When Watchmen first began its serialized publication in 1986, there was every reason to expect it to be a critical and sales success.  The writer, Alan Moore, had come up through the British comics scene, making a name for himself in the UK and among a small coterie of American comics fans with two then-incomplete works that would become minor classics in their own right: V for Vendetta (with art by Dave Lloyd), eventually adapted by the Wachowskis into one of the less terrible films based on Moore’s work, and Marvelman (eventually published in the United States as Miracleman for copyright reasons). Hired by DC, he took over the flagging horror title Swamp Thing in 1984 and turned it into the best comic on the stands.
All three of these works could safely be considered “revisionist”: Miracleman reworked an old British Captain Marvel/Shazam rip-off into a mediation on (super)humanity, while V for Vendetta, with its plot about a lone anarchist fighting a fascist state, required readers to re-examine their assumptions about the individual “hero” and the law. As for Swamp Thing, Moore took the radical step of having the title character learn that everything he thought he knew about himself was wrong (a plot twist that rapidly became a cheap comic book trope), and transformed the comic into an investigation of horror, love, and the connections between humanity and the natural world.
Nothing about Moore’s prior success would have indicated that his work was about to make the leap outside of the comics ghetto, even when Watchmen began. Quite to the contrary, Watchmen’s plot and premise could easily be dismissed as the comics equivalent of inside baseball. If Art Spiegelman’s Maus draws attention due to subject matter that seemed atypical for American comics, Watchmen demands to be taken seriously while reveling in precisely the aspect of American comics that defined its ghetto existence: the superhero. Indeed, though Watchmen stands out from the crowd thanks to its formal sophistication, psychological complexity, and philosophical heft, its centrality to the graphic novel canon rests on its status as a uniquely elegant, self-reflexive meditation on both comics as a medium and the superhero story as a genre.
The Story So Far
With its large cast of characters (many of whom have multiple identities), parallel plot lines, and convoluted time frame, Watchmen does not lend itself it easy summary. It does, however, provide multiple opportunities for spoilers, so readers who do not want to know the twists and turns of the plot should skip to the last paragraph of this section.
The book is ostensibly a murder mystery: decades after costumed heroes were outlawed, Eddie Blake, better known as the costumed adventurer The Comedian, has been found dead outside his apartment building. His former colleague Rorschach, a brutal vigilante whose uncompromising absolutist moral code and dubious personal hygiene have long since alienated him from the rest of the masked adventurer set, concludes that "someone is gunning for masks." His investigation takes him to all his surviving former associates: Dan Dreiberg, the amateur ornithologist and gadget developer formerly known as Nite-Owl; Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias), the "smartest man on earth"; Jon Osterman (Doctor Manhattan), a blue-skinned posthuman with godlike powers; and Sally Juspecyk (The Silk Spectre), Jon's increasingly disaffected live-in girlfriend. Soon Rorschach is arrested, and his interactions with the prison psychiatrist lead to a recounting of his origins.
Meanwhile, a left-wing newspaper has accused Jon of causing cancer in his closest associates, spurring him to abandon earth and retreat to Mars. While he is on Mars, we learn the story of his life, recounted in a manner that reflects Jon's non-linear experience of time. Dan and Laurie grow closer, eventually resuming their costumed identities and starting a relationship. Together, they break Rorschach out of prison, whereupon Laurie is spirited to Mars by Jon. On Mars, Laurie comes to the realization that the Comedian is her father, an improbable turn of events that reminds Jon of the precious randomness of life. Jon resolves to return to Earth with Laurie and save the world. Meanwhile, Rorschach and Dan have learned that the man behind the Comedian's murder and Jon's exile is none other than Adrian Veidt. Veidt has concocted a plan to save the earth from impending nuclear war by teleporting an artificially-created "alien" into midtown Manhattan and killing thousands of people, thereby uniting the world against a perceived common threat.
