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Fundamental Comics: ‘Watchmen’ and Broken Heroes & Broken Narratives

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or less-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.

*SPOILER ALERT for those who have not read Watchmen.  Also, please note that we are deviating from the series’ format to accommodate the writer’s uniquely personal engagement and reflection on this seminal comic book series. – Ed.

Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Colorist: John Higgins
Letterer: Dave Gibbons
Publisher: DC Comics
Publication Date: September 1986 – October 1987 (collected edition = December 1987)
No. of Issues: 12

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Introduction to Watchmen

Dog carcass in alley this morning
Tire tread on burst stomach.
This city is afraid of me.
I have seen its true face.

So begins Watchmen, one of the greatest pieces of literature, let alone graphic novels, of the twentieth century.  Don’t take my word for it – in 2005, Time Magazine listed it as one of the “Hundred Greatest Novels of All Time” and called it “a heart-pounding, heartbreaking read.”  I agree – the first time I read it, I stayed up the entire night to finish it.  I didn’t just want to know what happened, I needed to know what happened.  If you have come here to Fanbase Press and you have not read Watchmen, I want to meet you.  Either you are a unicorn, or you need to have some sense beat into you.  

I first came cross the book freshman year in college (1987).  I fell in with the group of fellow geeks who all ran the drama club, the film society, and the campus radio station.  I had primarily been a horror-comics-and-Batman guy until that point, when one of my new tribe asked me if I had been reading Watchmen, which had just ended.  I said no.  He judged me, just as I am judging you right now, if you have not read it.  I went to my local comic emporium and was able to buy all twelve back issues on the spot. (A few months later, I bought the collected edition and have given the collected edition as a gift to numerous folks.)  That night was my first marathon read of Watchmen.

The title comes from the Roman poet, Juvenal, who asked, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who watches the watchmen?, for those who didn’t study Latin in high school).  Juvenal was talking about marriage, but the line has come to refer to a concern for people in power policing themselves.  

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Plot and Critical Analysis – Broken Heroes & Broken Narratives

Alan Moore, a British writer known for Marvelman (known in the U.S. as Miracleman, 2000 AD, the serialized V for Vendetta in Warrior magazine (later completed and issued by DC’s Vertigo line), and his work on Saga of the Swamp Thing (Tangentially, Moore’s “American Gothic” storyline for SotST not only is some of the most intelligent and terrifying horror comic writing, it also introduced the character of John Constantine in issue 35!), had become an in-house writer for DC.  With artist Dave Gibbons, he proposed a limited miniseries of superheroes presented in the real world and having all the problems of real people – a concept so prevalent now, we forget how much Moore and Gibbons pioneered the route.  DC gave them a contract for twelve issues but would not allow them to use any characters from DC or any of its properties.  Gibbons and Moore created a group of superheroes (or more accurately a continuum of superheroes from the thirties to the year 1985, when the story begins).  “Costumed Vigilantes” is how they are referred to in the culture of the book.

Moore notes he decided a good way to start the book would be to start with the death of someone who was then revealed to have been a famous superhero, and that is indeed how Watchmen begins.  An old man has been thrown out the window of his high-rise apartment by an unknown assailant.  We learn the victim was actually The Comedian, one of the original costumed vigilantes (or “masks” as they call themselves).  

Spoiler bonus: The first images of the book replicate a slowly rising crane shot, starting with a smiley-face button in a stream of blood on a sidewalk.  The blood is running down in a sewer, and the third panel shows a man walking down the sidewalk, through the blood, carrying a sign that reads “The End is Nigh.”  We will see this character in passing several times until it is revealed that this is actually Rorschach out of costume, which means the first character we see is Rorschach. It is his journal that narrates the opening, but the reader does not realize this until over halfway through the narrative.  It’s that level of detail that Gibbons and Moore bring to the book that make it worth not only reading, but rewards rereading.

