Written by Allen Moore
Illustrated by Dave Gibbons
I've never been interested in reading comic books, which is ironic because I watched comic book heroes on TV and in movies, but I never could get myself to read any of the source material. Because I'm so out of the loop on comics, I didn't know what a turning point the "Watchmen" series was for the comic book industry until I heard about it on the History Channel. Now with the movie coming out in March, I thought I'd finally give the source material a try. I was not disappointed.
It's important to note straight off that these are not your father's comic book heroes. What "Watchmen" did when it came out in the mid-80s was to make comic book characters REAL--or as real as can be expected. The "costumed adventurers" depicted in the series are not in it for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. They have varying reasons like psychotic obsessions, family pressure, fame-seeking, or just plain old curiosity. Most of these "heroes" might help you if you were being mugged or trapped in a burning building, but don't expect them to help old ladies cross the road or give a lesson on civics to a 3rd grade class.
The story begins in 1985, a very different 1985 from what you might remember. For one thing, Richard Nixon is still president and American won the war in Vietnam thanks to the costumed adventurers, most notably Dr. Manhattan, a god-like being who is blue and pretty much do whatever he wants to matter--including making it disappear. (Another difference is that thanks to Doc Manhattan electric cars were invented in 1960, thus global warming is not so much of a problem, nor are rising oil prices.) Only Dr. Manhattan and an aging mercenary known as The Comedian (like a sadistic Captain America) are still allowed to fight evil by working for Uncle Sam. The rest are all forced into hiding. Most find other jobs while some, like the obsessive Rorshach, continue to operate at risk of prosecution. (The premise of superheroes being outlawed was later used in the Disney movie "The Incredibles.")
One night, though, The Comedian is found dead in his apartment. As Rorshach investigates the case, he begins to see a conspiracy at work and not only because he's paranoid. Someone is out to eliminate or marginalize all the costumed adventurers. But who and why remains a mystery as the world teeters on the brink of Armageddon with a Soviet incursion into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Can the "heroes" find out what's going on and put a stop to it? With the USA and USSR turn the earth into a radioactive cinder? Tune in to find out.
I have to say, for a comic book (originally published as a series of 12 and now packaged together into a novel) this was fascinating. It's not just one slugfest after another between heroes and villains. The narrative not only goes into the mystery and conspiracy, but it delves into the backgrounds of the characters and includes interesting sidebars, notably a comic within the comic about an evil pirate ship of damned souls that makes the Black Pearl seem like a Carnival fun ship. The comic within the comic fits into one of the overreaching themes of the book, which is: do the ends justify the means? And as is frequently scrawled on walls in the book: who watches the watchmen?
Unraveling the various complexities and symbolic elements of this would take a long time, and I doubt I could nail them all own. Suffice it to say if you think comics are kid's stuff then you are dead wrong in this case. This is a comic for adults with adult situations like rape, impotency, and other stuff you certainly won't see on Saturday morning cartoons. "Watchmen" was one of the first books to really focus solely on the adults and revolutionized the industry. Its influence is still felt today in movies like "The Dark Knight" that strive for a more realistic approach to those costumed adventurers.
That is all.
(BTW, as I have no experience with graphic novels there's nothing I can say about the artwork. I thought it was good, but what do I know?)