Creating an account with gives you access to more features and services, like our weekly newsletter and other special features just for the film community.


Graphically Novel: Watchmen

Watchmen finally hits theaters this week, and nerds everywhere are plotzing. Tribeca dissects Alan Moore's genre-defining comic book, soon to be a blockbuster near you.

Nite Owl

Among comic book fanatics and casual readers alike, the Watchmen series stands as a paragon of comic book art. It is the medium’s Citizen Kane—its reverence and place in history is no longer up for debate. Yet unlike Citizen Kane, its reputation is far from ubiquitous. If you care little for those dynamic, colorful books filled with word balloons, there is a good chance you have never heard of these Watchmen—that is, until ads for the upcoming motion picture sprouted up on billboards and TVs everywhere. Directed by the ostentatious Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead), Watchmen is a big-budget movie with huge box-office expectations. For those who are unfamiliar with the comic book, what is Watchmen, and why are nerds everywhere flipping out?

Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is a 384-page, “R-rated” comic book (a.k.a. graphic novel). It was published as a 12-issue miniseries by DC Comics in 1986-87. When its run was complete, Watchmen was quickly republished in the form of a single paperback. This anthology has been a comic book store staple ever since. I purchased my copy in 1990, at the age of 15, when Moore’s graphic novel was already regarded as the new benchmark for the art form.

Watchmen graphic novelAs a teen, I recall being impressed by Moore's complicated structure and rare take on the lives of aging masked vigilantes, but I disliked the throwback aesthetic of Gibbons’ art. More important to my understanding, I lacked the emotional intelligence to parse the anguish of its characters, although I was not aware of this back then. Time passed, and like many lateblooming comic book fans, I stopped collecting when my teenage years waned. During this period, Watchmen had come of age as well. Its critical standing had matured and solidified, transforming it into a cornerstone work of comic book art, an embodiment of the medium at its best. In short, a classic. It has been years since I’ve read a comic book, but rereading Watchmen this past week as an adult—almost 20 years since my first encounter—I am astounded again at its sophistication.

While explicit, adult-themed comics were epitomized by the work of Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix in the late 1960s, the notion of creating mature, serious comics about superheroes did not materialize until the Watchmen era. In an effort not to reveal too much plot, the story concerns a group of mostly retired superheroes in a world on the brink of destruction. While the end of humanity is a time-honored frustration for superheroes everywhere, Watchmen also deals with issues that are not common to the genre, including domestic violence, male performance anxiety, homosexuality, and the trauma of rape.

Rereading Moore’s graphic novel as an adult, these elements and all the signs of being grown up have become apparent. Even Gibbons’ vintage art style appeals to me now—the story reworks mid-20th Century history (in this alternate universe, Nixon is president in 1985), and his illustrations exemplify the heyday of this period. Love, lack of love, loss, failure, and success leave indelible marks on our being, and experience is a burden that weighs heavily on Moore’s characters. The masked crimefighter lifestyle is a kind of psychosis. Those who suffer this existence are damaged and delusional, incompatible with the world in which they live. Complicating matters, the Watchmen organization is no Justice League or X-Men. Hardly ordered around an ideology or set of goals, many of them don’t even like each other. Worse, all of them are either too dogmatic or wishy-washy to be trusted as civilization’s saviors. In this regard, Moore’s story contains all the uncertainty and inscrutable humanity of modern literature. If people knew what superheroes do behind closed doors or what they really think about the world they purport to save, the crimefighting industry would crumble like Citibank—in fact, in Watchmen, it does.

Dr. ManhattanAs a work of comic book art, Watchmen is one of the medium’s great technical achievements. Like any comic book, it cannot be categorized as literature or illustration, but as an amalgamation of the novel, fine art, and even film—a graphic novel through and through. In its base form, the comic book medium comprises words and hand-drawn illustrations arranged within panels on a page. As simple as this definition is, its execution is rarely as bold and effective as it is in Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons combine their words and images to their most expressive and stylized end. On virtually every page, dialogue or inner monologue from one scenario is layered on top of images from another. In cinematic terms, this juxtaposition functions as a kind of montage. When distinct images and words are grouped together, meaning that is greater than the individual parts emerges. In panel after panel, the reader engages in multiple narrative strands simultaneously. The result is a dense and highly structured story that is unique to the comic book form, embodying the deep sadness and anger of a world that has lost its moral bearing.

Watchmen presents an unprecedented challenge to filmmaker Zack Snyder. The recent spate of superhero movies—although based on preexisting characters and circumstances—have been conceived as original screenplays and developed as films from the ground up. Given the historical significance of Watchmen and the reality of a graphic novel to adapt, the stakes here are different—and greater. Snyder has pledged to be as faithful as possible to his source material, even appropriating Gibbons’ look and feel. Panels from the graphic novel have been transcribed into their filmic counterparts. The soundtrack, featuring Bob Dylan, Philip Glass, Nat King Cole, and Leonard Cohen, is keyed to match the somber and nostalgic mood of the graphic novel. If it all comes together the way Moore’s magnum opus did, comic book fans and Watchmen neophytes alike are in for a complete moviegoing experience. I know I’m excited.

Watchmen opens nationwide on Friday, March 6. Get tickets. Watch the trailer.

Want to keep talking about Watchmen?
Discuss: A Bankable Genre

Want to see more of the art from Watchmen?
Watch: MoCCA Presents Watchmen



What you need to know today