What follows is a non-linear narrative that moves back and forth through time, giving the backstories of the main characters Nite Owl II (Daniel Dreiberg), The Comedian (Edward Blake), Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman), Silk Spectre II (Laurie Jupiter, a.k.a. Laurie Juspeczyk), Silk Spectre I (Sally Jupiter, a.k.a. Sally Juspeczyk, her mother), Rorschach (Walter Joseph Kovacs), and Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), plus how current events unfolding in the story draw them all back into the world of masks.  With the exception of The Comedian and Silk Spectre I, they are all second-generation superheroes, following in the footsteps of The Minutemen, the original superheroes from the thirties who began fighting organized crime and Nazis; characters like Hooded Justice, Nite Owl 1, Mothman, Silhouette, Captain Metropolis, and Dollar Bill, the last of whom died when his cape was caught in a revolving door at the bank who had created him as a kind of security guard/corporate symbol, and he was gunned down by bank robbers.  

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Indeed, none of the costumed vigilantes have happy endings (or even happy lives).  Some are murdered, some kill themselves, some become alcoholics, some end up in institutions.  As Nite Owl I writes in Under the Hood, his fictional autobiography, chapters of which are included in Watchmen at the end of certain issues, “Yes, we were crazy, we were kinky, we were Nazis, all those things people say.  We were also doing something because we believed in it. We were attempting, through our personal efforts, to make our country a better and safer place to live in.”  This sentiment captures the conflict at the heart of Watchmen: What makes someone adopt a persona, dress up in a costume, and go out and fight crime, particularly if they have no superpowers.   These are broken people who are not only trying to make the community safer and better, they are attempting to fill a hole within themselves.  The Comedian is sadistic and enjoys beating people up.  Silhouette dressed up in a costume for its “libidinous elements,” as she was a lesbian in a world that would not welcome such an orientation.  The original Silk Spectre uses crimefighting to become a celebrity and star – she craves attention and desire.  Rorschach is a right-wing sociopath. (He also gets the best line in the whole book.  When arrested and thrown into prison, he tells the convicts plotting to kill him: “None of you understand.  I’m not locked up in here with you.  You’re locked up in here with me.”)

The plot of Watchmen is, as you may have gathered, both difficult to relate to and non-linear.  It is an incredibly postmodern narrative, more so than most graphic novels, primarily because of the other elements of the text.  Not only do we have text and image of the graphic novel itself, each of the twelve chapters ends with a separate related text.  Three of these extra-textual texts are chapters of the aforementioned Under the Hood, the autobiography of the first Nite Owl.  The introduction of a fictional scholarly work, Dr Manhattan: Super-Power and the Superpowers, discusses how Dr. Manhattan (the only costumed vigilante who is actually a super-powered entity, having been disintegrated during atomic testing in the forties and then reconstructed himself.  He is a quantum being, slowly losing his humanity) changed the balance of power during the Cold War.  Roscharch’s arrest record, the first few pages of a right-wing newspaper, pages of Sally Jupiter’s scrapbook, a Veidt Industries internal report on marketing, and other mock articles and texts form and inform the larger world of Watchmen.  

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Of most significance, however, is Tales of the Black Freighter, a graphic novel within a graphic novel, read by an unnamed young man who sits by the newsstand where Rorschach buys his paper.  The chapters of Black Freighter appear in chapters three, five, eight, ten, and eleven of Watchmen, and on first reading are quite jarring.  It is a story of a captain, racing to his hometown to warn of the approach of the Black Freighter, a pirate ship.  In his quest to save his people, the captain ends up killing innocent people, abandoning his ship, and using the bodies of his former shipmates as a raft to escape the pirates.  The text-within-the-text clearly forming a commentary on the heroes themselves – the minute one of them decides to fight to protect the community, one begins to make choices that are morally gray at best.  Indeed, the heroes of Watchmen often make bad decisions and hurt as many as they help, often (but not always) inadvertently.

