This seminal work of graphic literature is the “War and Peace” of superheroic fiction. While it would qualify for this distinction in length alone (338 pages of comic book story plus 46 pages of supplemental text material interspersed between its 12 chapters), the sweeping scope of this Wagnerian epic and the ironic interplay of words and pictures that fills every page, combined with its unflinching examination of human violence-both on a personal and political scale-make this a truly momentous literary achievement, graphic or otherwise.
Watchmen was principally responsible for a fundamental change in the way superhero stories have been presented since the mid 1980s. Deconstructing the traditional “comic book” conventions of the “men in tights” genre, Moore treated the seemingly absurd notion of costumed crimefighting with a depth and seriousness that leant it a newfound credibility. Rather than populating his fictional world with the types of demigods that fill more traditional superhero universes, Moore created a brand new pantheon of all too human mystery men and women, almost all of whom were merely eccentric but well-meaning citizens trying to make their communities a little safer. These heroes include the scientific wizard and avian aficionado, Nite Owl; the daughter and namesake of the 1940s heroine, Silk Spectre; the paragon of human mental and physical perfection, Ozymandius; and the brutal trench coat-wearing psychopath, Rorshach, who conceals his identity behind a white cloth (pulled over his face like a stocking mask) that contains a constantly shifting pattern of black blotches.
And what was America’s reaction to these quirky costumed do-gooders? In the 1970s Congress passed the Keane Act, a law banning costumed vigilantism and forcing most of them into retirement. The only official exceptions to this ban were the nearly omnipotent being, Dr. Manhattan (capable of anything but remembering what it was like to be human), and the gun-toting misanthrope paradoxically known as the Comedian, both of whom operated as U.S. government agents. It is only when Rorshach—who has continued his crime fighting career in defiance of the Keane Act—discovers that the Comedian has been murdered that this cast of former heroes is reunited and forced to deal with the unresolved conflicts of their convoluted pasts.
Written during the Cold War (which, unbeknownst to Moore, or practically anyone else, was actually in its death throes at the time) the threat of nuclear Armageddon constantly looms over the characters in this story, lending an even greater urgency to their personal struggles and unfulfilled dreams. This saga is so complex and enthralling that I have made new discoveries each of the nearly ten times I have read it. Along with Moore’s V for Vendetta, this is perhaps one of the most masterfully crafted work of graphic literature ever created.