It’s been 25 years since the release of what many comic book aficionados consider to be the War and Peace of modern day graphic novels. And arguably the magnum opus of acclaimed writer Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and artist Dave Gibbons.
This 12-issue mini-series single handedly changed the game in a way that other lauded books of their day like The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller) and The Sandman (Neil Gaiman) did not even manage to fully achieve. That distinction being that Watchmen in all its labyrinthine storytelling and existential crises took the superhero mythos that we were all so comfortable and familiar with and completely deconstructed it. No, it didn’t just deconstruct it, Moore and Gibbons took our antiquated spandexed do-gooder out behind the woodshed, put a thirty gauged double barrel shotgun to its temple, pulled the trigger, and then performed a gut-wrenching autopsy on its decaying corpse. Everything we thought about how superheroes should behave and who they really were behind their masks would irrevocably be changed.
I don’t think that any real comic book fan could dispute the fact that comic books are always about the middle story. The origins of 99.999 of all of our most treasured heroes were created (for the most part) decades before we were even a twinkle in our parent’s eye. And comic books will never end, so everything any of us ever really read is middle story. Ever think about what the Justice League might look like in thirty years if superheroes were actually allowed to age gracefully? Do you think that the X-Men will still have the chutzpah to stand up against social intolerance after they’re able to order off the senior discount menu at Denny’s? Probably not. No book ever truly dared to take a look at heroes after their prime. Ever wonder why you don’t see what happens to those silver age heroes after they have hung up their capes and cowls? If I had to be honest, it’s because I’ve never wanted to. Before books like Kingdom Come and even the equally daring Dark Knight Returns had the cojones to do so. Watchmen gave us a keyhole into the sordid stories and shattered lives of the heroes of yesteryear after they have been deemed obsolete by the very people they dedicated their lives and the best years of their youths defending.
I remember the first time that I ever picked up Watchmen and I remember that my first reaction after I set it down was that I hated it. Absolutely hated it. And it wasn’t the storytelling or the characters. If I had to come clean about what I didn’t like about it was its bleak and brutal landscape. I hated seeing heroes that were filled with angst and regret. I hated seeing a world that had completely turned its back on the very heroes that risked their lives to saving them time and time again. But the people of that world didn’t seem any different than the ones that populated Metropolis or Gotham City; I couldn’t understand why they would betray their heroes. And then I read it again, and again. Then I saw a world that truly was not unlike my very own, filled with economic instability and civil unrest. The nations of the world gnawing at each others throats as the doomsday clock is set precipitously closer towards midnight. It was an ugly world where kittens weren’t being rescued from trees by handsome boy scouts in red capes. And friendly neighborhood teenagers in colorful pajamas didn’t save the day with a modicum of sarcasm in the canyons of Manhattan.
The first chapter begins in the hard-boiled manner of a Mickey Spillane pulp novel from the 1940’s, narrated by a masked character named Rorschach. And like any other detective story, it begins with a dead body. That dead body happens to belong to an Edward Blake, a sixty something man who took thirty-story swan dive against his will. Rorschach appears after the police departs to do some investigating of his own. It turns out that old Edward was the alias of one of heroes of the golden age super team, the Watchmen, and just so happens, a former teams mate of his. And where the police merely smell foul play, Rorschach smells conspiracy. He’s the last of a dying breed and it seems that someone out there is intent on accelerating that demise and the demise of his fellow teammates. This is how we are introduced to the rest of the retired caped crusaders of the Watchmen world.
Dan Dreiberg, a Batman-type vigilante named Nite-Owl, who spends his nights visiting his predecessor, the first Nite-Owl and not-so-secretly pines for the crime fighting days. He was Rorschach’s partner-in-crime and is his first stop in warning the heroes of his suspicions. Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias, the gorgeous poster boy, who decided to capitalize on his former heroics and became a billionaire marketing his brand with action figures (vehicles sold separately.) His last stop is a secret government facility and home of Jon Osterman named “Dr. Manhattan” ostensibly after the Manhattan Project and the book’s one and only truly super-powered hero. The cerulean-hued atomic-powered government spokesperson with a penchant for nudity. A wonderfully complex character who quite literally has the power of a god. His attitude towards the rest of life on Earth is about on par with a kid’s attitude towards the ants at his picnic. He cohabitates with his semi-estranged live-in girlfriend, Laurie Juspeczyk / Silk Spectre, the one superhero who was actually happy to hang up her tights. Each and every one of them hears Rorschach’s theory and thinks that he’s just being paranoid.
During the funeral of Edward Blake / Comedian, the gang is reunited for the first time in years. Old alliances are rekindled, particularly between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre who’s reminiscing quickly turns into romance. In the meantime, Rorschach is still on the mission for clues, Ozymandias fends off an apparent public assassination attempt in his very own high-rise. Shortly after that, Rorschach is framed for the murder of a retired archvillian and thrown in prison after a disturbing psychiatric evaluation where readers discover his backstory. He shoved into a prison where he was responsible for the incarceration of literally dozens if not hundreds of inmates. At this point in the story, the seedy underbelly of how men, even supermen struggle with mid-life crises and what you can find when you scratch right beneath the surface of even the most untarnished of reputations. And the journey is as riveting as it is unsettling.
While Rorschach is getting reacquainted with the residents of the penal system, Dr. Manhattan is spending time on Mars pondering his tenuous connection to the human condition and Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre are moonlighting as crime fighters again and loving every minute of it. The momentum of the story kicks into high gear as Owl and Spectre decide to break Rorschach out of prison and get to the bottom of what’s really going on and needless to say are not at all pleased at what they discover. They decide to confront Ozymandias about his knowledge if any about the murders and it turns out that his involvement is far more sinister than any of them suspect. And to make matters worse, there’s no way to even prevent the scheme that he has put into motion. Which was ultimately the thing that I remember bothering me the most about Watchmen was that there wasn’t any zero hour last-minute foiling of any plans. “A world at peace. Sacrifices had to be made.” A quote from Ozymandias himself and trust me the sacrifices were substantial.
Watchmen blew the doors off of conventional comic book storytelling and twenty-five years later, its impact still makes waves through superhero mythology. Don’t believe me? Just read Watchmen and watch a couple of small flicks named The Incredibles and The Dark Knight. In the Incredibles, a cache of superheroes have to deal with their lives after being forced into early retirement and in the Dark Knight, the hero has to make the difficult decision to lie and villainize himself for the needs of the greater good. So in case, you’re wondering if something as silly as a glorified comic book could impact pop culture so profoundly, chew on this. Watchmen was included on a recent list of Time magazine’s 100 best books in literature and it was the only graphic novel to be included on that list. So‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’ Who indeed?