This essay was written for The Hooded Utilitarian's 2011 International Best Comics Poll. The poll, which I organized and edited, was a survey of the comics press, comics authors, comics academics, and various comics-publishing personnel. Its purpose was to create a ranked list of the most notable efforts in the field's history. The project was explicitly modeled after Sight & Sound magazine's decennial effort to create such a list for film.
The article, which is still featured with the other poll material on The Hooded Utilitarian website, was published on August 3, 2011. It has been slightly revised for its publication below.
Those interested in the comics poll should click here. The link will take them to the poll's Introduction and Index post.
When one reads Watchmen, whatever skepticism one has about such acclaim quickly falls away. It is a superb work that triumphs on multiple levels. Watchmen is simultaneously a first-rate adventure story, an incisive analysis of the superhero genre, and a brilliant meditation on how one’s sense of reality is defined by one’s perspective--knowledge and ignorance, hopes and fears, predispositions and agendas.
The book’s starting point is a mystery plot. The Comedian, a former costumed hero and now a covert government operative, is brutally murdered. It gradually becomes clear his murder is part of a larger conspiracy. Dr. Manhattan, the only one of the heroes with superpowers—and he is nearly omnipotent—is driven away from society by an elaborate smear. Rorschach, the last of the heroes to operate without government sanction, is framed for murder, captured, and imprisoned. Ozymandias, who retired from adventuring years earlier, foils a gunman’s attempt on his life. Someone is out to eliminate the heroes, but who, and why?
The answer turns out to be horribly ironic, with the reasons a black joke on the puny, naively idealistic desire to make a better world by putting on a costume and beating up criminals. The conspiracy to eliminate the costumed heroes is revealed as a tangent in a greater plot that changes the world. Along the way, Moore and Gibbons treat the reader to one terrific suspense setpiece after another. And in marked contrast to Zack Snyder, the director of the horrid film adaptation, they understand that violence is made all the more effective by restraint.
Moore and Gibbons extend their treatment of interpretation and misinterpretation to the reader’s experience of the book. If one has read Watchmen before, go back and reread the first chapter. Details that seemed extraneous the first time around jump out at one. Others, such as the recurring image of the spattered smiley face, recede into the background. Dialogues take on a different meaning, such as the conversation between the two detectives in the opening scene. Is one of them sincere when he says a crime was probably random and not worth much investigation? Or consider this panel:
How was this image interpreted--i.e., what meaning was projected onto it--the first time around? Was the emotional resonance from an earlier scene with the Nite Owl character brought over to it? Did one see it as a pensive moment of doubt on Ozymandias’ part about how he has spent his life? Were the dolls in the foreground seen as a trope for this doubt? And how is it interpreted on the second reading, with knowledge of the entire book? Does one now see Ozymandias contemplating an unexpected problem, with the toys a trope for his distraction? This panel, like all of them, is a Rorschach blot for the reader; one sees what one projects onto it. The differing interpretations also bring to mind a quote Alan Moore was fond of in a later work, “Everything must be considered with its context, words, or facts.”
Illustrator Dave Gibbons does a magnificent job of realizing his collaborator’s vision. Moore may be the mind behind Watchmen, but Gibbons is its extraordinarily deft hands. He was a seasoned adventure cartoonist when he began the project, and one sees his assurance in every panel. He handles the quiet scenes as effectively as the violent ones. There’s also an understated, almost laconic quality to his dramatization of the characters. He shows the reader what is happening; one is never told what to think about it. And the remarkable literalness of his style--clear compositions, fully realized deep-space perspectives, copious detail--is perfect for a work that at its core is about the unreliability of perception. Gibbons shows the reader everything, and it remains ambiguous anyway.
I could go on about the book. It does what the most impressive ones do; it makes you want to talk about its achievements forever. That’s why it deserves to be considered one of the finest novels of our era. Not to mention one of the best comics.
Note: The comments that accompanied the essay in its publication with the poll may be of interest. Click here to read.