Watchmen: The day superheroes became illegal. Artist: Dave Gibbons.


Medium: Comic Books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1986
Creator: Alan Moore
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In 1983, Charlton Comics, then on its last legs, sold its superhero characters to …

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DC Comics. Shortly afterward, writer Alan Moore (Miracleman, Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, The Ballad of Halo Jones) approached DC executive editor Dick Giordano (former editor at Charlton, who had engineered the sale) with a proposal for a major story about the Charlton characters. Giordano liked the story, but hated the thought of applying Moore's ideas to characters he wanted to keep in usable condition.

Moore replaced the Charlton characters with analogs of his own invention. Charlton's Peacemaker became Moore's Comedian. The Question became Rorschach. The Blue Beetle and his 1940s counterpart became two characters named Nite Owl. Thunderbolt became Ozymandias. Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan. Nightshade became Silk Spectre (tho Silk Spectre also took many characteristics from Phantom Lady). The first issue of the resulting 12-part limited series, Watchmen, was dated September, 1986. The artist was Dave Gibbons (Martha Washington, Give Me Liberty). The title was a reference to the old expression, "Who watches the watchman?" I.e., if superheroes are to protect us from villains, then who protects us from superheroes?

Watchmen was an attempt to bring such fantastic characters into the "real" world (whatever that is). It wasn't the first — a quarter-century earlier, a similar attempt had been made at Marvel Comics, with The X-Men squabbling among themselves, The Fantastic Four getting evicted from their headquarters because they couldn't pay the rent, Spider-Man having to dodge bullies at school, and things like that. Watchmen concentrated less on realistically imperfect personal lives, and more on a realistic geopolitical situation, realistic sexual feelings and activities, and a realistic impact on the world, from individuals who possessed superhuman abilities.

While most superheroes have been aimed at an adolescent reading level, and the 1960s Marvels became popular on college campuses, Watchmen was among the first superhero stories that required an adult's point of view for full appreciation. What The Maltese Falcon did for detective stories and Shane did for westerns, Watchmen did for superheroes. It transcended its origins in what was previously considered a lowbrow form of fiction to provide a rich reading experience for all, whether they came in as fans of the genre or not.

It also transcended series fiction in general by being a complete story in itself, with beginning, middle and end, and no prospect of the characters' adventures continuing afterward — as, indeed, they haven't. Watchmen has had no sequels, nor any talk of future sequels.

Significantly, Watchmen was the first (and thus far, only) comic book to win the prestigious Hugo Award for excellence in science fiction.

No sooner had the final chapter (October, 1987) hit the stands, than DC brought out a collected edition in both hardcover and trade paperback, as one of relatively few graphic novels that actually are novels in terms of length, complexity and unity of theme. There was also a reasonably popular role playing game and talk of a movie version from the very beginning. The movie version was finally released on March 6, 2009. It was never merchandised the way many superheroes are merchandised.

Watchmen, along with its contemporary, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, has had a strong influence on the superhero comics that followed, but few have come up to its standards. It remains in print, a lasting reminder of what comic books and their dominant genre are capable of.


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Text ©2003-09 Donald D. Markstein. Art © DC Comics.