by Alan Moore (illustrated by Dave Gibbons)
Every once in a while, a book or movie or, in this case, comic, comes around and totally changes the game for all future books/movies/comics. In the comic book world, Watchmen (1986) is the best example of that. Watchmen is the wild brainchild of Alan Moore, who built a completely new world around the modern Superhero in this franchise. Ditching the hero vs. villain concept, Moore forces us to see a spectrum of morality in which heroes sometimes look and act like villains and villains sometimes look and act like heroes.
The premise is that superheroes are real – they just don’t have super powers. In the 1940s and 1960s, there forms a band of masked vigilantes known as the Minute Men. The game changes when a research physicist is exposed to a blast of radiation. He uses his immense brain and will power to bring his atoms back together and build himself a human-esque shape. Now able to transport himself through space and time, Jon (now the blue Dr. Manhattan), becomes the first true super human, leaving the rest of the world in a vulnerable state.
The nonlinear story is told with flashbacks and subplots throughout, sometimes in the same panel. The main plot takes place in 1985 New York City: The United States is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia, and vigilante crime-fighting is now illegal. Most of the Minute Men have retired, except for the two government-endorsed heroes, the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, and one outlaw, Rorschach. The story begins as Rorschach discovers that the Comedian has been murdered. He believes that this, along with allegations against Dr. Manhattan, is evidence that someone is seeking to take down all past and present vigilantes. This becomes the main storyline: Rorschach seeks out the other Minute Men to share his suspicions and track down their shared enemy.
This is paralleled throughout the graphic novel through a kid who reads a comic, “Tales of the Black Freighter”, in which a sailor floats home on the backs of his dead crew to warn his town of approaching pirates. Let us pause and take a second to appreciate Alan Moore’s genius in this: the kid is reading pirate comics. In a world where superheroes are real, almost commonplace, kids read pirate comics instead of superhero comics – How clever! Anyway, as the unnamed kid reads Tales, the comic reflects events going on in the world around him. Meanwhile, there are several flashbacks in each chapter, explaining how and why the masked men (and women) took on their second persona, and how they all came together to fight crime.
In the end, what makes Watchmen so special is the psychology of Moore’s characters. Superheroes are, underneath it all, just human. They make choices, mistakes, sacrifices. They choose to compromise their morals, or not, in the face of dire circumstances. Despite immense power and influence, there are consequences. Ultimately it is unclear which character is morally superior. That is the brilliance of Alan Moore. He doesn’t tell you which character does the right thing. He has the characters ask the question, and allows the reader to decide for herself – what price should we pay to avoid war? Is the preservation of human life worth sacrificing our humanity?
Who watches the watchmen?