by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons
Titan Books | March 2006 | ISBN 1852860243
"At midnight, all the agents and superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do."
- Bob Dylan, Desolation Row
Twenty years ago the publication of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons's Watchmen changed the nature of science fiction. Ambitious in scope, breathtaking in its multi-layered richness, by turns bloody and beautiful, this mammoth comic book influenced a new generation of artists and writers and created a new genre - the graphic novel.
Set in an alternate history United States, where Nixon remains in power after winning the Vietnam war, it recounts the lives of two generations of costumed crime-fighting vigilantes. These are no Supermen with superhuman powers however, but ordinary men and women with dubious motives, psychoses and neuroses for dressing up in capes to fight crime.
Feared as much as respected, these caped crusaders are criminalised and forced into redundancy. However, the murder of a former colleague motivates them back into costume, and their investigation of his death ultimately leads to the discovery of an outlandish political conspiracy with global impact.
Played out against a backdrop of rising Cold War tensions, and the scientific and political implications of a real-life superhuman created in a nuclear accident, this science fiction/political thriller examines age-old moral questions about power through the context of mankind's destructive force and our responses to it.
Moore's masked avengers respond in complex ways. They often feel helpless in the face of history and the weight of cultural and social change. And this is one of the novel's attractions and its major strength - these Superheroes, like us, are at times afraid, malicious and confused, and yet at others compassionate, strong and fearless.
Watchmen's other great attractions are its rich imagery and complex plot. Recurring motifs, symmetrical story telling, multi-textual layers, filmic fluidity, vivid characters, and political and historical reference give it a depth unlike any other comic book before it, or since.
Now Hollywood, having recently adapted Moore's V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, is again attempting to transfer Watchmen to the screen. Despite Terry Gilliam's opinion that no one could possibly do it justice in less than three and half hours, Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) has become the latest in a line of directors charged with the task.
Whether the film will come to fruition or not, there is much in Watchmen that is applicable to the current geopolitical situation. The Cold War context may have dated, but the themes of arms control, the threat of a militant anti-western philosophy, the political expediency of a nemesis, and the use and misuse of power - "Who watches the watchmen?" - are as relevant today as they were twenty years ago.
* * *
About the authors
Alan Moore is a comic book writer, novelist and performance artist. His works include Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.Dave Gibbons is a British comic artist and writer.