The scope of Watchmen (1986-87) is wide and ambitious. Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, it encompasses the history of comic books and super heroes, 20th-century history and foreign policy, the Cold War, science, art, and popular culture. The world of Watchmen is an alternative America in the mid-1980s. Nixon is still president of the United States. U. S. defense policy depends on the powers of a super-hero named Jon (his super hero moniker is Dr. Manhattan), who is capable of destroying anyone anywhere in the world at any time.
Watchmen is clearly a product of the Reagan administration. Paranoia about increasing U. S.-Soviet hostilities, about nuclear war, and government repression are constant themes.
This graphic novel is composed of 12 illustrated episodes, interspersed with 12 narrative sections. The episodes were originally published as separate issues during 1986-87. The first few narrative sections contain histories of one sort or the other. Later in the novel they contain pertinent documents or excerpts from newspaper articles. Every narrative in the book is related to every other narrative. One sequence of scenes running throughout the book concerns a newspaper and magazine vendor on a street corner. He is fearful about the growing possibility of nuclear war. A young black man is usually present in these scenes, sitting on a street curb reading a comic book narrative about "The Black Freighter." Excerpts from what he is reading are mixed with the newspaper vendor scenes. (I realize that the term graphic novel is controversial. Even Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman object to it. But it is a generally accepted term designating a form of expression that is receiving increasing respect from readers and critics, and Watchmen is frequently included as a leading example of graphic novels).
The central plot of Watchmen involves a series of murders of former super heroes. In the alternative world of this novel, most of the super heroes are simply average citizens inspired by comic books to put on costumes and become vigilantes. A recently enacted law has made their activities illegal, and most of them have retired. Several characters become involved in trying to discover who is murdering the former heroes.
The characters of Watchmen clearly and dramatically distinguish it from most other comic book narratives. Character development is, I gather, an important element of graphic fiction. Many of the characters are relatively well developed. They have detailed histories, human problems, and complicated personalities. One is afflicted with impotence. Another has a difficult relationship with her controlling mother. They range all over the political spectrum. The most interesting character to me is Rorschach, whose difficult childhood left him psychologically scarred. When the other super heroes enter middle age and retire from vigilantism, he continues. Everyone fears him, regarding him as a psychotic criminal. But in the course of the narrative he proves to be the most interesting of all the super heroes, the most unwilling to compromise his principles, the most intent on discovering the mystery behind the murders. At a certain level, however, all these characters remain what they are: well developed, conflicted comic book characters.
The illustrations are detailed and full of visual information that advances the plot. They are intelligent and appropriate to the narrative itself. But they never rise above the level of standard DC Comics graphics.
"Who will watch the watchmen?" This question expresses a crucial theme of the novel. Watchmen explores the concept of a world where super heroes really do exist and considers what it would be like to live in a world where such beings have nearly limitless powers. Only two characters in the novel actually have such powers. One is Jon, a former nuclear scientist who was caught in an accident that essentially disintegrated him into atoms. He manages to reconstitute himself, and when he does, his powers are limitless. The other is Conrad Veidt, whose intellectual genius and limitless wealth allow him to build and do virtually anything he wants.
Readers must suspend disbelief throughout much of this novel. Of course, Watchmen is science fiction, which by nature requires one to accept the given premises and principles of the story. But science fiction also operates within the demonstrable laws of science. This novel sometimes expects you to accept facile explanations and justifications: for example, Dr. Manhattan's unlimited powers—nothing in the world of quantum physics remotely supports this notion. Another example is Veidt's ability to do many of the things he does, such as create an artificial life form that he teleports into the center of New York City. Limitless wealth will not allow one to do what science cannot accommodate. One might argue that Watchmen portrays an alternative world, a different America where such things are possible, but if the basic laws of biology and physics in such a world differ from those of our own, what relevance does that world have to this one? Or one can argue that Watchmen is fantasy or allegory, but either argument would seem to me a stretch. Or one might insist that in comic books anything is possible, but such an argument subverts if not refutes the links Watchmen draws with our own world, not to mention that this work clearly rises above conventional definitions of the term comic book.
There are slow moments in the narrative. Often very little happens from one frame to the next. Sometimes the effect seems to build tension, suspense. You have to put up with these. There's also a physical issue: the paperback edition of Watchmen that I read combines all 12 issues of the original series. To conserve space (I assume) many frames are crammed onto each page, and the print is small and sometimes difficult to read. (Maybe this is an old person's problem). The mere creation of all the frames that make up the illustrated portion of the novel is impressive to consider. The book itself is heavy. Watchmen devotes much time and space to giving us the histories of the costumed heroes, though in the end this really does not advance the plot—it's almost a kind of diversion. I suspect that the intensity and developing tension of the Watchmen episodes would have developed more effectively had I read the individual episodes as they were published, rather than all within a relatively short period of time.
Is Watchmen great literature?—Newsweek named it one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. The intricacy of the narrative, the interwoven subplots, the detailed, nuanced creation of the city of New York and of the heroes themselves—all of this is impressive. The novel has an encyclopedic quality, sometimes seeking to encompass everything—all science, all culture, all literature. Clearly the author is creative and intelligent. With a specifically dark and humorless vision he argues that in the end the only way to ensure world peace is to force it on humankind through tricks and deceptions that cost millions of lives.
I do not regard this novel as great literature. Certainly among comic books, among graphic novels, it may deserve iconic status. For me, despite the intricacies, there is a cold two-dimensional quality to its characters and plots and subplots. Despite their detailed lives, the characters in the end are comic book figures, lacking the substance and the grain that characters from real novels possess. We depend in Watchmen on the operating laws and limitations of the world it creates. It's separate from our own world, no matter how much like our world it may be. The fate of that world matters less outside the covers of the novel that contains it than it does within.