Watchmen: Superheroes in Dystopia


If you’re the kind of person who thinks comic books are for kids, you’re like most people who missed one of the most significant literary releases of the 1980’s.

Alan Moore’s Watchmen is a classic among graphic novels. Originally published in 12 issues from 1986 to 1987 by DC Comics, it’s now available in its entirety as a trade paperback.

The story revolves around a group of superheroes who have (mostly) retired from heroics and find themselves dealing with life without the mask while the world crumbles around them. Watchmen takes place in the fall of 1985, although it is a 1985 with a partially different past. In the world that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have created, superheroes first show up after World War II. That’s where things start to get a little different. In their world of superheroes the Vietnam War is won due to their influence, and technology takes a leap forward due to the advanced mind of one of these heroes.

The value of the story isn’t invested solely in its artwork, unlike many comics out there, but rather the chapters are broken up by two or three pages of nothing but text. This is presented in the form of excerpts from different fictional non-fiction books—such as an autobiography of a character or 0police reports—many of which blatantly examine the work as a whole and reveal insightful details about the characters.

On the surface this is a story about superheroes. But it isn’t deeds or super powers that are the hallmark of these characters, but rather it is who they are. Who are these people that dress up in costumes and fight crime? (It all sounds silly when you say it out loud.)

But the people behind the masks, what motivates them? Just because a person fights crime, is he good? The Comedian fights crime, but beneath that shallow façade is a blood-thirsty sociopath, just as likely to rape or murder as he is to crack a joke. Rorschach is another interesting case. He fights crime with a mask distinctly reminiscent to a psychologist’s ink blot. A criminal might not need to be thrown down an elevator shaft to punish crime, but according to Rorschach it can’t hurt.

The setting of the Watchmen sometimes feels a bit removed since it happens within the context of an America in the midst of a Cold War with the Soviet Union in the fall of 1985. Thanks in large part to the newly emergent superheroes, history has been rewritten: The Vietnam War was a successful operation.

The setting is gritty and real, aside from the alternative history aspects that is. The artist does an excellent job of creating the look of a traditional comic but infused with a dose of concrete reality. The city is used and dirty, bars are dank holes you can almost smell, and back alleys are dark and ominous.

In Alan Moore’s vision of this world, tensions start to rise years before the thread of the story even begins. By 1977, in Moore’s chronology, all “superheroes” are either forced into retirement or work for the government. Those who chose to continue to operate are categorized as fugitives and vigilantes. When former superheroes start getting murdered, those who are left must navigate a morally ambiguous path to a shocking (and surprisingly deep) philosophical conclusion about the price to be paid for saving the human race from itself.