- Beyond Watchmen
Watchmen, the twelve-part DC Comics series by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2016. Watchmen’s underlying reassessment of the morality and politics inherent in superhero storytelling rewrote what was possible in comic books. If comics have gained any increasing respectability (academic or otherwise) over the past three decades, then Watchmen is an important part of this shift. It is a breakthrough text, not only for the comic-book industry and comics scholarship but also as a case study of how a comic becomes translated across multiple media forms. This In Focus seeks to examine Watchmen’s creative legacy and its significance as a cross-media franchise and to consider the place of comics studies within film and media studies.
Through this story about a group of heroes attempting to solve the murder of one of their own, Moore and Gibbons created a work of both narrative complexity and formal intricacy that had both an immediate and an enduring influence on the comics industry. Comics author Grant Morrison describes the book’s effect upon release as “a devastating ‘follow this’ to American comic-book superheroes” that served in part as a message to publisher DC Comics about the potentials of its characters and of superhero storytelling itself. “Watchmen was a Pop Art extinction-level event,” says Morrison, “a dinosaur killer and wrecker of worlds. By the time it was over—and its reverberations still resound—the equation was stark for superhero stories: Evolve or die.”1 In turn, many superhero comics began [End Page 114] challenging the genre’s conventions regarding ideology, sexuality, and the very idea of heroism itself.
From the first panel’s image of an iconic smiley-face button resting against the blood-soaked gutter, Moore and Gibbons challenged the traditional formal and narrative qualities of superhero comics (Figure 1). The story begins with a journal entry from the antihero Rorschach, one of the book’s main characters: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.”2 The bleak nature of these words complements (yet is not directly related to) the grim images of a shopkeeper hosing blood off the sidewalk while an unconcerned pedestrian treads through, bloody footprints trailing behind. Each panel lifts us higher and higher until we reach the broken window above, creating the semblance of a rising crane shot that would have been almost impossible to film before digital cinema. The final panel reveals a detective investigating the murder, which soon leads to the first of the book’s many nonlinear moments. From Gibbons’s innovative compositions to the complexity of Moore’s storytelling, Watchmen thoroughly challenged how comic books represented their heroes.
The book’s enduring popularity and critical acclaim led to its canonical status among comics fans and scholars, as well as some literary critics. Time chose the book for its list of “100 Best Novels,” alongside Animal Farm, The Big Sleep, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, On the Road, and To Kill a Mockingbird. There has been a growing amount of Watchmen scholarship, most notably Andrew Hoberek’s Considering “Watchmen”: Poetics, Property, Politics and Sara J. Van Ness’s “Watchmen” as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel.3 Numerous extensions and adaptations emerged across a wide range of media, from live-action cinema and animation to video games and new forms like motion comics. Many of these subsequent texts have been derided, however, by fans who see Watchmen’s legacy as becoming tainted by a series of inferior variations.4
Sequels, prequels, and adaptations can complicate how we interpret an original text in light of the new works, but the notion of Watchmen and authorship is especially complicated. Moore infamously walked away from any future involvement with the book, severing ties with cocreator Gibbons in the process. He declared in 2008 of the following year’s feature film adaptation, “I will be spitting venom all over it.”5 If Watchmen is a canonical text, how are auteurist readings of the franchise complicated by these dynamics in the wake...