This article originally appeared in the November 27, 1987 issue of
The Boston Phoenix
God is in the details.
- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
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. It begins as a detective story centering around a single brutal murder. It expands into a hunt for a serial killer who has targeted former costumed heroes. Then, in a whirlwind of time-, space- and genre-hopping, it intensifies into a chilling race to uncover a conspiracy that might determine the fate of the world.; Interwoven with the stories of its main characters is the frenzied panic caused by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, more murders, a tour of Mars, and a horrifying Tale of the Black Freighter – and brilliant proof, if any more was needed, that the comic-book form can be a serious literary vehicle for our time.
All the action takes place in a world that's nearly recognizable as our own. The New York City of Watchmen is crowded, littered, dangerous, and covered with graffiti. Cops hunt down clues, society's outcasts go crazy on drugs, and ordinary people try to live decent lives in a world that doesn't seem interested in rewarding their efforts. But there are differences, too. The main action of Watchmen is set during three weeks in late 1985. Nixon is still president; cars and trucks run on electricity; and, thanks to Dr. Manhattan, the world's only atom-powered super-being, Vietnam is now the 51st state. Oh yes, and the costumed crimefighters who emerged in the late '30s, along with their successors, have retired, gone to work for the government, or been outlawed as vigilantes. Hovering over this world are two crucial questions: Are we running out of time to save ourselves from nuclear war? And who watches the watchmen?
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To praise Watchmen as a "comic book for grown-ups" is to trivialize the achievement of writer Alan Moore, illustrator Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins – a trio of Brits who have created an all-too-plausible America that happens to have comic-book characters walking its streets. Moore, currently one of the hottest writers in comics, contends that Watchmen is a pioneering work in creating a new form of popular art (see accompanying interview), and he may be correct – in its density of technique and self-referential playing with history, it deserves to be called the first postmodern comic, a deftly illustrated (and better written) Ragtime. But what yanks you into the world of watchmen isn't theory; Watchmen is a rip-roaring illustrated thriller that builds – and remains true to – its own relentlessly detailed, mesmerizing world. Originally published by DC Comics as a 12-issue "limited series" comic, it was an immediate sensation in the comic-book subculture: a pulp epic that was part Dickens, part Republic Saturday-afternoon serial, and all unsettlingly complex. Recently, Warner Books collected all 12 issues into a high-quality softcover that makes it convenient both to read Watchmen all the way through and to indulge in the necessary spot checks on previous issues. (A similar DC version can be found in comic-book stores.) Like Rashomon, Watchmen requires that you see the same events through different characters' perspectives.