Hello, friends! Taylor here! And I’m exciting to be bringing you something new today here at Outright Geekery: an examination of some of the greatest comics ever written in a segment we’re calling Comics You Should Have Already Read By Now. The aim here is to shine a spotlight on some of the best material to have ever graced the comic medium, and to break down the components of the stories that add up to make the books so good. Basically, think of this as our site’s version of a book club meeting, where we can get together to talk about the all-time classics.
With this in mind, what better book could there be for our initial outing than the one that many people, myself included, consider the greatest comic book ever created? And so let’s dive into Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
Before we get started, though, you should know that I meant what I said when I named the segment “comics you should have already read by now;” I’m going to be writing with the expectation that you have already read Watchmen. Remember, this is going to be a discussion about the things that make the book good, not a review encouraging you to run out and buy it. As such, I am going to be talking about the book in its entirety, which includes the ending. Naturally, this means that this post will contain quite a few spoilers.
Those of you who haven’t read it have been warned.
Now that that’s out of the way, let us begin.
A Brief Synopsis
Set mostly in New York City in the year 1985, the world of Watchmen is one not dissimilar to our own; it has the same history, the same leadership, and is also embroiled in the tension of the Cold War. Indeed, the only major difference between the real world and the world of Watchmen is the existence of superheros. Yet while there is only a handful of these costumed crime fighters, only one of which actually has super powers, they influence several key events of the 20th century in a profound way. A few examples include the god-like Dr Manhattan almost single-handedly winning the Vietnam War for the United States, the Comedian, a sadistic government agent, ending the Iranian Hostage Crisis and assassinating JFK, and the ingenious Ozymandias reshaping society with a number of inventions.
Our story picks up, however, long after the glory days of the superhero, in a time when vigilante activity is abhorred by society, and the world seems to be on the brink of nuclear annihilation. It is in this climate that the Comedian is found dead, setting off a chain of events in which his fellow vigilantes become embroiled in a wide-reaching conspiracy in which the fate of the whole world is on the line.
With this as our backdrop, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons give us an intricate and brilliantly crafted tale filled from cover to cover with complex, engaging characters, clever plot-twists, and compelling philosophical issues. In fact, there is so much to talk about in Watchmen that it is often difficult to point to any one thing that makes it so good. Rather, I would argue that the thing that makes Watchmen stand out the way it’s individual components work in concert with one another to create a finished product that is much more than the sum of its parts.
Now, we could spend hours talking about all the things that Watchmen does well. But rather than try to tackle the book in its entirety, I want to attempt something else; I want to try to break down the two things that, more than anything else, make Watchmen the greatest comic ever written. In my opinion, these things are Moore and Gibbons’ intimate understanding of comic books as a medium and of superheros as a genre.
Understanding of Comics as a Medium
At this point, I’d like to take a step back from Watchmen itself and talk briefly about storytelling in a general sense. Even before the dawn of civilization, human beings have been telling each other stories. With this much time to refine the formula, we’ve pretty much worked out all of the various tropes and conventions that we can use for telling tales, and applied these techniques across a number of different media. Fast-forwarding to the modern day, we now have a wide range of formats for telling stories, including film, prose, and comic books.
Each type of medium, naturally, has its own strengths and weaknesses. Movies are able to combine audio and visual elements to convey specific moods and emotions that, with talented directors and actors at the helm, can have an extremely powerful effect. Books are able to go into greater length of detail to bring in the reader for the long haul, as well as use well-crafted words that prompt the reader’s imagination to create its own scenery. Comic books, meanwhile, have strengths all their own, several of which are on display in Watchmen.
Let me show you what I mean with three examples.
