If a single work were to be selected to illustrate the merits of illustrated superhero fiction as a medium that has yielded great art, Alan Moore's Watchmen is arguably the best choice. Published by DC, the story features original characters adapted from the Charlton Comics roster purchased by DC in 1983, although the themes and style completely overwhelm the particulars or history of the characters.
Moore was, by his own account, impressed by the direction of The Dark Knight Returns in providing a finale for a world of superheroes. Other stories Moore wrote for DC in this era ended other heroes and worlds: The death of Abin Sur portrayed as a brilliantly conceived murder, Krypton portrayed as a society in decay rather than a futuristic paradise, Mr. Mxyzptlk as a homicidal sorceror, Superman's career ending with the hero voicing Moore's criticism of the character as a concept. His planned, but never unpublished, Twilight of the Superheroes would have shown an end to DC's heroes as a battle between ruling houses, Game of Thrones style, some decades hence. In all of these stories, Moore did not merely end the lives or careers of the heroes, but he first demolishes the qualities that made then children's favorites. Superman called himself "over-rated and too wrapped up in himself" on the final page of Moore's Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow? Watchmen adopts this approach with a set of superheroes in some other world, breaking down their heroic qualities before leading to a finale in which each of them is dead or permanently taken off the stage. This treatment was, if not fully original, still quite unlike what readers were accustomed to in 1986, and many scenes come to the reader as a revelation – surprising, shocking, and often suggesting a higher truth, more realistic than the nice and neat comics of old.
Watchmen, like many Moore works, and unlike almost all superhero comics that came before it, adopts the stylistic devices of good literature to the extent that many highly-regarded novels do. He refers to political, cultural, and scientific realities of the real world. He finds fine moments for one part of his story to refer to another. While intersplicing two narratives, he often creates correspondences that work in two ways at once, often one of them grim. For example, as someone pushing an elevator button says "Ground floor comin' up," we see Edward Blake begin a deadly fall to the ground. A page later, as Blake's fall continues in slow motion, an unrelated line of dialogue contains the phrase "drop out of sight." The juxtaposition of darkly ironic double meanings with mundane exposition is illustrative of Moore's entire approach: Everything light has a darker side.
The central and most wonderful example of this is an extended metaphor that is so deep and compelling that any novelist could envy it: The notion of a broken watch, which functions on several levels at once:
• There is a literal broken watch, which the father of Jon Osterman was about to repair when he decided that his occupation had been made obsolete by nuclear science.
• There is a world that is philosophically deterministic, Newton's clockwork universe, which was destroyed by Einstein's work.
• There is the conventional perception of sequential time, which is broken by Dr. Manhattan's unusual perception of time out of sequence.
• There is a standard linear narration in comic books which is broken by Moore's highly nonlinear narration.
• A second watch, in Jon Osterman's hand when he is accidentally caught in an atomic test chamber, is broken and left to record the same instant forever after.
• There is the world of the Watchmen superheroes, brought to a definitive end by the events Moore depicts.
• There is the world of conventional superhero comics, exemplary people living in cyclical patterns, facing new villains each month without real consequence, broken by Moore's work which shows them rise, prove to be corrupted, and fall over five decades.
On each of these levels, there is a symbol of time, a "watch," which is broken, literally or figuratively. In word and in image, Moore repeatedly relates these different "broken watches" to one another. It's just the type of sophistication that students are asked to notice and record in graded essays, and in part, Watchmen serves to elevate the medium from light entertainment to an art form.
Central to all of these broken watches are the Watchmen themselves. Some of their behavior, particularly in having complicated sex lives, is simply more adult than comics previously portrayed. But we also see the superheroes fail, morally and otherwise. One hero goofs up and is shot. Others grow old and fat. Another is a delusional sadist who avidly kills in the line of duty. Worse still, another rapes and kills for his own selfish purposes. The only one with true superpowers is rendered almost completely inhuman and devoid of compassion. The remaining hero adopts, from the perspective of traditional superhero comics, the vanity and Machiavellian means of a villain, and may have succeeded in killing millions as a means to an end only to fail in his purpose anyway.
Like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen uses the real threat of nuclear war as a compelling backdrop for a superhero story. Like DKR, the awesome superhero on the American side tips the balance of power in NATO's favor, but not enough to neutralize the Soviet threat. Both stories show Republican presidents remaining in power decades beyond what current term limits allow. And both stories describe a Cold War threat which subsided in the real world a few years after the stories were published, making the plot a bit less compelling for later readers than for those who read them in the Eighties.
It's art, and it's powerful. It's compelling, eminently re-readable, and was eventually adapted into a successful and critically-acclaimed film. Compare it to any other work in comics, and in at least one way if not many (Dave Gibbons' art, extremely good if not revolutionary, among them) Watchmen is a superior work.
And yet: As in all of those Eighties stories in which Moore destroys a superhero, their values, or their world, we see no indication that Moore actually likes superheroes. He may, in fact, hate them. And while that's a respectable opinion as a matter of taste (Perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber hates superheroes? Perhaps William Shakespeare would have?) it makes Watchmen into a bitter paradox, a work that is perhaps the best of its genre, whose primary message is that its genre is inherently flawed and not worth reading. Moore himself quit the genre, before he was able to publish his intriguing plans to kill off the DC Universe, in certainly fine and artistic fashion, as he did the world of the Watchmen. I have read Watchmen many times, and I will read it many more, but the experience is somewhat spoiled by the bitterness Moore brings to the topic. One wonders why he would bother creating a work in a genre he so dislikes, and that's obviously a conclusion he soon thereafter reached.
To similar effect, one wonders whom he is trying to persuade, and of what. We see that superheroes would probably not interact well with the society of the real world, but whoever thought that they would? We see that superheroes bestowed with real adult complexity make poor characters for childrens' stories, but whoever thought otherwise? Seen as a polemic, Watchmen is an argument against several viewpoints that nobody ever held. Despite its great merits, Watchmen has all the warmth of an angry old shut-in yelling at kids to stop playing on his lawn; in fact, for them to stop playing even away from his lawn, for that matter.
Watchmen changed comics, and is certainly a true work of art. In my view, its greatest legacy is to have paved the way to other works of considerable complexity (more so than the comics of the Seventies, if not matching that of Moore) by writers who are actually fond of superheroes and let that love show in their work.