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.
And what characters! Rorschach, a violent, shadowy figure of apocalyptic right-wing beliefs wearing a filthy trenchcoat, fedora, and a mask that continually changes into different blot patterns. Adrian Veidt, a/k/a Ozymandias, is retired crimefighter turned wealthy industrialist who is reputedly the world's smartest man. Dr. Manhattan, an eerie blue figure who possesses nearly unlimited power. Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl, grown flabby while his arsenal of costumes and weapons gathers dust. Laurie Juspeczyk, who followed in her mother's footsteps as the crimefighter Silk Spectre and then retired to a cloistered life as Dr. Manhattan's mistress. And at the center of the mystery, Edward Morgan Blake, the Comedian.Although Watchmen's narrative takes place over only three weeks (between October 12 and November 2, 1985), it darts back and forth through time, from 1939 and the founding of the original costumed adventurers' organization, the Minutemen, through the riots of the mid '70s, to the perilous present. You see what might happen to comic-book dreams in the real world: the self-appointed-hero biz is decimate by rape, homosexuality, and death in the line of duty. When in the '60s a surviving member of the Minutemen tries to revive the group as the Crimebusters, he's ridiculed. Finally, federal law orders all costumed crimefighters to cease their activities – unless they're sanctioned by the government. The story opens with the Comedian, the one person who bridged the Minutemen and the Crimebusters, hitting the streets the hard way – thrown out his high-rise window. As the plot progresses, you're drawn into the hunt for his killer. Rorschach is trying to crack the case when D. Manhattan – the ultimate nuclear deterrent and America's not-so-secret weapon – is hounded into leaving Earth, leaving the Russians free to invade Afghanistan and set in motion a chain of events that could possibly end in Armageddon. The mysteries accumulate. What is the meaning of the Comedian's final tearful visit to an old enemy? And what is happening on that island?
On one level, Watchmen is a race against time. Each chapter begins with a clock face and ends with a larger one, with rivulets of blood dripping farther downward as the Doomsday Clock moves inexorably towards midnight. Moore and Gibbons play with time throughout the story, shifting back and forth from 1939 to 1966 to 1985 without ever letting you forget that the Clock is still ticking. The other primary visual motif is the blood-stained smily face. It's the first image you see, though it'll probably be a few panels before you realize that it's the Comedian's badge, stained with his blood. As a symbol of both happiness and pain, it recurs repeatedly: when Laurie wipes steam from a window; on a fateful jack-o-lantern; as the plug socket of a shattered spark hydrant; in a crater on Mars.