First, let’s take a look at Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry.” Following the deranged Rorschach as he investigates the Comedian’s murder, we find out that the vigilante has bitten off more than he can chew and is set up to take a fall. I bring it up here, though, because of the way this chapter utilizes a stunning artistic approach that can only be achieved in the medium of comic books. As you read through the comic book, you start with the 3×3 panel layout that is more or less the default for the whole story. As you move along, though, Gibbons begins to throw in a number of larger panels at seemingly random intervals. Nothing special so far, though; this has pretty much been the approach for the whole run. All this changes, however, when we reach this two page spread…
It is at this point that the panel layout begins to mirror itself centered upon the central panel above, so that if you were to lay all of this issue’s pages side by side, the panels would have perfect symmetry. The finished product, then, incorporates into its very presentation the same symmetry that is an iconic part of Rorschach, the chapter’s protagonist, adding greatly to the overall effect of the story. Again, this is an artistic approach that takes advantage full of the way comics convey information, and is not something that could be achieved in another medium.
Another area in which Watchmen takes advantage of the strengths of a comic book can be seen in the way it paces its story. One good way to demonstrate this is to take a closer examination of my personal favorite chapter, “The Darkness of Mere Being.” During this sequence, Dr Manhattan brings Silk Spectre to his new home on Mars to give her one last chance to convince him to return to earth to save humanity (or in a broader sense, to convince him that humanity is worth saving). As the chapter progresses, Laurie’s advocacy for humanity forces her look deeply within herself to find her answers. Consequently, she spends time dwelling on moments that, for better or for worse, defined her life, including interactions with her mother and other members of the superhero community. As the comic moves along, we constantly switch back and forth between Laurie’s memories and her seemingly losing battle to move Dr Manhattan to action, as Laurie uses her own past as a lens through which to examine all the chaos of the human experience. As she continues to be honest about her own past, though, her anxiety builds as she pieces together who she is and where she came from. Ultimately, this all builds to a crescendo as Laurie relives some of her worst memories while simultaneously being reduced to hopelessness as the one being capable of saving humanity stands before her, uncaring. It is in this moment of purest desperation that she comes to the realization that the Comedian, a sociopath, a rapist, and a murderer, is in fact her father. Here, Laurie hits her absolute low point, with her life figuratively collapsing around her while Dr Manhattan’s palace literally crashes upon her.
Yet just when everything seems lost, Dr Manhattan is finally moved by Laurie’s plight, concluding that if the chaos of everyday life could produce people like Laurie in even the most unlikely of circumstances, than human life might be worth fighting for after all.
When read from beginning to end, this is a very powerful and moving scene. Like I said, we spend the entire chapter building up to a fever pitch before reaching the climax, aided along the way by carefully sequenced words and imagery. Altogether, the chapter is made so strong by the pacing it achieves, a pacing that can’t really be used in a different medium.
Don’t believe me? Let’s make the obvious comparison and look at the equivalent scene from the Watchmen film. I just finished gushing about how the comic had such a powerful build up, but in the movie, Laurie’s big realization comes in a matter of seconds when Dr Manhattan uses his powers, at her request, to make her relive a repressed memory. Where the comic slowly, tantalizing leads you into a powerful moment, the movie pushes the realization upon you all at once. As you might imagine, the effect isn’t quite the same. To be fair, though, it’s not really the movie’s fault; they simply changed the sequence so that it would work in a movie format. When telling a story on film, one of the greatest limiting factors is always time, since it’s very hard to keep an audience engaged for extensive periods. Consequently, it’s difficult to justify including too many things that don’t directly advance the plot. When dealing with source material as rich as Watchmen, there is simply not enough time to keep everything. And one of the things we have no time for is to let Laurie and Manhattan have their debate on Mars, leading to the vastly abbreviated version we get in the movie.
By that same token, a prose version of the same scene would likely have to spend far more time to achieve the same effect as the comic, simply because, as the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Where the comic is able use pictures to convey Laurie’s memories quickly as we move back and forth from past to present, a novel would have to spend several paragraphs to set up each transition to a new memory if it wanted to achieve the same level of detail. Where the movie had no time to build tension in the first place, a book would undo any tension it created as it is forced to provide the necessary exposition the shifting landscape requires. Moore and Gibbons, fortunately, knew that this sort of narrative landscape would work perfectly in a comic, and were able to use this to great effect.
