My Misspent Youth — Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Watchmen comedian-001

I bought Watchmen, the limited series written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, shortly after the twelfth and final issue was released. Watchmen #12 was cover-dated October 1987 and hit comic shop racks in the last week of July. DC Comics, the publisher behind the project, had a trade paperback collection available by early September of that year, but I didn’t wait. “Waiting for the trade” wasn’t a thing then as it is now. Instead, I wanted to get the entirety of this comic series I’d read about in exuberant articles for months and never previously held in my hands. I took several comics from my collection and traded them in to Lone Star Comics, which ran the subscription service that fed my compulsion for monthly superhero adventures. With the credit I earned, I ordered all twelve issues, including the first couple that by then had spiked in cost. I didn’t matter. In the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I decided I needed this comic book series.

As I recall it, I read the entire run in a few big chunks, enthralled, and thrilled by the exhaustion I felt after scrutinizing every bit of it, occasionally doubling back to again read key sections. I lingered over Moore’s words, hunted for foreshadowing to the story’s many devastating riddles. In a way that I hadn’t previously, I studied the very structure of the narrative, eagerly hoping discern every last bit of meaning to be found in elements such as the concurrent rendering of a gruesome pirate comic book read by a cigarette-smoking youth camped out next to a surprisingly pivotal newsstand in the midst of a dilapidated city block.

Watchmen comic-001

With the many, many superhero stories I read, I was accustomed to homing in on the details, a common comic book reader practice that Moore and Gibbons leveraged in their deconstructionist saga. Originally pitched as a project that would give a modern, grim spin to the batch of old Charlton Comics characters recently acquired by DC, Watchmen became an original creation (albeit one that simply turned those Charlton characters into thinly disguised avatars). The invention of new characters, originally expected to be used for this one story and then taken out of rotation, allowed Moore to get deeper, darker, more daring with his tale. The fundamental premise was an imagining of the real ramifications of a world partially populated by super-powered beings, waging their battles in a reality where there’s no actual binary of good guys and bad guys, and where bystander citizens would sustain harm from the shrapnel of a slugfest. Other creators, learning the wrong lessons from this and the Moore-written Batman: The Killing Joke, released around the same time, extrapolated this striking new tone into the grim-and-gritty aesthetic that dominated — and stained — superhero comics for at least the next decade.

Much as I’d like to report that I saw through the surface appeal of the storytelling, that’s not wholly true. I was a teenage boy, blessed with only slightly more enlightenment that others in my lamentable brethren. Susceptibility to brutish cool was a side effect of the toxic norming I experienced. It was super awesome that Rorschach was so bleak and tough and uncompromising, just like Wolverine! Although Moore built nuance into the characterization, I wasn’t yet equipped to understand the damnable contradictions of the antihero.

And yet, I really do believe what captured me from the beginning, and caused me to proselytize for Watchmen as the only exhibit needed to prove that comics should indeed be considered true art, was the layering and complexity of the series. No matter how vast and sprawling my regular superhero sagas, they were obviously built to be somewhat disposable. Anyone could join or leave at any time, with only the most basic knowledge of the characters a prerequisite to joining midstream. That’s not how Watchmen worked. Individual issues had their own flavor, often structured around the tried and true superhero comic conceit of flashing back to an origin story, but they mandated an attentiveness to and consideration of the preceding entirety. In a way, Moore codified the primacy of the totality with the bravura issue focused on Dr. Manhattan, an atomic age hero approaching omnipotence. In the narrative, history stretches beyond reckoning and yet happens all at once, like a towering stack of comics.

Watchmen mars

The density of Watchmen left me stunned. That’s why I resisted the mighty temptation to race through it, treating it like other comics that I’d read and then toss aside, ready for the next multicolored potato chip. I sensed there was more to this work. It deserved more concentration and added time to sink in before careening to the next installment. I didn’t yet have the language to identify all its merits — or all the ways it stirred me to think in a meta-textual way about what I was reading — but I sensed its importance, both to me and to the canon of comic book storytelling.

Later, fortified by college English courses, I’d be able to expound on what made Watchmen special with a thesaurus full of high-falutin’ words. When I first read it, I mostly knew one simple thing: It floored me.

Watchmen plan

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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