One doesn’t need to search for very long in the world of comic bookery to find an Alan Moore fan. The reason for this is quite simple: Alan Moore rocks. While plenty of people can argue about aspects of his personal politics or other proclivities, there are few who can successfully argue that he isn’t a great writer. Moore’s portfolio is tremendous and impressive, and it’s likely I’ll write about more of his work down the line. Today I’d like to write about his most popular work, Watchmen, about which much has been written and even more has yet to be written.
My father bought issues of this comic book miniseries as they came out in 1985 and 1986, but I was too young to understand them at the time. I can recall thumbing through them and feeling creeped out by the artwork, which struck me as far too realistic for a superhero comic book. I wanted to be able to discern one character from another, but not necessarily to know what they’re feeling or how old they are. Dave Gibbons has the capacity to instill all of that and more with his well-placed, coarse lines. Gibbons’ art doesn’t convey a lot of movement, but it does take on a kind of realistic quality, yet at the same time the action in each panel is conveyed very clearly. This is a fine line that few comic book artists can walk successfully (a good example of someone unsuccessful at it in my mind is Tony Harris, who represents such faithfully realistic versions of his comic book characters, often you can barely tell what’s happening in a given panel.)
I picked it up again as a trade edition around 1989 or 1990, and was duly blown away. By that time, I understood a lot of the intricacies that were woven into the storyline. Attempting to delve into the plot in a short essay would do both the story and my legion of faithful readers a serious injustice. Maybe I will dissect it at a later date. The important thing to note now is that Watchmen is a rare work of art in that it exists all ready in its perfect medium. Watchmen is a kind of anthropological and historical study of comic books, contains a comic book within the comic book which is part of the total narrative, and also has a strong political stance, to boot. That stance was a lot more poignant during the final gasps of the Cold War, but it is still relevant today.
Watchmen was the first attempt (not counting Marvelman, for which Alan Moore did much the same thing but was widely read only after he became famous) for a superhero story to be framed in reality, sort of an American Splendor meets The Avengers. It’s old hat now, when superheroes have crises of conscience as part of their due diligence before becoming a corporate icon. However, until Alan Moore tackled Watchmen, superheroes didn’t deal with impotence or post-traumatic stress disorder, they didn’t retire and write tell-all books–which is precisely what they would do if they existed in the third dimension (and we didn’t lock them away from polite society for being insane, but that’s another discussion entirely). There’s a famous scene in Watchmen where a mentally disturbed superhero breaks into a fellow superhero’s home and eats beans right out of the can without heating them up. The entire scene is kind of unsettling and it stays with many who have read it, but what always struck me is that we’re in the well-appointed brownstone of a wealthy, retired superhero in that scene, and what he has on hand to eat is pork and beans. Not nutrition capsules, not some lettuce-and-mush looking squiggle on a plate which has come to represent food in many pen and ink drawings, not even a nondescript tin can of unknown contents, but pork and beans. It’s likely that almost everyone has a can of beans in their home, whether they are big fans of eating them or not.
As I mentioned, there’s a lot of opinion pieces on Watchmen, and this is one of them. If you like non-superhero graphic novels like Y: The Last Man and Preacher, then you should probably check this out since it’s more about the people involved than their awesome super powers (of which they have none, except for one superhero who has all of them). If you already like superhero comic books and you haven’t read this, hop to it. If reading graphic novels gives you a headache, then you are obviously suffering from some kind of ocular deficiency. The only solution is to stick forks directly into the center of your eyeballs and keep pressing inwards until you hear a “pop.”