As comic books fans, we are often asked by friends and peers about reading recommendations. A lot of people I know have a short list of must reads that they will produce for those looking to expand their mind with comics. Usually, somewhere near the top of these lists is Watchmen. The DC comics mini series is no doubt a cornerstone of comic book culture today, and has influenced all of superhero stories since it was made. I am here to shake things up by suggesting some mandatory reading for you and your first timers that will take you back in time and add proper context to Watchmen.
Superhero comics, popularized by the creation of Superman in 1939, were created as a cheap form of entertainment for the working class. Being that their target audience were fast growing boys in the middle of adolescence, the industry did what they could to keep the ball rolling by introducing concepts such as a status quo, and a lack of a solid timeline. The hero never aged, and the day was always saved. These ensured that comics would always be popular with the same age group forever.
The strong jawed and forward thinking heroes of the time were selfless adventure men, dead set on bringing the world into the future with them. Dr. Reed Richards and Superman never lost their cool in the face of the Mole Man or a giant turtlefied Jimmy Olsen. These were men of science and action, who had many abilities that helped them face these foes, but their will to win, and their penchant for hope in the face of great danger, were the strongest they had. These may seem like hokey and outdated ideals in the cynical times we live in, but this was the point of superheroes then.
This is the era that is famous of its unending and wholly complicated continuity that made it harder than it is today to get into comics. DC Comics would change everything up when they released Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1984. This 12 issue series aimed to tame the wilds of DC and bring order back to their multiverse. All in an effort to keep old readers, and make sure the medium would continue on.
Crisis came and went, and with it, an entire shake up from the DC universe. All past continuity was gone, and in its place there were new number 1’s and new origin stories for fans. This is the era of Batman: Year One and John Bryne’s Man of Steel. This drive to harvest new ideas led to DC looking to different places to find those brave enough to break their toys. This was the perfect storm for a certain Northampton boy to make his move.
When Alan Moore approached DC Comics with his idea for Watchmen, the original intent was to use the recently acquired Charlton Comics characters. DC quickly canned the idea, as giving their new characters Moore-ian hang ups like genocidal tendencies and erectile dysfunction would not bode well for the new IP. So, Moore and Gibbons went back to the drawing board, and came back with a game changer.
Watchmen follows the story of Rorschach as he investigates the death of a fellow hero called The Comedian. This journey leads to Rorschach discovering a very real and deep plot to kill off superheroes for the greater good of society. Proper comic book drama. Over the 12 issue series, we find out more about the lives of these characters, and get to see how their careers as heroes have ruined their lives and relationships. The series offers us a dark look at the other side of the superhero coin.
The goal of Watchmen was simple; “What if these heroes lived in a realistic world.” Moore took the archetypes of crimebusters and supermen and put them in a real, and cynical world that reflected the Cold War sentiments of the era. The second generation and legacy heroes that make up the main cast of characters live in a world where the Silver Age and its ideals never happened.
Gone was the Batman of the 50’s and 60’s, a smiling and positive beacon of hope for the citizens of Gotham City. In his place was Rorschach, a violent and deranged vagrant man who believed in conservative ideals and black and white morality. Rorschach who gained his sensibilities after virtually murdering a child rapist he found. No longer your daddy’s funny books, eh?
The dynamic was completely changed. Moore had created an operatic story that gave the heroes flaws and shortcomings that the common man could relate to.
It should be no surprise that Watchmen became an undeniable success. Since debuting in September of 1986, it has consistently been at the top of bestsellers and recommended reading lists. Its influence bled into the foundation of comics, and from the late 80’s to the mid 2000’s comic book professionals pulled from Moore’s opus.
The next generation had plenty to pull from, too. Watchmen is a deep messaged, borderline occult ritual of a book that uses its formalism to tell a deeper message about the boundaries of reality in comics, with warning to the readers of absolute power. Moore took the time to place patterns and obstacles in front of our heroes that challenged their will more than anything else had. Instead, creators after Watchmen latched onto the dark and bleak tones of the books and painted the next generation of comics in blood, guns and scantily clad women, always chasing the edge that Watchmen had.
This, of course, led to many more shake ups in the comics world. The foundation of Image, the speculator boom, all gigantic waves of change that both harmed and boomed the industry for years. Even as recently as the early 2000’s books like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates, concepts like the superhero arms race were front and center. Nowhere to be seen was the introspective nature of what made Watchmen so great.
This effect is taken to the extreme as popular comic book movie properties like Bryan Singer’s X-Men, and Steven Norrington’s Blade did all they could to take the vibrance and color out of the comics in a desperate attempt to make them cool. Our funny books would be soaked in gritted teeth and stubble for decades to come.
Moore would come out years later to further explain his concerns with his opus. Among other things, Moore said that his intent was never to change the face of comics in the way that he did, rather make a book that would show readers why the idealism of the Silver Age is important in the vast world of comic books.
To further counteract this, Moore would go on to write more comics, Tom Strong, and 1963 that were almost intentionally the opposite of Watchmen in an effort to show the readers what he meant. These books are not well known by the mainstream audience, but are highly regarded among pros and the nerdiest of nerds who know about them. Here, Moore takes those silver age stories and adds a modern, but true to source retelling of them, here the realistic emotions of Watchmen are married with the silver age ideals to create a truly human comic book experience. If you are looking for more of Moore’s work, these are must reads.
Since 2010, the comic book pendulum has begun to swing away from Watchmen. In recent years, we have seen the rise of more progressive writers and artists who have brought back the wacky pomp and circumstance that makes comics great. Without Watchmen and it’s bleak look into the mind of what a real crimebuster would be like, we wouldn't be able to embrace the heady and psychedelic books of today. When it comes time to read Watchmen again, do yourself a favor and take the time to read some silver age comics in preparation. You may find some new books that you like, or you could find some life still left in an old favorite.
Below, I have some books listed from all the eras mentioned above. For those adventurous enough, a read through will offer the best form of context for the deconstruction, and reconstruction process.
Fantastic Four #1-20, Fantastic Four Annual #1 By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Justice League of America: The Silver Age Vol. 1 by Gardner Fox
Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, Vol. 1 by Robert Bernstein, Otto Binder, Leo Dorfman, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel
Watchmen #1-12 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Brat Pack by Rick Veitch
Squadron Supreme #1-12 by Ryan Gruenwald
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison
Peter Cannon Thunderbolt by Kieron Gillen
Tom Strong by Alan Moore
For more comic book related reads check out this page!