Finally, Watchmen also provides us with a great example of a comic book’s ability to use imagery to give the audience story cues with a degree of subtlety that isn’t attainable in films or novels. To observe this, let’s look in on Chapter 11, “Look On My Works, Ye Mighty,” which serves as the climax of our story. By this point, Nite Owl and Rorschach have discovered that their old ally Ozymandias is the mastermind behind the Comedian’s murder and the conspiracy behind it. The chapter picks up with the duo en route to Ozymandias’ Antarctic retreat to confront him once and for all. When they arrive, however, they are promptly and soundly beaten, after which Ozymandias has a polite conversation with his attackers. As he explains his motivations, the action switches between this scene and New York City, where several of the minor characters we’ve been seeing since the beginning of the story have been caught up in a minor street fight. Once Ozymandias has finished explaining the details of his cover up, we finally learn about the plan that was at the center of it: to put and end to Cold War hostilities by convincing the world that all of humanity faced a common foe in the form of inter-dimensional aliens, and to murder millions of people in order to make the threat seem real. Upon hearing this, Nite Owl is incredulous, and asks Ozymandias when he was going to “do it.” Adrian responds with one of the most famous quotes in all of comics…
It is then that we realize, in a terrible moment of clarity, that the heroes are too late, that the villain’s monstrous plan has been carried out, and that millions of innocent people, including several that we’ve come to know over the course of the story, have already been dead for over half an hour. We also come to realize that the events which we had been watching unfold on the streets of New York during this chapter were shown out of sequence. Moore and Gibbons had ticked us into thinking that there was hope for them, when really they were dead all along.
Or did they?
When we go back and read the chapter over again, we can find an important clue that would have let us know from the beginning that the fight next to Bernie’s newsstand had been carried out before Nite Owl and Rorschach entered Ozymandias’ lair: the clocks. There are plenty of clocks to be found around both Antarctica and New York, letting us know that all of our bit characters had gathered at 11:25 pm, the same time that Adrian had pushed some mysterious button (though we didn’t know what it was at the time). We could have known the whole time, then, that the scenes in New York, which all take place over the same span of time from different perspectives, had been played out before the superheroes had confronted each other. The clocks were there, plain to see if you knew where to look, just another detail to be found on the page.
As stated above, the aspect I want to highlight here is the subtlety with which these clues were put before us, and how this sort of subterfuge couldn’t be carried out in books or films. If a novelist wanted to play with the events being out of sequence in the same way, he or she would have beat you over the head with the whole time-of-day thing. When the only bits of scenery the reader can get are conveyed by the words of the author, it’s tough to be sneaky about what you choose bring the reader’s attention to. Here, you’d end up having to say something like “And Bernie checked his watch to see that it was not yet 11:30.” Movies have a similar problem in that the audience would not be able to read clocks very well unless you put them into focus, which would once again be sending out all sorts of red flags. The aspect that makes playing the sequencing clever in the comic is that it there to find but very easy to miss; it would be pretty tough to miss if the clues were given in a paragraph or on a screen. Yet as they have demonstrated over and over, Moore and Gibbons have a mastery over their own craft and understood that their trickery would work perfectly well in the pages of a comic book.
Understanding of Superheroes as a Genre
In addition to using the comic book to its maximum potential as a storytelling medium, Watchmen also demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the superhero genre. The way they go about doing this is to break down the superhero formula and create a deconstruction of it. That is to say that it takes our preconceived notions about who superheros are and how their stories play out and turns them on their ear.