The strength of Watchmen is in making all of its characters real people, behaving in realistic ways.  In the seventies, the United States government steps in and passes the Keene Act, which makes it illegal to be a costumed vigilante, unless one is willing to work for the government.  So, The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan become government employees, fighting in Vietnam, but are also used to quell the civil uprisings of the sixties and seventies.  Night Owl, Ozymandias, and Silk Spectre retire, and Rorschach is left to continue to work illegally, alone and underground.  The death of The Comedian brings them all back together again to find out who is the “mask killer,” as Rorschach puts it.  They finally uncover a conspiracy so huge; it does not seem rational or possible.  Indeed, any description I give of it will make it sound ridiculous, but in the context of the book, it is appropriate, brilliant and works.  

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Ozymandias (a.k.a. Adrien Veidt), “the smartest man in the world,” realizes early in his career that stopping petty criminals, organized crime syndicates, and the enemies of America are all “small picture,” will not prevent the coming clash between the Soviet Union and the United States.  Nuclear War seems inevitable.  (Speaking as someone who was a kid in the eighties, this reflected our reality – The Day After scared the crap out of everyone in 1983, and if you go back now and read books like Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control or Taylor Downing’s 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, you’ll see how close we came to nuclear war several times in the eighties).  Veidt wants to make not only his local community a “better and safer place to live;” he wants the planet Earth to be a better, safer place to live.  He figures out a way to make the United States and the Soviet Union come together.  The death of The Comedian was a mere McGuffin; he had inadvertently learned of Veidt’s plans and had a breakdown when he realized the implications.  He drunkenly confessed to one of his former enemies, and Veidt killed both.  I don’t want to spoil any more, in case you haven’t read it.

Reception Upon Release and Relevancy Today

The book is brilliant, beautiful, and architecturally complicated.  I lied; the narrative isn’t actually broken.  One of the major themes of Watchmen is the inability to see the forest for the trees, the big picture, or the reality right in front of you.  Characters are blinded by their own beliefs, prejudices, and desires.  The grand designs of Watchmen, both Veidt’s plan and Gibbons and Moore’s actual story, are almost too big to comprehend.  Reading Watchmen is like slowly crawling across the Sistine Chapel ceiling, then suddenly being dropped to the floor to see the ornate, baroque design in its complete complexity.  Like the best literature, it shows you something new every time you read it.  

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No wonder, upon release, the novel was immediately acclaimed as one of the best graphic novels of all time, a title many of us still believe it claims.  Alan Moore has since disowned it, as he wanted the narrative complete in and of itself, and not exploited to make a buck.  Instead, we have a film adaptation, an animated version of Tales of the Black Freighter, Before Watchmen, Doomsday Clock, Absolute Watchmen, Annotated Watchmen, etc.   The entire situation was beautifully satirized on The Simpsons, in which a guest starring Alan Moore is asked by Milhouse which is his favorite “Watchmen Babies,” holding up a book with baby versions of all the characters riding on the same surfboard.  Moore loathes what Watchmen has become.  On the other hand, virtually everyone else singles out the original twelve-issue series for highest praise.  It was a critical and popular success, allowing DC to outsell Marvel for a few months for the first time in years.  Watchmen was subsequently marketed as a “graphic novel.”  Its success is why your local Barnes & Noble has a “graphic novel” section.  In fact, its success is at least part of the origin of contemporary comics/graphic novel culture.  Many books you enjoy today exist because Watchmen paved the way.  As noted above, the sophistication and intelligence behind the storytelling has made Watchmen not just one of the best graphic novels of all time, but one of the best pieces of literature in any media of all time.

What started out as an attempt to explore and deconstruct what it meant to be a “hero” became a rumination on power, how we construct reality, and what it means to be human.  Rarely has a graphic novel affected me so emotionally as Watchmen did on that first reading.  Rarely as any work, let alone a comic book series, resonated and stayed with me for as long as Watchmen has.  The best part of writing this essay was sitting down and looking at the graphic novel to ensure I was quoting it correctly and then falling into the story and rereading it for several hours.  It was like visiting with an old friend who is just as cool as you remember, but now that you are more mature you can appreciate them even more.  Go and read it.  

Seriously, even if you’ve already read it.  Go and read it again.

Who watches the watchmen?  We do.

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Kevin Wetmore, Fanbase Press Guest Contributor


Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University.  His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films.  For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.


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