DC Comics has had a surprising tendency over the course of its existence: if a rival publisher goes out of business, often they’ll swoop in and buy up the rights to the character. It happened first in the 1960s with Quality Comics, which added 1940s stars like BLACKHAWK and PLASTIC MAN to the DC roster, then again in the 1980s with first Fawcett, which garnered the rights to the original Captain Marvel and the rest of the Marvel Family, and again in 1985, when DC purchased the Charlton “Action Heroes” from that defunct publisher, characters like the Blue Beetle, The Question and Captain Atom.
In the case of the Quality and Fawcett acquisitions, the characters were simply folded into DC’s stable through their convenient “parallel Earths” theory, a DC standby. However, other plans were afoot for the Charlton characters, in the mind of DC writer Alan Moore, who had just made a name for himself on SWAMP THING, and was thinking big: a veritable deconstruction of the superhero, using these established Charlton characters as his canvas. As it turns out, Moore’s plans were too radical for DC, who didn’t want to see the properties they’d just purchased altered so permanently and irrevocably their first time out of the gate. They loved the proposal, though, and instructed Moore to continue, only with new characters of his own devising. Suddenly the Blue Beetle was Nite Owl, Captain Atom was Dr. Manhattan and The Question was Rorschach, and the change was all for the better — rather than carrying with them the baggage of their previous publishing histories, Moore was able to imbue his new characters with an archetypal weight they wouldn’t have: one was the vigilante, one was the gadgeteer, one was the athlete, one was the superman. Now rather than being about the Charlton heroes, WATCHMEN would be about superheroes in total, and how they’d exist in a real world, a change which gives the book a scope and a feeling of universality.
In WATCHMEN, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, the setting is New York City in 1985; but it’s a very different New York City, for a very simple reason: superheroes are real, and as a result the United States won the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon is still in the White House. With the U.S. retaining the advantage in the Cold War against the Soviets due to the fact that we had superheroes (or rather, one particular superhero, the omnipotent and near-omniscient Dr. Manhattan) and they didn’t, the world balances precariously on the prink of nuclear war. This is all background, of course, for the story at hand: a murder mystery, as the vigilante Rorschach discovers that his fellow superheroes, most of whom had been forced into retirement years earlier, have become targets, following the murder of the Comedian, a former superhero turned government assassin. As Rorschach goes about his investigation, we’re introduced to the rest of the remaining heroes in exile, and begin to learn about their histories and intertwining relationships through flashbacks, as well as innovative series of supplementary materials at the end of each chapter, be it press clippings, sales reports or chapters of an autobiography.
WATCHMEN to this day remains both Moore and Gibbons’ strongest work, with Moore providing some of the best dialogue of his career, creating such distinct voices for his creations the reader feels like he’s been reading them for years. Gibbons, meanwhile, adheres to a strict nine-panel format, only occasionally varying from the norm, and rather than feel monotonous or confining, finds a way to instead use it to acclimatize the reader, allowing them to become immersed in the world of WATCHMEN without being distracted by fancy page layouts. Gibbons’ designs, both for the main characters and for the slightly more futuristic yet still familiar world of 1986 New York, are inspired: his superhero costumes in particular are first-rate. Aside from just looking damned sharp, they pass the basic superhero test that so many comic-book artists stumble on — you should be able to pick the characters out of a lineup having never seen them before, just from being given their name.
In a lot of ways, the breakout star of WATCHMEN is Rorschach, Moore and Gibbons’ borderline-unbalanced vigilante, hanging on to his sanity and his stark, black-or-white worldview by a tenuous thread. Some of Moore’s best work in WATCHMEN is in Rorschach’s first-person narration, which mixes the irrational rantings of a paranoid sociopath with moments of genuine poetry:
“Some of us have always lived on edge, Daniel. It is possible to survive there if you observe rules: just hang on by fingernails…and never look down.”
Moore has occasionally lamented that the popularity of WATCHMEN and Rorschach in particular helped lead comics to their “grim-and-gritty” ultraviolent and aggressive period in the 1990s. While it was certainly never Moore’s intent for Rorschach to be perceived as a hero or role model, it’s easy to see why it happened, as Moore did such a marvelous job of conceiving Rorschach as fully rounded character, it’s hard for the reader not to empathize with him.
WATCHMEN was a sensation upon its publication, first as a 12-issue miniseries, then as a collected graphic novel which has continually stayed in print due to steady sales. It was given Eisner Awards for Best Finite Series, Best Graphic Album, Best Writer, and Best Writer/Artist Team, earned a Hugo Award in the “Other Forms” category, and made Time Magazine’s 2005 List of “100 Greatest English Language Novels,” the only comic book to be so honored.
Some people call it the best graphic novel ever produced. We’d be hard pressed to disagree.