Watchmen is a 12-issue comic book series released in 1987, written by Alan Moore, and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. The story, set in 1985, follows the lives of a team of superheroes who were forced into retirement by the Keene Act of 1977, which made costumed vigilantism illegal. The heroes who had all gone their separate ways are brought back into each others’ lives when one of them (The Comedian) gets murdered, and another (Rorschach) starts investigating the circumstances of his death. Along with these two characters, we are introduced to the other members of the team—Ozymandias, Nite Owl II, Dr. Manhattan, and Silk Spectre II. Over the 12 issues, each character’s history is also explored, which adds important context to the main plotline of Rorschach’s investigation and develops a sense of familiarity with the people we initially knew nothing about.
A standout feature of Watchmen is the way the story is creatively told. The series often has multiple scenes depicted simultaneously over the course of an arc. These scenes may be concurrent or even flashbacks, but what makes it beautiful is how they are all tied up together. Even when there are two or even three threads to follow, they are put together so well that each scenario enhances the others. This nonlinear structure to the series works so well that without it, the plot might even feel incomplete. This statement holds doubly true when you incorporate it with the art across the series. Watchmen frequently uses its artwork to carry scenes forward, which leads to several panels of illustrations with no dialogue. These art-only panels also add a feeling of fluidity that is generally missing in comic books. This set of storytelling techniques make Watchmen a joy to read.
While Watchmen is a story about superheroes, it’s not to say that this series is exclusively for those interested in the genre. At its core, it is a story about morality and how blurry that concept can be. It’s vastly different from the mainstream comics and adaptations of the genre that everyone is familiar with. In fact, Watchmen actively deconstructs the various tropes we regularly see in this genre. The series talks about the effect of an all-powerful Superman-type hero on the geopolitical landscape of the world. It also talks about the impact of being all-powerful on the psyche of the hero himself. The series is full of people who do the right things for the wrong reasons; and people who do the wrong things for the right reasons.
What sacrifices can be deemed acceptable when they are made for the greater good? Watchmen takes the established idea of a superhero and the sense of morality that is associated with it and turns it on its head. The story doesn’t decide who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead, it leaves it to the reader to decide, and it does this with one of the most captivating reading experiences. More than three decades after it was first released, Watchmen is still a must-read and will likely stay that way for years to come.