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By M. HOWELL  |  March 4, 2009

Moore and Gibbons so brilliantly create the world of Watchmen that for the first few issues you're caught off balance. There an overload of information, much of it not explained: it's taken for granted that you know about public spark hydrants (where delivery trucks pull over to recharge) and the Keene Act (which outlawed costumed adventurers in 1977). Some information comes from flashbacks, some is just crammed into a panel's background (a newspaper headline tells about Vietnam as the 51st state; the ads for Mmeltdowns candy are almost subliminal) As vibrantly alive as Blade Runner's Los Angeles, Gibbons's New York is drawn with a care seldom seen in mass media – certainly not usually seen over this many pages. Nearly every panel has minutiae that add to the illusion of a lived-in alternative world: the odd cigarette holders with a bowl on the end; women's exotic eye make-up; the silhouettes of lovers spray-painted on the walls (a reference to the horrors of Hiroshima); the inflated elephant balloon advertising the Gunga Diner. Telling, sometimes comic, details add the same sort of incidental depth to the characters. Laurie insists on reclaiming the Polish last name her mother shunned, and she vows to quit smoking after almost incinerating herself on Nite Owl's Owlship. Dan serves coffee and plays Billie Holiday singing "You're My Thrill" on the Owlship PA while rescuing folks from a burning tenement. Rorschach eats raw eggs and stuffs his pockets with sugar cubes (which are meticulously accounted for through the story). Every street scene shows walls plastered over with posters for Nixon and a Pale Horse concert, not to mention the spray-painted slogan WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN? (which you never see in its entirety). From the random graffiti to the streets littered with take-out cartons from the Gunga Diner, Watchmen convinces you of its own gritty reality.

In constructing his multiple plot lines, Moore concocts two ingenious devices. One is the fictional archival material that is tagged on after each episode. Their four black-and-white pages follow each of the first 22 installments, offering such supporting documents as excerpts from the first Nite Owl's memoirs, Rorschach's police file, or an issue of the ferociously right-wing New Frontiersman. At first these may come across as mere diversions, but each supplies crucial perspective – and essential information (for example, a writer named Max Shea plays a pivotal role in the plot, but aside from a television news item that shows up in one sequence, everything you know about Shea is buried in the appendixes). Moore's other inspiration is to interrupt the main Watchmen plot occasionally to zoom in on a kid reading a gory pirate comic, Tales of the Black Freighter. At first, this seems like a needless diversion – particularly when you're eager to find out who's trying to get rid of the main characters. But there's something haunting about the tale of a man so bent on saving his loved ones that he races the pirates who left him for dead – building a gruesome raft and sailing east, "borne on the naked backs of murdered men." As the tale of the grisly Black Freighter continues to intrude on the main plot, you realize that Moore is providing yet another clue to the main mystery, and the fate of the driven seaman is also the fate of a character in Watchmen. Tidy as always, he even devotes one back-of-the-book feature to a fictional reprinted article from the Treasure Island Treasury of Comics – a discussion of pirate comics like Tales of the Black Freighter, which in fact was written by (surprise!) Max Shea.

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  •   BIG PICTURES  |  March 04, 2009
    Watchmen is that too rare work of popular entertainment, one that succeeds on many levels and that rewards your attention to every level it employs.
    The winner of several "Best Comics Writer" awards on both sides of the Atlantic, he's best known in America as the author of the DC Comics series Swamp Thing and, of course, Watchmen.

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