Alan Moore's Watchmen And The Limits Of Comics

I've got a few different essays in various states of completion for this site, but none of them are in publishable shape yet. The time between posts is getting longer and longer, so I want to try something new. I have been keeping a journal in Day One where I write after finishing a book or short story, just a summary and some thoughts.

Okay, more often these turn into riffing on ideas about culture and the nature of art (Pattern Recognition). Other times I end up rehashing the plot and musing about a work's place in a writer's canon (Injection.) My reading is all of over the map, as I am trying to read more books and less news and disposable web content. The only thing I'm dedicated to reading all of in my RSS Reader these days is Webcomics and author's blogs. I'm still scanning headlines and reading interesting articles; I'm just more apt to mark everything as read and get some time with actual books.

This is the latest entry. I finished a re-read of The Watchmen and had some thoughts about its place in comics thirty years on.


Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are credited with the rise of "serious" comics. Given the moniker "graphic novel" was used to market Watchmen as a literary work, it'a not surprising that it still stands as one of the high points in the genre. It's a strong contender for the start of the modern age of comics.

This is for good and for ill. Watchmen introduced the world to superheroes with "real world" problems, which lead to a lot of terrible attempts at depth and realism by lesser writers.

Watchmen comes with baggage. Its place in must-read novel lists means that this may be the only comic that some people will ever read. There's also Zack Snyder's movie, which cuts most of the humanity out the book, and replaces it with glitz and flash. The movie misses the point of the novel completely.

Watchmen is an exploration of the nature of power expressed through superheroes. Rorschach, The Comedian, and Ozymandias are all fascists, and Dr. Manhattan is so powerful he can barely relate to humanity. Synder glosses over this, ignoring portions of the novel where heroes are used to suppress campus unrest and civil rights protests.

Though the book came out near the end of the Cold War, I wonder how well the paranoia of Armageddon has aged to an audience that grew up without the context of the nuclear threat. The use of Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian to crush the NVA and keep the Russians and Chinese in check was another detail glossed over in the film. The Comedian in the book is dogged by rumors he's tied to the Kennedy assassination. It isn't supposed to be coincidental that unchecked American power leads to Nixon as a defacto President for life.

Watchmen is probably the first work of modernist literature in comic form. The supplemental materials, alternate histories, and metanarratives tie together into a package that is remarkable. Dave Gibbons uses a simple nine-panel layout, ensuring a smooth progression through the story.

Gibbons is an exceptional artist—he uses the simple layout and art style for the story but covers the background in story details and references. There are flourishes everywhere you may not notice until your second read through the book. There are splashes here and there, including the famous symmetrical panel this article uses for a header. However, the art and design are simple and condensed: channeling the Golden Age style.

That's because, above all else, Watchmen is about comics. Despite all the capital I issues of the characters and their relationships, Watchmen's main target is comics themselves. (This is major league English Major wankery at this point, so proceed with caution.)

Specifically, Watchmen is about the limitations of stories you can tell with Superheroes. Moore fills every page with the frustration of working in a genre that refuses to do anything original. Then and now, DC guarded its characters so closely that writers weren't able to take chances.

Which is why Moore's best work on superheroes took place during the period before the mid 80's reboot, when the gloves were off. Watchmen comes at the end of Moore's tenure at DC, first moving into independent comics and eventually moving on to novels.

The legacy of Watchmen in Superhero comics lead to laughable attempts at dealing with issues, most often with the subtlety of sitcom "Very Special Episodes." That said, there's a fair argument to be made; without Watchmen the Vertigo line would not have existed. (Though some of the credit should probably go to Moore's Swamp Thing run.) Comics are probably due for similar shake-up to the mid-80s.

Marvel still seems to be trying to figure out how to run an entertainment empire, with their focus on making sure that their movies continue to print money. DC wants to catch up to Marvel, even going so far as resurrecting Watchmen's characters to cash in on the movie via prequel series. As an industry, comics seem trapped in a five-year cycle of massive events and reboots, with the continuity turning ever inward and more self-referential.

Moore is a talent comprised of madness and intelligence in a measure that could produce a comic as dense as any Pynchon novel. Gibbons' art is just as dense, filled with life and ephemera that fill every corner of the book with something to look at. Despite a disappointing movie and terrible prequel series, Watchmen is a singular work that defines the genre. It shouldn't be missed.

Mike M

Mike M

I have written various kind of reviews for years. I currently write for Make Use Of. I used to write for Digital Entertainment News, Macgasm, and the Examiner. My day job is as an IT monkey. Follow me on Twitter.