Examples of this can be seen in a variety of sources, even in elements as basic as the motivations of the various superheros. If you’ve read a fair share of comic books, you no doubt have seen a wide range of superheros. And while they all have unique elements to their origins, as a general rule, they fight crime because they are essentially good people; they are men and women who, for whatever reason, fight to save the innocent or punish the guilty because it is the right thing to do, and because they want to affect positive change upon the world.
The superheros of the Watchmen universe, however, are largely a subversion of this trend. Rather than having a cast of characters who fight crime out of a sense of morality, Moore decides instead to create characters who behave as people in the real world might. As you might expect of people who dress in flamboyant costumes to commit acts of vigilantism, these characters do not create their alter egos for purely noble reasons. To run through a few, we have the Comedian fighting crime simply because it gives him an excuse to revel in his violent tendencies, the original Silk Spectre who wears a skimpy costume as a way to gain publicity, and Dollar Bill, a man who is paid by a banking chain to act as their living commercial. And those are some of our heroes; our villains include the likes Captain Carnage, a sexual deviant who gets a rise out of being beaten up. Taken as a whole, then, the costumed adventurers of our story are motivated by either a deranged psychosis or a desperate plea for attention; in fact, one could argue that only Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, takes on his identity purely out of a desire to do good in the world. The rest serve as dark parodies of the superheros we know and love, and this doesn’t end with their motivations.
Moore also gives us a number of examples of the minutiae of superhero life being dissected for us to see. We have superheros getting put into peril by their ostentatious costumes (Dollar Bill was killed when his cape become caught in a revolving door during a bank robbery, and the first Nite Owl was nearly taken out by a drunken assailant when his mask was pulled over his eyes). We have Laurie and Dan complaining about when they needed to use the bathroom while on patrol. We have a subversion of the heroic superhero death, as Hollis Mason is killed in his home by a gang of anonymous thugs who mistook him for his younger counterpart, a meaningless death that pales in comparison to the type of symbolic or grand (albeit temporary) deaths we are accustomed to seeing in comics.
In my opinion, however, the ultimate subversion of the superhero formula is the broadest one it makes: the subversion of our assumptions of how superhero stories play out. At the core of their characters, superheros fight, to various degrees, to maintain a status quo, to stave off external threats that would do harm to the world they know. And almost without fail, they succeed in saving the world.
What happens in Watchmen, though? Well, this happens…
The heroes fail. The villain wins, plain and simple, and flat-out tells us that we shouldn’t have expected him to stand around and gloat like an idiot before his plan was complete.
And in the wake of our heroes’ failure, the world is radically transformed, the old status quo be damned.
By playing with our expectations in this way, Watchmen delivers the ultimate sucker punch, one that can only be fully appreciated by those familiar with the archetypal superhero story. After all, only the ones who knew a foundation in all it’s glory can truly understand the gravity of watching it get torn down. It is in this way that Moore and Gibbons, who had an intimate understanding of how superhero stories are told, were able able give the reader an experience of shock that is rarely achieved.
Oh, so much more…
So, I’ve been going on for a little while now. But like I said earlier, we are barely scratching the surface of all the there is to talk about in Watchmen. I’ve barely even mentioned Rorschach, and how he acts in near perfect accordance with Kantian ethics. Nor have we talked about how the Silk Spectre spends the majority of the tale confined by feminine stereotypes before finally liberating herself in the end when she comes to terms with her own identity. Or the way The Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic within the comic, reflects the character arcs of at least three of the main characters, most directly Ozymandias. Or the way various characters react when confronted by Nihilism, and how it shapes our understanding of the story. Or how the story can be an effective tool for our understanding of Cold War society and nuclear paranoia. Or how…you know what, I had better stop there.
As you can see, Watchmen has more meat to it than we could ever pick apart in one sitting. Watchmen is a book with layers of complexity around a powerful and thought-provoking story, that behooves you to read it over and over so that you can absorb the whole thing. And that goes a long way towards explaining why so many people consider it the best comic ever written.
So that’s what I think! How about you guys?