Collects: Watchmen #1-12
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Dave Gibbons
By Doran Murphy
Part of what makes superheroes or crime-fighters are often grossly exaggerated abilities. Batman has his detective skills, and he's the peak of human endurance. Superman has all of his Kryptonian superpowers. Zauriel's an Angel, J'onzz is a Martian, the X-Men are mutants, the Fantastic Four are space defects, and all of them are in some way or other above regular human beings. The constant struggle for comic book writers is to create characters that are human enough to be sympathized with, but superpowered enough to be cool.
With Watchmen, Alan Moore found a way to do both — by putting regular people in simple suits. Some are good fighters, some are stealthy, some are smart, but all of them are more than definitely human. (With the exception of one character.) The characters age, and they die. They love, and they fall out of love. They kill, and are killed. Very rarely have superheroes been depicted as being so human. For the most part, the heroes of this book (the Watchmen, although they are not really an organized group — more of a group thrown together by circumstance) could be people like you or I, given the right motivation.
And what is this motivation? The impending nuclear war set to destroy the world. The United States' super-weapon that keeps the USSR restrained is not available, and the USSR begins to invade neighboring countries — as they no longer need to fear the United States any more than they fear mutually assured destruction. (As you may have guessed, Watchmen is set at the height of the Cold War — between 1979 and 1988 — when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan.) No reasonable human being would launch a nuclear weapon when they know it would mean the end of the world, right? Well, Watchmen asserts that they would, provided there was something to gain from it.
So, the band of superheroes set off to track down a mysterious killer who seems to be killing off old superheroes — or at least planning and arranging their deaths — and find that their is some correlation between the impending Armageddon and the murders. So, as usual in any story, it's a race against the clock to track down the masked killer before the apocalypse is triggered, and North America is turned into glass. Along the way, the origins of all of the important characters unfold, and we learn of their complex and sordid relationships.
Watchmen has influenced many comic books in its wake. You can see echoes of Rorschach in Wolverine and Batman, and parts of Adrian Veidt in the Blue Beetle and Mr. Fantastic (personality wise, anyway). Along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Moore's Watchmen helped kickstart a darker era in comic books — which made the antihero more acceptable. The Punisher wouldn't be the same without Watchmen, and neither would Spawn and Batman — or any of the less goody-goody heroes out there. Watchmen also brought a unique style of blending comic art, excerpts from (fictional) novels, police files, and newspaper articles to form a fuller story. It also manages to blend several different stories into one. At the beginning this is understandably confusing, but it comes together seamlessly in the end.
As far as art goes, this isn't anything groundbreaking or breathtaking at this day and age. Although there are some scenes (the beginning of chapter XII) which are particularly moving, this is typical 1980s comic book style — although good 1980s comic book art. It was limited by the style available at the time, and excels, considering that.
Watchmen is a story that makes you think — really think — about life and death, love and revenge, global politics, and changed the way we view superheroes. With Watchmen, Moore set the benchmark for all comic books since, and wrote one of the best comic books stories I've ever read.