Alan Moore’s Watchmen, originally published in 1986, was the comic-book series that supposedly revolutionized the industry, defrocked the superhero, and invented the graphic novel at a stroke. Yet reading Watchmen today is a distinctly underwhelming experience. Its fans would say that is appropriate: The world’s first anti-heroic comic book is supposed to be, well, anti-heroic. The mode is pyrrhic, deflationary, its tone deadpan, spent. Either way, like a math savant at a party, the book seems to shrink from the hullabaloo surrounding its approaching 20th anniversary. A new edition, retitled Absolute Watchmen and published this month by DC, has drawn critical superlatives and comparisons with Pulp Fiction and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In truth, it’s more like the White Album, a fractious, blitzed masterwork. This is not a comic book that wants you to go “Wow.” It is a comic book that wants to let the air out of your tires.
Released the same year as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns—which turned the Batman mythos on its head and emptied it into the gutter—Moore’s book does the same for an entire alternate universe of superheroes. Outlawed since 1977, they now sit around in dark basements drinking beer, contemplating their middle-aged spread, and reminiscing about the good old days—just like Mr. Incredible. One, Ozymandias, has set up a lucrative franchise selling posters, diet books, and toy soldiers based on himself. Only one still paces the city: Rorschach, a psychotic vigilante attempting to wash the vermin from the streets, a la Travis Bickle. When one of his colleagues, the Comedian, is thrown from his penthouse-suite window, Rorschach decides that “someone is gunning for masks” and tries to corral his old teammates together for one last hurrah. Such is the inverted central conceit of the book, in which superheroes are far too busy defending themselves from the world to contemplate saving it.
And what a wicked world it is! Both Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four glancingly confronted the political turmoil of the times—drugs, racism, Vietnam—but Watchmen was the first comic book to allow the disenchantment to take root, albeit a decade too late. Watchmen was set in the ‘80s but evinces a distinct nostalgia for the anti-American sentiment of the ‘70s, when Moore was growing up in England: He loved the United States for its comics, hated it for its politics, and out of that was born the world of Watchmen, a world where Nixon is in his sixth term as president, nuclear apocalypse is looming, and the superheroes are trying to shake off accusations about their involvement in everything from Vietnam to Iran-Contra. “Yes we were kinky, yes we were Nazis, all those things people say,” admits one, Nite Owl, in his autobiography Under the Hood, chunks of which are excerpted at length along with disquisitions on the arms race, criminal psychology, and quotations from Nietzsche and Bob Dylan. What on earth was Moore trying to get us to do? Read?
The suspicion lingers that Watchmen was more a triumph of writing than draftsmanship. The graphics were by Dave Gibbons, one of many artists who made their name on Judge Dredd, although he always felt a bit like the fill-in guy, lacking the ravaged punk impudence of Mike McMahon or the ebullient absurdity of Brian Bolland. Gibbons’ style was neat, tidy, and strong-jawed, which lent his work for Watchmen a flicker of irony, although it was unclear whether the hokey costumes he came up with for Moore’s superheroes were deliberately hokey or just the kind of stuff he came up with anyway. In which case, the joke was on him and the irony was all Moore’s. A typical comic script is 32 pages; for Watchmen, Moore’s ran to 150 pages, heavy with voice-over narration and speech balloons. Gibbons found himself cramming his graphics into a neat box-arrangement of nine frames per page, and the result was a minimalist, Philip Glass-y, metronymic tone. Watchmen also took comic-book chronology to new levels of complexity. It features an elaborate flashback structure and a fascination for slo-mo simultaneity that wouldn’t have embarrassed your average Modernist—when they coined the term “graphic novel” nobody mentioned that the novel in question was Ulysses—although how well this technique melded with the more straightforward dynamism of traditional comic-book panels is open to question.
Watchmen’s whodunit plot was not allowed to kick into gear until late in the day and climaxes with Ozymandias spouting Postmodern art theory in his snowbound eyrie (“phosphor-dot swirls juxtapose; meanings coalesce from semiotic chaos before reverting to incoherence”). Even that old windbag the Silver Surfer might have hung his head in shame. The book’s action highlight, on the other hand, comes when Nite Owl finally shakes off his midlife crisis, dons his costume, and heads out on the town for one last night of kicking criminal butt. One gets the feeling that Moore wanted to make us feel guilty for enjoying this—to take in the episode as one would a guilty pleasure. “See apathy! Everybody escapin’ into comic books and TV! Makes me sick,” shouts a news vendor, peddling comics while the streets around him run red with blood.
Whether you take this self-reflexivity as evidence of a newfound sophistication on behalf of the comic book, or as self-hatred tricked out as superiority—that old adolescent standby—is up to you. Watchmen was unquestionably a landmark work, a masterpiece, even. Before Moore came along, comic books were not generally in the habit of quoting Nietzsche, or scrambling their time schemes, or berating their heroes for their crypto-fascist politics, or their readers for reading them. It was Moore’s slightly self-negating triumph to have allowed it to do so. But did the comic book have to “grow up”? The last time I looked, the only ones reading Ulysses and quoting Nietzsche were teenagers. No adult has time for aesthetic “difficulty” or “self-consciousness.” Life is too short. Frankly, we’d much rather be watching The Incredibles.