Watchmen: The most profound book I’ve ever read

SFF graphic novels Alan Moore Dave Gibbons WatchmenWatchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

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.

This Hugo Award-winning graphic novel chronicles the fall from grace of a group of super-heroes plagued by all-too-human failings. Along the way, the concept of the super-hero is dissected as the heroes are stalked by an unknown assassin. One of the most influential graphic novels of all time and a perennial bestseller, WATCHMEN has been studied on college campuses across the nation and is considered a gateway title, leading readers to other graphic novels such as V FOR VENDETTA, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and THE SANDMAN series.

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GREG HERSOM’S addiction began with his first Superboy comic at age four. He moved on to the hard-stuff in his early teens after acquiring all of Burroughs’s Tarzan books and the controversial L. Sprague de Camp & Carter edited Conan series. His favorite all time author is Robert E. Howard. Greg also admits that he’s a sucker for a well-illustrated cover — the likes of a Frazetta or a Royo. Greg live with his wife, son, and daughter in a small house owned by a dog and two cats in a Charlotte, NC suburb. He retired from FanLit in Septermber 2012 after 4.5 years of faithful service but he still sends us a review every once in a while.

View all posts by Greg Hersom

4 comments

  1. Amen. Watchmen is a classic for the ages. It’s a cliche, but this is one of those books where I discover something new every time I reread it. It blew my mind when I finally noticed that the “Watchmaker” chapter is a perfect mirror – the last frame is a reflection of the first one, the second to last reflects the second, and so on (similar to how the very first frame of the book echoes the last one!). As you wrote, every single detail in the book matters. It’s a work of genius.

  2. That is one of the things about a well-done graphic novel. There is so many little details left unsaid in the artwork.
    Plus with Watchmen, there is a lot of little stories that are taking place outside the main plot. Like I love the dialog between the Newsstand owner and the kid, that hangs-out and reads a comic books without ever paying for them and how their relationship develops. At first the newsstand owner was obnoxious to me but as the story goes, I really start to like the guy. It showed how deep down there can be more good in people as individuals than what we generally see on the surface.
    Watchmen, isn’t my favorite Graphic novel, -that would be Frank Miller’s Sin City books-, but it really struck a cord with me.

  3. One of the things I love is the way Moore interweaves two story lines by combining the imagery from each. e.g. from the newsstand example you mentioned, the way the black sails against the yellow sky in the comic book morph into the black and yellow sign for the radiation shelter. Or the way the captions connect to the flash backs on the first pages of the book: “Ground floor coming up.”

    Damn, now I want to reread it again.

  4. That’s one of the elements I found scary. Because the reader that is reading Watchmen, which has some very true elements of our real world, is reading about a kid, who is reading a horror comic, that is symbolic of what’s going on in the world of Watchmen.
    It almost gave me that effect of; who is to say, what I was reading in Watchmen, couldn’t be symbolic of something that’s really happening now. It was just a little creepy feeling.

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