NOTE: I busted out my ABSOLUTE WATCHMEN and read it cover to cover...twice. This review really goes all over the place...you've been warned.
What would happen if Batman suddenly just gave up? Retired to his Batcave and went to seed, telling himself that the world which had for so long despised him was finally right? What would happen if Superman finally came to the realization that the concerns of humanity were really insignificant compared to the knowledge and power that is his to explore? Just how crazy do you have to be to put on a mask and cape and fight crime? And how does a world, already paranoid with the threat of nuclear proliferation and competing ideologies, react to the existence not only of these vigilantes, but actual super-powered people? By stripping the veneer that we typically associate with the superhero archetype, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons set out to answer these questions, and in the process redefined how comic books work, changing the superhero landscape forever.
Folks, THIS is Watchmen.
I've now read the book about five times, and each time more and more things become clear. And yet, summarizing the basic plot of the book continues to be hard to pin down. If I were pressed, I would guess the "hook" of the story is about the murder of a costumed avenger, the reformation of a group of heroes as they investigate the murder, and how all of this leads to an evil plan that will potentially kill millions of people.
But that really says nothing of what Watchmen is really about. By showing its heroes as very flawed humans who, for various reasons, are compelled to dress up in ridiculous outfits and rail against the injustices as they see them, Watchmen not only deconstructs what we normally think of a "superheroes" but also what we think of a comic book. The book is laid out in a very rigid 9-panel pages, with occasional merging of the panels to provide emphasis on key moments. One issues is entirely comprised of a panel scheme that mirrors its opposite page.
It's not just the layouts and physical structure of the book that makes Watchmen unique - each chapter ends with a substantial bit of prose that serve to flesh out the world and the motivations of the characters. The first few chapters are devoted to "Under the Hood", a tell-all memoir penned by Hollis Mason, the first Nite-Owl from the 40s. You also get a scholarly article on owls and mythology from Dan Dreiberg, the current Nite-Owl, newspaper articles from the New Frontier, and the arrest reports and psychiatric studies of Rorschach. Each piece takes its own style, and fills the gaps that lie between the panels of the book proper.
But then what to make of the story-within-the-story, of the Black Freighter? On the surface the "pirate" story, about a devastating attack by a mysterious ghost ship, and the sole survivor who does what he must to survive and return to civilization, feel superfluous. But Moore carefully blends the narration of the pirate story next to the actual Watchmen story, and the result is a reflection of the underlying feelings of the folks at street level, echoing the fears and paranoia of the country as events come to a head.
So, as a manual for a new direction in comic layout and structure Watchmen is genius. But none of that would probably matter if the overarching story wasn't as engaging as it is. Let me try one more time to get to the heart of the story.
It's New York, 1985. History has split from what we know and the 40s see the beginning of the costumed avenger. No powers - just people dressing up and fighting crime. A group bands together calls themselves The Minutemen. Then, something spectacular - Jon Osterman, aka "Doctor Manhattan," the victim of a horrific science experiment is gifted with awesome powers that allow him to re-arrange reality at the atomic level. The United States has found its first superhero, and so begins the twist that brings us to the present: with Doctor Manhattan's help the US wins the war in Vietnam, and Nixon is elected to the presidency 3 times, and is in fact still president when the novel begins, with the murder of the Comedian, a "hero" from the 70s incarnation of the Minute Men (called the "Crimebusters"). His death is noted by Rorschach, another "hero" currently working against the laws of the country, since the Keane Act of 1977 has banned vigilantism against threats of riots and police strikes. Convinced there's a "mask killer" on the loose, Rorschach contacts the now-retired members of the Crimebusters in an effort to find out who killed the Comedian. In the process unresolved issues between members are brought to life, motivations are uncovered, and a massive plot to save the planet from itself is revealed.
Even that fairly in-depth summary doesn't do justice to what the story is about. It's about the nature of time, about our role in the larger scope of society, about the frailty of all our heroes and, ultimately, it's about the two fundamental questions raised directly in the book:
Who Watches the Watchmen?
Who Makes the World?
Pretty heady question from a book starring a naked blue guy and a bunch of people in tights.