Welcome back to the second edition of The Essential Comic Collection. This time, I will be delving deeper into one of DC’s best limited series of the 1980’s, Watchmen. Watchmen was a twelve issue limited run comic series, written by Alan Moore (Batman: The Killing Joke, V for Vendetta, Marvelman) and drawn by Dave Gibbons (Green Lantern, Judge Dread, Captain America). Created during the late 80s, Watchmen looks into how superheroes would actually be like in real life. Alan Moore used the series to look deeper into the theme of “power and about the idea of the superman manifest within society”. The famous line from the series, “who watches the watchmen?” is representative of this theme and Alan Moore’s look into the superhero mythology.
Watchmen was published and released in September of 1986 and lasted for twelve issues, with the final issue released in October of 1987. The series was an immediate hit and was published as a collection by the end of 1987. As of 2008, Watchmen trade paperback has undergone at least 22 printings. With the release of the film by Zack Snyder (more on that later), DC Comics began to revisit the universe of the Watchmen by releasing comic prequels to the original story. Watchmen have also been teased in recent DC Rebirth materials, by hinting at the presence of Dr. Manhattan and featuring the smiley face from the original series.
DC Comics was incredibly supportive of Moore and Gibbons during the creative process of Watchmen. When the series was published, critics and comic readers fell in love with the deep story and the gritty characters. Watchmen was placed on many of the “Best of” lists and is still considered to be one of the most influential comics ever published. Not all was roses though when it comes to Watchmen. Both Moore and Gibbons worked with DC Comics and had a changed made to the standard “work for hire” contracts that most comic creators receive. Their contracts stipulated that DC owns the rights to the story and characters as long as they are publishing the book, then the rights would revert back to Moore and Gibbons and the creators. Alan Moore finally left DC Comics in 1989, when he realized that the reversion clause was ultimately meaningless since DC Comics would never stop publishing versions of the original series. Moore has since completely distanced himself from DC Comics and anything to do with Watchmen since.
Watchmen is set in an alternative reality that closely mirrors our own planet during the 1980s. The primary difference is the presence of superheroes. These heroes begin to appear in society in the late 1930s, and then influence historical events from that moment onward, culminating with American winning the war in Vietnam in 1971 and Nixon still being president when the story begins in 1985. After the Vietnam War ends, the Keene Act of 1977 makes it illegal for costumed heroes to operate in the United States. This Act affected the members of Watchmen differently, some retired, while others began working for the government, while another refused to quite being a hero. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan begins a tense standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, which brings the world closer to nuclear annihilation according to the Doomsday Clock. The Doomsday Clock is a real mechanic in which scientists predict the likely hood of world annihilation. The closer to midnight, the closer to complete destruction the world is. Currently, we are three minutes to midnight.
The story begins with the murder of Edward Blake, otherwise known as The Comedian, a member of Watchmen. His murder is being investigated by another Watchmen, Rorschach, who had refused to abide by the Keene Act and remained a costumed hero. Rorschach begins to contact the other members of Watchmen to warn them of a possible “cape killer” that is hunting ex-heroes. He contacts his four remaining teammates: the super powered Dr. Manhattan, Laurie Juspeczyk (the second Silk Spectre), Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl) and Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias). This contact sets forth a series of events that brings these heroes out of retirement and into society that is facing ultimate nuclear destruction.
Why It Is Essential
Watchmen is an incredibly hard series to discuss without going into spoilers. If you have never read the series, then everything you have read up to this point should tell you why you need to go find a trade paperback of the comic, now. From here on out, I will be discussing the plot in more detail, especially the ending, and the characters as they evolve throughout the series.
Let’s hit the characters first and talk about what makes them great for this series. Watchmen is Alan Moore’s “what if heroes were real” fantasy, and he brings in every aspect of human nature into his heroes. These heroes are not your typical Superman or Captain America, meaning heroes that have little or no actual human flaws. Every member of the Watchmen is ultimately flawed in one major area. Rorschach is delusional and violent, Nite Owl is sexually impotent, Dr. Manhattan is emotionally detached, and The Comedian was a murderer and a rapist. Moore truly looks into what a super hero would act like in this world. How would you behave if you knew no one could stop you? Who do you even answer to? “Who watches the watchmen?” becomes the overall question to the entire series. Alan Moore answers this in the final issue, and the answer is “no one”.
The plot of Watchmen surrounds the plot of Ozymandias to bring the world out of the threat of destruction and usher in an age of peace and unity. Adrian Veidt, seeing that the world will soon destroy itself, plans to obliterate the city of New York by staging an alien invasion that would kill every inhabitant of the city. Veidt believes that the human race would unify to face this new threat from space instead of fighting with each other over soil and politics. Rorschach becomes aware of this plot by Veidt, and gathers support from the ex-members of Watchmen to stop Veidt from enacting his plan. By the time the heroes arrive at Veidt’s lair to stop him, Veidt had already set into motion his plan and the heroes watch helplessly as he destroys New York, ushering in a new age of unity and prosperity. The heroes now have to come to grips with either telling the world of Veidt and how they were duped, destroying this new peace, or letting Veidt get away with murdering millions of innocent people. All but Rorschach choose the latter, with the series ending in Rorschach’s death at the hands of Dr. Manhattan. Ultimately, Veidt walks free and no one is punished for the destruction of New York.
This. Was, Huge! The main villain of Watchmen is a super hero that is trying to save the world, albeit through the deaths of millions of innocent people. Veidt sacrifices the few to save the many, and he knows that he is damning his own soul in the process, but feels that the ends will justify the means. What is the cost of one man’s soul weighed against world peace? The Age of Gritty Super Heroes had not yet begun (that happens during the 90s), so having super heroes with flaws and dark secrets, commit mass murder on this scale to save the world was intense! It just didn’t happen in comics during that time period. Alan Moore proved that you could have a complex, adult storyline with flawed characters and still call it a super hero comic book.
In 2009, Zack Snyder (Batman v. Superman, Sucker Punch, 300) released his adaptation of the series. Watchmen had been in development hell reaching as far back as 1987, with many people in Hollywood believing that it would never be made. Because of Snyder’s work on 300, he was tapped to direct Watchmen. The film follows the plot of the comic book almost exactly, with a huge departure from the ending. Instead of an alien invasion, New York’s destruction is blamed directly on Dr. Manhattan himself. The end result is the same as the comic, but changes the overall tone of the ending significantly. The actors are fantastic and Zack Snyder is a master at copying the visuals of a comic book onto the silver screen. Snyder’s early works really gave me hope that he would become the go to guy for comic to movie adaptions, but with Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, he has completely fallen from grace for me. However, Watchmen is a must watch and is as close to the source material as you can get, as long as you can forgive the change in the ending.