By the time Dan, Rorschach, and, eventually, Jon and Laurie confront him, Veidt has already implemented his plan, and the governments of the world's most powerful nations have stepped back from the brink of war, resolving to work together. Reluctantly, Dan, Laurie, and Jon decide not to expose Veidt in order not to undo his plan's positive results, but Rorschach refuses to compromise. Jon kills Rorschach, and a new age of utopian optimism appears to have begun. But on the last page, the editorial assistant at the right-wing newspaper favored by Rorschach has his hand poised over the slush pile, where he may well discover Rorschach's diary and reveal Veidt's secrets. Here the book ends.
The inadequacy of this plot summary leads to the very reason that Watchmen, which had been optioned by Hollywood for years before Zach Snyder's 2009 adaptation, was widely considered to be unfilmable (an assertion that Synder's critically panned blockbuster does little to refute). The story's artistry resides not with what the Russian Formalists called "fabula" (story), but rather in the "siuzhet' (arrangement of the story as plot). The main plotline unfolds through frequent flashbacks and digressions, with each issue (or chapter) of the story accompanied by ancillary prose pieces that develop the themes and deepen Moore's and Gibbon's fictional world. Most vexing to would-be adapters (along with many readers) is the parallel narrative line constituted by Tales of the Black Freighter, a pirate comic read by one of the book's many minor characters. The Black Freighter details the attempts of a desperate man to save his island home from predatory pirates, only to lose his mind, kill those closest to him, and join the pirates he once detested. The prose portions of The Black Freighter are juxtaposed with images from Watchmen's primary plot, while the pictures from the Black Freighter comic are often accompanied by text belonging to Watchmen. As we shall see, the thematic payoffs are huge, but the in-story connections between the two plots are virtually nil.
Grounding the Superhero
Perhaps the most obvious theme in Watchmen is Moore's and Gibbon's deconstruction of the superhero archetype. Originally conceived as a revamp of half-forgotten characters from the defunct Charlton Comics line, Watchmen cast a harsh light on the more absurd aspects of the superhero while never descending into mere parody. Surrounded by adult men and women in garish garb, Jon Osterman methodically rejects the trappings of the superhero body: his history as a public figure sees him moving from a full-body suit (the proverbial "long underwear") to a speedo and tank-top, a thong, and finally nothing but bare blue skin. Jon's constant nudity before a largely male readership points to the possible homoerotic undercurrent of a genre that continually offers up an idealized male body for display, while also literally embodying Michael Chabon's subsequent definition of the superhero costume (color painted on a naked form). In turn, Dan Drieberg's already outré Nite-Owl uniform becomes laughable when stretched over his flabby, middle-aged frame. Moreover, Dreiberg's initial impotence with Laurie and subsequent successful encounter with her when both are in costume are framed explicitly in terms of kink: when Laurie gets him to admit that the costumes made it better, he agrees that it is a relief to "come out of the closet.”
More than simply humanizing the superhero or finishing Stan Lee's project of turning heroes into neurotics, Watchmen refracts multiple world views through its main characters. The Comedian's role is to embody and project corrosive irony. Rorschach, partly in order to comment on Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, stands for moral absolutism. Doctor Manhattan is the detached omniscient observer who has to be reminded of the value of individual human life, while Adrian Veidt is the utopian visionary who, in his desire to see the world on a grand scale, loses sight of individuals. Dan and Laurie each inhabit a distinctly mundane, human point of view that turns out to be crucial. Together, they all call into question both the morality and the sanity of those who choose to act as vigilantes. Indeed, in a book that includes references to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and Doctor Manhattan's successful conduct of the war in Vietnam, the very idea of intervention is crucial.
Next: Vigilantes and Bystanders
 This post is based on one of my contributions to the forthcoming Oxford History of the Novel in English Volume 8: American Fiction since 1940, edited by Cyrus R. K. Patell and Deborah Lindsay Williams.