opinion. Certainly, the complexity of the characters and their interactions is to be lauded, along with the “real world” psychological underpinnings Moore & Gibbons provide Rorschach, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and the like. The interweaving of then-contemporary events with the resultant variations costumed adventurers would impose on such a world is adds greatly to the story. But again, these are all surface. The heart of Watchmen, the aspects that elevate this story so far above so much else within the medium, is found simmering below the surface, and these points are far too often overlooked.
In interviews from the time, Moore & Gibbons state their intention with Watchmen was to create a story that could only be told in, and would exploit those aspects unique to, the comics medium. The way words can be played off the images in a panel, or the manner in which time is experienced in a comic, or the fact that one creates a rhythm through choices made – most notably through the manipulation of the comic panel, whether it’s the size, shape, or number utilized on a page – are all things unique to this medium. And, with Watchmen, Moore & Gibbons succeed brilliantly, while also telling a “ripping yarn.”
Along with this aspiration to showcase what sets comics apart from other storytelling mediums like film or novels, these two artists also brought a distinct perspective to the comic book that infuses Watchmen with a significance not found in most other comics, especially superhero comics. Moore utilized literary techniques, such as foreshadowing and symbolism, to layer the narrative in a way that would more aptly suit the term novel from the relatively new descriptive graphic novel. And Gibbons, for his part, exhibited a consistent attention to detail – most obvious in settings such as the intersection that serves as a hub for the action throughout the story (an intersection that Gibbons mapped out separately in order to achieve that consistency) and the body language of characters (just look at the manner in which Rorschach enters Blake’s apartment in Chapter I, Page 6 and his similar entrance to his own apartment in Chapter X, Page 5) – that could only be found at the time in a very few books such as the self-contained works of Will Eisner or Dave Sim’s & Gerhard’s Cerebus. It was a new way of looking at superhero comics, and its longevity is a testament to the work of these great artists.
Which brings me to Reading Watchmen. There are many sites and articles that have examined Watchmen, but none of those I’ve read have delved deeply enough, for my tastes, into the heart of this book, as described above. With Reading Watchmen, I hope to illuminate newer, and older, readers to the wonders that can be found in Watchmen. Though I am one voice, I have not done this alone. A wealth of information is available on this subject, and I would direct readers here to the resources I found most helpful on the sidebar – the Comic Geek Speak and Legion of Dudes podcasts examining Watchmen issue by issue, and Doug Atkinson annotations on the same.
As with any undertaking of this nature, it would be presumptuous of me to state that all of the annotations I include can be ascribed to the authors, which is not my intention at all. But once a book, or any creative endeavor, is offered to the public, it becomes the property of the audience, and we all bring our own personal histories to such works, seeing it through the prism of our own experiences. And if one can argue intelligently on the symbolism or foreshadowing or whatever one finds in a literary work such as this, then how could anyone dispute the point? But please, if you disagree with something I’ve written here, drop a comment and argue why you feel I got it wrong. I’m not infallible and am open to others’ interpretations. Ultimately, I just hope this site will provide readers the chance to appreciate this great work of fiction in the manner I have since its initial publication in 1986.