What if superheroes were real? I mean really “real”: what if they grew old and got fat, had spouses and families, carried emotional baggage (sometimes a serious psychosis), and just generally had to deal with everyday life? These super-heroes aren’t inherently all good, either. Just like public servants — police, politicians, doctors, etc. — many begin with the best intentions, but some become jaded and others are only motivated by self-interest from the start. In other words, if superheroes were real, they would be just like us, more or less.
Also, what would an ultra-powerful superhero really be like? A person who understands quantum theory as easily as we chew gum, and is so powerful that he can move through the space-time continuum, be several places at once, and alter sub-atomic structure with a mere thought? Can you imagine how scary it would be for a god to live among us? Someone whose very citizenship in a particular country gives that country an unbeatable advantage over the rest of the world?
On the surface, this is the premise for Watchmen, and Watchmen was the first work of its kind to humanize superheroes this way, but it’s also much more. There are good reasons this graphic novel, or comic book for adults, won a Hugo and was picked by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. (To any literary snobs out there who’ve talked trash about comics and the like: In your face, Dude!)
Alan Moore made superheroes into real-life people. Then he put these heroes in a paranoid world on the brink of a nuclear holocaust, a world where a symbolic clock that tracks doomsday as 12:00 is currently ticking down to the last few precious minutes. Does that world sound familiar? It should. It was Earth circa 1980’s.
This reviewer recalls those times all too well, as I imagine most anyone who lived through the Cold War can. I was mostly just a kid then, but it still seemed inevitable that sooner or later the USA and U.S.S.R would have at each other and the world be damned. In fact, I was in the Army at the time the Watchmen comic was running, in ‘86 thru ‘87 (which is probably why I missed it then) and we were training with the Soviets in mind as our enemy. So I found Watchmen to be pretty much… terrifying.
Mr. Moore’s insight into modern society and how fragile our world is, unfortunately, rings all too true. It’s enough to keep you awake at night. There are probably one or two people left that haven’t read Watchmen or seen the movie yet so I won’t give away spoilers, but if you take into account the time Watchmen was written and what came to pass years later, it’s even a little prophetic.
In a graphic novel, the illustrations tell as much, if not more, of the story than the words. So it’s crucial that the artist realize the writer’s vision and be inspired by it enough to bring the action and emotion to life. When the writer and illustrator are a perfect match, a graphic novel or comic book becomes a thing of magic. Moore and Dave Gibbon accomplished this with Watchmen.
Even more than the actual imagery, the coloring and shading make this story jump out of the book. Flashes from lightning or explosions almost made me blink. I could practically feel the dampness of a rain-slick street. A horrifying facial expression of a character so angry that he’s about to explode with violence all but makes the reader instinctively prepare to flee. Don’t overlook the smallest details of each panel. They will be meaningful later.
I have enjoyed a few other graphic novels more than I did Watchmen. But nothing I’ve ever read has been as frightening as the decision the characters face at the conclusion. It’s the kind of decision that, if it really happened, we wouldn’t want to know about. And I’ve never read anything that realizes life’s place in the grand scheme of the universe like Watchmen does.
I’m amazed that comics, the very medium that introduced me into the fascinating world of books, turned out to be the medium that produced the most profound book I’ve ever read.