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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Another Look at . . .
The imminent big-screen adaptation of Watchmen has brought renewed attention to that groundbreaking graphic novel, which has reappeared on best-seller lists in anticipation of the movie.
Watchmen, one of Time’s 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century, posits the existence of costumed crime-fighters, only one of whom possesses actual superpowers, in a world recognizably our own. The one genuinely super-powered figure, omnipotent Doctor Manhattan, has altered nearly every aspect of society, from far-reaching technological advances made possible by his ability to manipulate atoms, to world politics—having a godlike being on its side gives the U.S. dominance in the cold war and enables Richard Nixon’s fifth term, though ultimately it leads to the brink of nuclear war.
As the book opens, the archetypal but flawed heroes—crazed vigilante Rorschach; mopey, paunchy Nite Owl; brilliant scientist Ozymandias; and token female Silk Spectre—have retired after public disapproval of their methods but reunite to investigate the murder of one of their own.
Alan Moore was wrapping up a run of writing DC’s Swamp Thing, a hitherto lackluster title he had transformed into a critical and commercial blockbuster, when he pitched the idea of radically revamping the defunct line of superheroes published by Charlton Comics, to which DC had obtained the rights. Realizing it would spoil further use of the characters, higher-ups nixed the proposal but green-lighted taking the same approach with brand-new creations.
Besides offering a radical take on superheroes—some viewed it as the final nail in the genre’s coffin, while others felt it showed the way for further revitalization—Watchmen was structurally intricate and innovative. It was first published in 12 individual comics, each including supplemental materials, such as Rorschach’s police file and psychological report and chapters from one hero’s autobiography. Since a world weary of real superheroes wouldn’t read much about them, the dominant comic-book genre is pirate stories, and Moore created a separate, stand-alone pirate comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, running parallel to the central narrative.
The brilliance of Moore’s concept and the skill with which he executed it make it easy to overlook the contribution of artist Dave Gibbons. In Watching the Watchmen (2008), Gibbons recalls his determination to give Watchmen a look different from contemporary superhero comics. He proposed a three-tiered grid of nine uniform panels on nearly every page, which evoked such seminal works as Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man and Harvey Kurtzman’s EC war comics.
Besides designing Watchmen’s characters and world, Gibbons went beyond the traditional role of the comics artist by creating various visual motifs, the most striking of them a blood-splattered smiley-face button that appears throughout, and elements that pushed beyond Moore’s scripts. Moore himself noted, “There’s stuff in there Dave had put in that even I only noticed on the sixth or seventh read.”
Watchmen launched in 1986, a watershed year for comic books. In addition to Moore and Gibbons’ contribution, Frank Miller published Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, as brash and lurid as Watchmen is thoughtful and nuanced, and on the literary end of the medium, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Maus emerged. Together, the three set in motion changes that brought about the fertile, diverse graphic-novel landscape fans enjoy today.
Previous film adaptations of Moore’s work have ranged from the misguided (From Hell) to the disastrous (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and Moore, who has severed ties with DC over editorial interference and other issues, has disowned any connection to them and fought to keep his name off their credits.
Claiming that the relationship between films and comics has been overemphasized, in a 1986 interview Moore said, “What I’d like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating.” He explained, “With a comic you can stare at the page for as long as you want, and check back to see if this line of dialogue really does echo something four pages earlier, whether this picture is really the same as that one, and wonder if there is some connection there.”
Moore’s view hasn’t changed over the ensuing decades. He told Entertainment Weekly last year, “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t,” adding, “I increasingly fear that nothing good can come of almost any adaptation.”
Whatever the movie’s artistic or commercial prospects, it will neither diminish nor burnish the towering accomplishment of the graphic novel, in print continuously since first publication more than 20 years ago—an unprecedented achievement for a comic book. It remains a high-water mark of the frequently, often deservedly maligned superhero genre.
The Graphic Novel Comes of Age
The three seminal books have never been out of print, and Dave Gibbons’ recollection is the most important, perhaps, of the writings about them. Prices and ISBNs given are for in-print editions.
Miller’s impudent interpretation of Batman has influenced subsequent versions of the character, including the current big-screen rendition.
Maus. By Art Spiegelman. 1986. Pantheon, $35 (9780679406419).
The success of Spiegelman’s harrowing account of his father’s passage through the Holocaust opened the door for today’s literary comics.
Watching the Watchmen. By Dave Gibbons. 2008. Titan, $39.95 (9781848560413).
A behind-the-scenes account of Watchmen’s creation, absolutely brimming with sketches, designs, and other rare artwork.
Watchmen. By Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. 1986. DC Comics, $39.99 (9781401219260); paper, $19.99 (9780930289232).
Also available as an oversize, slip-cased hardcover ($75, 9781401207137), but this is the edition to stock to meet movie-generated demand.
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