The Watchmen
Alan Moore, writer,
Dave Gibbons, artist
(DC Comics, 1986)

The Watchmen is a book that is a number of things. It is the Citizen Kane of the medium of illustrated fiction and of the superhero genre, a story that provides a yardstick by which all future works will be judged. Watchmen is also a book that demonstrates that writing is not only an art form, but a craft, and that the true craftsman can achieve perfection.

Let me set the stage for you. The book was originally released as a 12-issue series in 1985-86, and it rocked the comic book world even more than other important works of the time, such as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns or Camelot 3000. Alan Moore took the superhero genre and placed it in the real world, by taking ordinary men and women who were inspired, in one way or another, to emulate the costumed adventurers who were first appearing in comics. Then, Moore went on to extrapolate forward from this event (the first costumed adventurers, in the Watchmen universe, appeared in the 1930s) and demonstrated that these people would have a profound effect upon their world. Moore also introduces a superpowered being, a unique one in this world, and his mere existence alters the path of history in uncountable ways.

In this universe, it's late 1985 (the story starts in October and runs through to the New Year); Nixon is still president, having gained immense power from a decisive victory in Vietnam (through the intervention of Dr. Manhattan, the aforementioned superpowered being) and thereby railroading the repeal of the relevant amendment and allowing him to stay in office. Costumed vigilantes are outlawed, and, depending on who you ask, they're either heroes wrongly defamed or psychopaths who ought to be locked up. (Generally, conservatives support the costumed vigilantes, while liberals deride them as being dangerous and harmful to society.) The Soviet Union and United States stand on the brink of war, with only the trump card of Dr. Manhattan keeping the two nations in a fragile peace.

There's a lot of Cold War stuff in this book, so readers who don't know the history very well may not understand all of it; nonetheless, the book is so perfectly plotted and constructed that the reader quickly gets caught up in the story. There isn't a word of wasted dialogue anywhere in here, and everything we see is relevant to the complex, overriding plot, or to the character development that is important to said plot. Every disparate thread in this book falls together in the shocking and unexpected ending, and, years after the first time I read this book, I was surprised to learn that Alan Moore hadn't plotted out the entire story beforehand. It is brilliantly orchestrated, and even the events (two of them) that might be considered implausible are accepted because they're essential to the final outcome.

The book's artwork is as finely crafted and as economically and perfectly used as its prose. Each and every frame is carefully constructed, showing us exactly what we need to see, no more, no less. Even more interesting, the book is a mirror; the frame layout and, to a lesser degree, the subject matter proceeds in a specific order, and, at the halfway point, mirrors itself and proceeds in an exact reverse order, and even the final frame is a deliberate echo of the first, just as the final moment of the story is.

Watchmen is a book I recommend to any fan of the illustrated fiction medium, to any science fiction fan, and to fans of good literature in general, for it is that: a work of literature vastly superior to much of the debris that litters the bookshelves of this country.

[ by Sean Simpson ]

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