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Who reads the ‘Watchmen’?

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In 1986, DC comic books ran advertisements featuring new costumed characters, and asked, forebodingly, “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Later that year, Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, premiered, forever changing both comics and film.

Set in a 1985 altered by the existence of superheroes, Watchmen portrays a Cold War reality in which Nixon is still President, the U.S. won the Vietnam War, and the federal government has forced all masked adventurers to retire. The tale begins with the murder of Comedian, one of the two legal, government-sponsored heroes. The other legitimized superhero, an atomic-fueled being of immense power, Dr. Manhattan, helps America maintain an uneasy détente with the Soviet Union. Rorschach, an objectivist’s nightmare of Batman who refuses to cease his illegal vigilante activities, uncovers a conspiracy to kill all masked heroes, retired or not. Through a complex series of events that foreshadows Armageddon, the other retired heroes eventually re-emerge to confront the threat.

Moore, who in 1986 was far better known in his native England, where he crafted Marvelman (Miracleman in the U.S.) and the opening chapters of V for Vendetta, first attracted the attention of American critics and fans when he began scripting cult-favorite Swamp Thing (DC) in 1983. Along with artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, this incarnation of muck-encrusted Alec Holland introduced inventive storytelling techniques to the genre and ushered in a new era of horror comics that achieved its pinnacle with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

After DC acquired the rights to the little-known Charlton Comics’ line of superhero characters in 1983, rising star Moore developed a series to showcase the heroes. DC managing editor Dick Giordano rejected the unsolicited proposal, but encouraged Moore to rework the idea employing original characters. Joined by artist Dave Gibbons, the duo re-imagined the old heroes to suit their unique vision. Charlton’s Peacemaker, Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, Thunderbolt, and the Question evolved respectively into Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, and Rorschach. (Not based on a Charlton character, Silk Spectre draws inspiration from a conglomeration of female heroes.)

Initially appearing in 12 individual comic-book issues, each 32-page chapter of Watchmen (except for the final installment) offered 25-28 pages of sequential story followed by prose text that enhanced or clarified the complex tale. Commonplace in comics since the 1940s, extensive text rarely formed an integral aspect of the overall tale. Usually, they were stand-alone pieces of short fiction featuring the lead character or, in the case of themed anthologies, functioned as a bonus story. To fully enjoy, and at times even comprehend, Moore’s multilayered epic, all the text pieces need to be read in the order they appear and considered within the larger work. The seemingly random, incongruous prose plays an essential role in the overall narrative.

Pirate tales, instead of superheroes, dominate this reality’s comics medium. In Tales of the Black Freighter, told as a tale within the larger narrative, Gibbons aped the style of legendary artist Joe Orlando — a supplemental article detailing the fictional history of the comic lists Orlando as the strip’s artist — and Moore used the opportunity to explore the related struggles of the heroes and common men in this reality. As with the previous, seemingly unrelated, material, Moore and Gibbons weave Tales of the Black Freighter into the whole of the story.

Moore also used multiple viewpoints to relate his non-linear tale. Chapter one of Watchmen starts from the fractured viewpoint of Rorschach, segues to the two detectives investigating Comedian’s murder, returns to Rorschach, shifts to Nite Owl, slides to Rorschach again, pans to Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan, switches back to Rorschach, jumps to Silk Spectre and Nite Owl, and culminates with a text excerpt from the autobiography of another character. Later chapters rely on a similar structure. Moore effortlessly employs this then-unusual graphical narrative device to move backward and forward in time and to introduce various elements of the plot.

Gibbons’ reliance on a nine-panel grid, an unusual practice at the time, and his traditional art style hearkened back to the 1950s, particularly the horror comics of the era. Exploiting these traits enabled Moore to simultaneously create both a realistic present and a nostalgic past. Watchmen exists as both traditional and modern, even post-modern.

In 1987, DC packaged Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in book format and advertised them as “graphic novels.” The volumes paved the way for the extensive graphic-novel sections now found in libraries and bookstores and remain among the bestselling comic collections of all time. In 1988, Watchmen garnered a Hugo Award in the Other Forms category, the only comic book to ever earn the prestigious science-fiction prize.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons crafted a 12-issue series that, rather than accepting the limitations of the graphic format, embodied and broadened the art form. Due in large part to Watchmen, voice-overs, multiple viewpoints, non-linear tales, and post-modern re-interpretations of superheroes became the norm, not only in comics, but in film and television as well. •

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