5 out of 5
Reading Watchmen today is interesting, post a television “sequel;” post DCs debatable wrapping of its characters into its day-to-day DC events with “Before Watchmen;” post a visually stunning but often tonally deaf film adaptation; post witnessing Alan Moore’s continual climb through various genres of comicdom, picking away at or trying to reinvision humanity until finally retiring on a note, perhaps ironically, of luxuriating in all of entertainments past. But most of all, it’s interesting having read what would come after it, and then after it after it, when the text had achieved notability beyond comic readers, and even beyond that, to when comics have achieved general acceptability, and we continue to inch towards variations on the doomsday a youngish Moore was forever imagining. It’s rather impossible to separate the experience of reading Watchmen from all of that, and especially from any comics you’ve ingested between now and then. And even if you’re reading it as a comic newcomer, you live in a much more ‘always on’ world than the one in 1989 in which the tome appeared; just meaning it’s still impossible to read this with “fresh” eyes.
I certainly didn’t. I would’ve been three when it came out, so I was unaware of it until a rebirth into comics (post a childhood of Spiderman and Turtles) in my early adulthood of pre 20s. I loved it; it was like nothing I’d ever read. And that still applies, even if I see traces of other Mooreness in it; even if I think the writer gets a little distracted by his own negativity for a while and forgets his characters; even if all of the thematic layering becomes a bit too heavy-handed at points. And I know that still applies to the fresh-faced readers mentioned above, having handed the trade off to newbies and then failing to follow it up with anything suitable: Watchmen can ruin comics for those not at least desiring to sample the world of proper tights-wearing supers; even in our indies where they’re not wearing tights, books that are on the level are hard to come by.
I truly can’t fathom what it would’ve been like in 1986, then, with these very human versions of what we then knew as superheroes having marriage woes, getting overweight, going crazy. To get caught up in the mystery of who starts killing off these “heroes” – since retired, after the in-universe government passes an act enforcing that retirement – even though there are uncountable signposts throughout, thanks to Moore’s “extra” text of backmatter and co-running narratives, that whatever lies at the end will only feel inevitable, and not Some Big Answer. Seeing those larger than life as real people has been done time and again since this book, but Moore really took steps to make his cast exist in a lived in world; to breathe. The text is veritably pregnant with this sensibility, from the methodical gridded, step-by-step artwork to the way dialogue trails off and stumbles and repeats organically, to the way that that aforementioned mystery is subsumed by the damned dumb humanity of it all. In the world of Watchmen, heroes aren’t needed, and they only climb in to their masks when their various expressions of self-obsessiveness demand it. Moore kinda hates people, but only really their ignorance, which, unfortunately, seems like a requirement for staying alive. He tacks this to an obsession with bright and bold 80s comics, and would run that down after Watchmen a few more times before diverging in two directions – either coming back around to a more “pure” version of the medium with ABC and his preceding experiments with Image and the like, or reaching further outward to explore these human flaws in broader swaths. To that latter bit, it’s no wonder that Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors were such an obsession, and it’s equally unsurprising that he would want to participate in Garth Ennis’ people-can’t-stop-being-people Crossed universe.
But Watchmen is a rather perfect crossing over point between meditation and narrative. Because of his negativity, I don’t know that I “learn” much from Moore, but I don’t know if that was ever the point, so much as pursuing a flight of fancy that interests him to a logical end point. At the time of these books, it was sort of an inverse of what he’d kicked off with Marvelman, but with similar results: instead of super beings trying to exist in the real world, these are real people trying to be super in the real world. It’s admirable, but there’s the question of Why they pursue this – which is well explored in the book’s first few issues – and What the personal cost is of doing so – the middle issues – as well as Where it might all lead. The inclusion of an actual larger than life character in the transformed Dr. Manhattan is a fascinating counterpoint, as it allows for an almost completely impartial voice (as the good Doctor, existing quantumly, loses all sight of humanity) who’s still swayed by an almost hilariously cliched concept; another little disillusioning twirling of Moore’s writey fingers.
Not that I can do any favors with my shallow analysis; this book has been analyzed to death and back, and is roomy enough to support all of those iterations mentioned above – movie, further comics, TV – no matter how “wrong” some of us may deem them.
Dave Gibbons art and lettering are perfect. John Higgins gross color palette equally so. There are problems with the book, for sure; I think Moore has bested it in terms of writing more coherent visions with some series later on, and his curmudgeonliness is maybe put to better use when he’s a step outside of the capes genre, but that doesn’t change the uniqueness of the Watchmen experience, at whatever point you pick up the book and dive in.