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An immediate success both critically and commercially, the DC Comics maxiseries Watchmen has only grown in stature over the decades since its initial publication run from 1986 to 1987. At this point it is one of the defining texts of the superhero genre, if not the defining one. Along with contemporary graphic stories like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Maus, it legitimized comics as a respectable art form in the eyes of the mainstream. It proved that superheroes can be a vector for serious, mature storytelling, and also broke the genre in such a way that, after more than 30 years, it still hasn’t fully recovered. Watchmen so thoroughly deconstructs the foundational precepts of superheroes that most subsequent writers have made do either by poorly imitating its technique or outright ignoring elements of its critique. That this has happened even as superheroes have risen to become a dominant force in entertainment raises disquieting questions about how much of that critique truly sank in.
Written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen applied a realistic psychological and sociological lens to the idea of superhumans in an unprecedentedly holistic way. From their beginnings in the late ’30s, superhero comics made the concept of a paracosm one of their cornerstones, most famously as the “Marvel Universe” and “DC Universe.” Yet such imagined worlds would often look very much like our own, but with a few superpowered adventurers playing around and maybe an extra country or two. The genre evolved along with the medium, with different writers and artists deepening its sophistication. Marvel Comics distinguished itself in the ’60s through creating “relatable” superheroes, but they did so by essentially taking a soap opera approach of serialized storytelling and emotional maximalism. In contrast, Watchmen explores how costumed vigilantes may actually shape the culture around them, and how the presence of but a single legitimately supernatural being would drastically alter politics, warfare, and technology on a global scale. The result is an entire alternate 1985, one with electric cars, genetic engineering of pets, and an impending nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union.
The level of detail in Gibbons’s rendering of this parallel world is so deep that even Moore himself didn’t catch some of them until after many readings. But if a well-constructed, skillfully drawn setting was the extent of its genius, Watchmen would not have the place it does today. Vitally, it also looks internally, probing not just the effects that the characters have on their world but also what compels them to put on costumes to fight crime in the first place. As Moore sees it, the answer is a panoply of neuroses, from a sense of sexual inadequacy to a fanatically rigid moral code to pure nihilistic viciousness. Moore has said that he and Gibbons wanted “to set up four or five radically opposing ways of seeing the world and let the readers figure it out for themselves.”
Notably, none of those ways of seeing the world fit into the traditional model of a heroic, lantern-jawed do-gooder. The actually superpowered character, the godlike Doctor Manhattan, is actively estranged from his own humanity by his abilities, increasingly disconnected as the years go by. Among his powers is that he experiences time non-linearly, and yet he is unable or unwilling to deviate from what he foresees, even at the cost of innocent lives. The book’s assessment of actual power and its consequences is grim, as Manhattan’s use as an arm of the US imperialist machine destabilizes the Cold War to the brink of Armageddon.
The 21st century’s wave of Marvel films, which have made the paracosm as fundamental to contemporary blockbuster filmmaking as it has historically been to superheroes, make for a sharp contrast. Despite these movies’ alleged willingness to take risks, they are fundamentally about the continued maintenance of the status quo, to the point of making villains out of anyone trying to upset that balance, no matter how right they are. This “cinematic universe” consistently seeks real-world topicality, addressing everything from the surveillance state in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to historical racial injustice in Black Panther. But it does so on an ideological framework that remains intrinsically, often frustratingly simplistic. Such valuing of verisimilitude to make superheroes “work,” is directly in the lineage of Watchmen, and yet the many thousands of people involved in making these films for more than a decade haven’t managed to construct an imagined world as well-reasoned as what a handful pulled off in a few years with that book.
Within the world of comics themselves, a more immediate effect was the pursuit of some vague idea of “darkness” in storytelling, the idea being that doing so was the key to Watchmen‘s acclaim and respectability. In the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, titles about “edgy” antiheroes saturated the market. Watchmen is a very violent book, but takes its violence deathly seriously, in sharp contrast to the ways its imitators invoked gratuitous bloodshed. This trend waned, and today the “Dark Age” is something of a joke in comics fandom. But in fact, superhero works have simply learned to be more subtle in making bids for an imagined version of prestige. Thus did the makers of Logan attempt to position their film as part of the heritage of great Westerns, and later Joker clumsily aped gritty Scorsese dramas. While superhero properties have eased up on the gore, too many still understand the Watchmen formula as “familiar/licensed characters + the motions of serious art = trenchant work.”
And discussion of the legacy of Watchmen can only go on for so long before coming to its breakout (and thorniest) character, Rorschach. Based on Objectivist cartoonist Steve Ditko’s creations Mr. A and the Question, Rorschach is the purest expression of the fascist impulse Moore detected beneath the moral absolutism in the worldview undergirding superhero stories. A lover of a local racist right-wing newspaper and disdainful of sex and “welfare queens” alike, he exacts his brand of justice with cold, sometimes murderous brutality. He is also the only character not to agree to cover up a secret plan to halt the Cold War with a ridiculously elaborate false flag alien attack which kills millions of people. That he is simultaneously repugnant and in some ways the most moral person in the story is part of its complexity. Many comics fans, though, see him simply as a badass. Just look at any comments section. His worldview lives on among them. He does not quite fit the template of what we now call “incels,” but he’s close. And modern comics fandom has its own problems with ingrained right-wing agitation and backlash against any progressive storytelling.
Positioned as Rorschach’s apparent opposite is the wealthy genius Ozymandias, who is ultimately revealed as the architect of the aforementioned scheme to kill millions to save the world. Moore, a longtime anarchist, saw no answer to fascism in any well-meaning liberalism. Instead Ozymandias represents a different kind of hero, one who has taken over in the modern age: the resource-rich, benevolent figure, an individual who’s figured that he’s got a better handle on things than the collective. He is, essentially, an MCU superhero, except Watchmen recognizes his monstrosity for what it is, a uniquely American paternalistic pathology. While his grand plan at least temporarily puts a halt to nuclear tensions, its actual long-term efficacy is left very much in doubt by the ending. This comes after Doctor Manhattan states that “Nothing ever ends,” which now can be viewed as a dark comment on the unending nature of cinematic universes. The MCU comes to a grand climax, only to clear house for the next “phase” of movies and shows. Star Wars was wrapped up more or less tidily, only to be resurrected so that Disney could wring more money out of the IP. We are all watched over by superhumans of loving grace. Except today’s movies use that to reassure us, while the entire point of Watchmen — indeed, the reference of its title — was to get us to question that premise.
Watchmen has come back to the cultural fore today through two different sequel works. (Which flies directly in the face of what Moore intended for the story.) For nearly two years, the DC maxiseries Doomsday Clock has worked to fold the Watchmen universe and characters into the mainline DC Universe, with Ozymandias meeting Lex Luthor and Superman facing off against Doctor Manhattan. Meanwhile, a recently premiered HBO series imagines the world of the comic 34 years later. It acts not just as a follow-up but also as a critical consideration of the book’s impact, with story elements such as a white supremacist group directly inspired by Rorschach. Only a few episodes in, it remains to be seen how well the show truly understands the book. It could join a long line of misaimed riffs and adaptations, such as the 2009 feature film, or it may yet prove a worthy successor to the graphic novel’s vision. (Though the creators probably got a wizard’s curse from Moore regardless.)