Published by: DC Comics
Written by: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Plot: In an alternate 1985, the murder of masked hero The Comedian sets in motion an investigation by his former costumed hero allies, who uncover a disturbing plot that threatens the entire world as the shadow of nuclear war looms between the United States and Soviet Union.
Review: Ask ten hardcore comic geeks what the best comic book ever made is, and over half of them will say Watchmen without even hesitating. Back in 1986 there were two comic books that really shook up the industry in their novel approach to portraying superheroes, and they have been endlessly imitated (but never repeated) ever since. The first of these is The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. The second and more impressive of the two is Watchmen. This is one of the first comic books that actually made people who don't read comics stop and pay attention, realizing that mere funny books (superhero ones, no less!) could be considered actual literature with lasting artistic merit.
Alan Moore is widely considered to be the best writer who has ever worked in comics, and Watchmen is certainly the biggest and brightest feather in his cap, even as nice as some of the other feathers might be. This is the most elegantly constructed comic book I have ever read; every page, every panel, every image and word is painstakingly placed with such absolute, deliberate purpose that the design and layout of the story is an artform in and of itself.
Watchmen rewards multiple readings, as the book is chock full of so much hidden symbolism, visual clues and "Easter eggs" that you couldn't possibly catch them all the first time through, simply because you don't know what to be looking for. Moore's script for the first 32-page issue was over 100 pages, and after you see how deliberate every image and word is, you will see why (of course, Moore is also mad as a lark, which is part of what makes him so damned brilliant). The book also features a fascinating example of allegorical metafiction, in the form of a comic book being read by a character within the comic called "Tales of the Black Freighter", which serves as a foil to the book's main plot, following the story of a doomed mariner racing home to save his family from the impending attack of the same supernatural Black Freighter that waylaid him at sea.
I don't want to reveal much about the plot here, but throughout the story you are introduced to a variety of costumed heroes, some young and still active, some old and long retired. Moore presents the idea of superheroes, or "costumed adventurers" as they call themselves, in a very realistic manner: only one character has proper super powers, and his origins are a lot more plausible than most other comic characters. Moore develops each of his heroic characters by devoting a single issue to each of them that delves into their backstories, giving each one a surprising amount of character depth. Each of the heroes is deeply flawed in a very compelling manner, and not a single one of them is boring.
Also included to flesh out the story are supplemental pages at the end of all but the last issue, which include bonus exposition like excerpts from an autobiography by one of the retired characters, a psych evaluation of one of the characters, articles from magazines referenced in the book, and more. Many readers would probably skip these pages, considering them to be "boring" or unnecessary, but those readers are missing out, because Moore does a lot of his world-building here, fleshing out the details of the setting in a very natural way here rather than trying to shoehorn them into the body of the story itself. I'd say you could enjoy the book while skipping these sections, but you would lack a complete appreciation or understanding of it if you did.
And I can't possibly wrap up this review without mentioning the art. Dave Gibbons was the absolute perfect choice of artist for a book with this kind of weight to it. His work is crisp, clean, immensely detailed, and he's capable of conveying great ranges of emotion in his characters' faces. But most importantly, he understood what Moore was trying to do, and not only did he go along with it, but he enhanced it greatly with his involvement. Reading interviews with the creators indicates that they shared a great rapport while working on this book, and Moore didn't merely dicate things for Gibbons to slavishly reproduce on paper. Rather, Gibbons added a great deal of depth to this story with his own ideas, panel arrangements, and the subtle and not-so-subtle symbolism that permeates the book. The result is a very different finished product than what you would get if say, an asshat like Rob Liefeld had done the art chores. People might have remembered the book as a pretty neat yarn, but without nearly the level of impact it carries now.
If you've been meaning to check out comics but don't know where to start, this is the perfect introduction, but also the one of the highest watermarks of what comics are capable of that film and other print media are not. And if you consider yourself a comic book fan but somehow haven't read this, shame on you. Put down those X-Men comics, go to the store right now and pick up the trade paperback (or, if you can afford it, the excellent Absolute Edition--believe me, it's worth it) and read it post haste, before I make you turn in your comic geek badge. Because you haven't earned it yet.
I also feel like I can't help but at least mention the movie that's coming out next year. 300 director Zack Snyder has shown that he knows how to visually reproduce a comic book on screen, and the fact that he rejected the crappy script that translated it into modern times and made the big scary threat terrorism rather than Communism gives me the slightest glimmer of hope that I won't be compelled to slash my wrist in the theater. But a two (or even three) hour movie cannot possibly contain the depth of these twelve issues, and there's no way it's not going to be watered down by Hollywood and diluted into something that loses all significance. And the pirate comic metafiction cannot possibly be reproduced faithfully on film, as turning it into a comic within a movie or even an animated movie within a movie just won't have the same effect.
Moore has always argued (and proved, if you look at the other movie adaptations of his work) that comics as a medium, through their combination of still images and printed words, are capable of achieving things that are unique to comic books. The whole point is that Watchmen as it was designed and meant to be experienced cannot be turned into a movie, or an audio book, or a stage play or anything other than a comic. Which is why it will be better than the movie, it's better than the movie now, and it was already better than the movie before it ever even got the green light.
(Scored on a 0.5 - 5 pickles rating: 0.5 being the worst and 5 being the best)
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