I had never heard of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, until I signed for Jonathan Wertheim’s ‘Why Comics?” class, where the book served as the main text of the second STAC. Before I started reading it, I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was that it was a comic book about superheroes, and that it was a fair bit longer than the comics I was used to reading. So when I opened the book to page one, and began immersing myself in the world in front of me, it’s safe to say I was surprised.
The book takes place at the height of the Cold War as the world is on the brink of nuclear war. At the same time, a string of current and former superheroes are disappearing and being murdered. The story follows multiple characters, all of them playing key roles in the development of the plot. There’s Rorschach, the stone cold detective with a rigid set of morals. There’s Jon, aka Dr. Manhattan, a normal man turned into an all-powerful being via a science experiment gone wrong. There’s Ozymandias, the retired superhero turned successful businessman known as “the world’s smartest man.” These are just a few of the memorable characters that become wrapped up in the mystery.
What makes these characters so special is that while they are all unique, they remain realistic. Other than Dr. Manhattan, none of these so-called superheroes have any special, fantastical powers. They are just regular people that you might find walking the streets of 1970s America. Each and every one of them thinks and acts in their own unique way, and by the end of the book, it feels like you’ve known them your whole life. The personalities of the main characters are unlike those you find in any comic book or novel.
Another thing that makes Watchmen stand out from other comics and graphic novels is its imagery. The amount of detail present in every single panel in this book is astonishing. Everything that the reader sees has a distinct purpose; there are little to no filler panels in the entire book. Every object, every shadow, every color and lighting decision is intentional. Spending time really analyzing and understanding the visuals in Watchmen adds so many dimensions to the reading experience.
On top of that, Watchmen tackles much more profound themes than normal comics. It deals with loss, betrayal, the purpose of life, one’s responsibility to their community, where the line between good and evil is drawn, and who gets to draw it. The book has a very adult tone, and never once feels like it’s talking down to the reader. Very little is explicitly said or explained in Watchmen; almost everything the reader finds out is earned by paying close attention to every detail, and thinking critically about what is happening. Nothing is given to you in this book, and for that reason, those who really take their time to understand the characters, analyze the imagery, and digest the messages will not only wind up enjoying the story more, but also take more away from the experience. And really, that’s what Watchmen is, an experience. It’s not just some generic comic that you pick up once, breeze through, and forget about in a week’s time. Watchmen is an experience that sticks with you. It makes you ponder ideas that you have never thought about before. It connects you with characters that are unlike those you will find in any other comic book or novel. And it makes you appreciate the value of the medium of comics. The combination of images and words can be used for more than simply creating a short, goofy comic strip, or narrating Superman’s latest exploits. When used properly, comics can tell stories that neither books nor movies can. And Watchmen is the perfect example of this.