The Comic Creators Project at the Cartoon Museum in London has the only page of original art on public display from one of the most iconic comics of all time: Watchmen. Written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons and coloured by John Higgins, it was published by DC Comics between 1986 and 1987 in a 12-issue comic book limited series before it was collected in a single volume in 1987. The Comic Creators Project was able to acquire one page of the original art and it can now be seen in the Comics gallery at the Cartoon Museum. This graphic novel is featured in the exhibition The Great British Graphic Novel (20th April – 24th July, 2016).
Watchmen: A Brief History of its Origins
As with any good superhero origin story, Watchmen’s genesis began in the mind of one of the most prolific and acclaimed comic book writers, Mr. Alan Moore. Moore sent to DC an unsolicited story proposal that featured a recently acquired line of superheroes from Charlton Comics which included Captain Atom, the Blue Beetle, the Peacemaker, the Shield, the Question, Nightshade, and Thunderbolt among others. He had envisioned a murder-mystery plot in the best film-noir style with an opening scene where the victim was a masked superhero. In Moore’s own words,
“I suppose I was just thinking, ‘That’d be a good way to start a comic book: have a famous super-hero found dead.’ As the mystery unraveled, we would be led deeper and deeper into the real heart of this super-hero’s world, and show a reality that was very different to the general public image of the super-hero.” (Cooke 2000)
Moore had a very clear agenda behind the concept of Watchmen: he wanted to use it as a way to reflect contemporary anxieties and to deconstruct and parody the concept of the superhero. While the managing editor of DC comics Dick Giordano liked Moore’s idea, he was concerned about the viability of using the superheroes from Charlton Comics since the story would have left them unusable in the future. In the end, Giordano convinced Alan to create new characters and he agreed. As Moore described, “eventually, I realized that if I wrote the substitute characters well enough, so that they seemed familiar in certain ways, certain aspects of them brought back a kind of generic super-hero resonance or familiarity to the reader, then it might work” (Cooke 2000).
Meanwhile, Dave Gibbons had heard on the grapevine that Alan Moore was doing a story for a new miniseries for DC and he rang Alan up and said that he wanted to be involved in the project. Both of them had already collaborated on several projects together, including stories for 2000AD. Alan agreed and sent him the script. Then Dave rung Giordano and told him that he wanted to draw the miniseries proposed by Moore, and he also agreed. Soon after Dave requested that John Higgins be brought on board as a colourist because he liked Higgins’ “unusual” style. Dave and John lived roughly in the same area, so they could have actual face to face conversations regarding the artwork and they could pass around the pages between them by hiring taxis if the deadlines were too close. And so Watchmen began.
Watchmen: The Story
When the first issue of Watchmen hit the stands, comic book fans knew that they were holding something special. The look, the feel, the storytelling were like nothing that they had been exposed to before. In a world where superheroes were saving the day in places like Gotham, Hell’s Kitchen or Metropolis, no one had really considered the implications of having real superheroes living among us. That is, until Alan Moore came up with the idea to tell precisely that story.
Watchmen is set in an alternate time-line whose point of divergence took place in 1938 with the rise of masked vigilantes or superheroes. These vigilantes did not have superpowers per se, but the men and women behind the masks had a sincere desire to fight crime and injustice. The presence of these superheroes changed the course of history as we know it. America wins the Vietnam War in 1971 and as of October 1985, Richard Nixon is still president of the Unites States. Furthermore, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is delayed six years, but at the beginning of the story it is this event, and the impending nuclear conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., that frames the main story line constantly reminding us of a situation that could result in total annihilation at the press of a red button. Within this “nuclear” conflict, the U.S. has a tactical advantage since they control the only “real” superhero with superpowers, Doctor Manhattan-a man that after an accident in an “Intrinsic Field Subtractor” in 1959 obtained power over matter. It is made clear in the story that the existence of Doctor Manhattan is what triggers in a way the race to create more nuclear weapons in the world.
Still, these masked vigilantes became an issue for the general public as they were feared. The question “Who watches the watchmen?” became ever-present in the minds of the public (and within the comic) reminding everybody that these superheroes were operating above the law and that they did not seem to be subjected to it due to their anonymity. This opened up a debate that was closed after the government issued the Keene Act in 1977, where they outlawed all masked vigilantes except for those working directly for the State. Many superheroes retired like Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk), Nite Owl (Dan Dreiberg), or Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), others continued to be active like Doctor Manhattan (Dr. Jon Osterman) and the Comedian (Edward Blake) but under government orders, and yet another one, Rorschach (Walter Joseph Kovacs), continued to operate outside the law.
The story then begins with the death of Edward Blake on October 1985 in New York City. Without any leads, the police dismisses the case, but Rorschach discovers that Blake was in fact the government-sanctioned superhero the Comedian. Believing that this might be a conspiracy to terminate all the remaining masked vigilantes, even the retired ones, Rorschach embarks on a mission to warn his old comrades of the danger and to discover who killed the Comedian and why. He then visits Dan Dreiberg (originally the second Nite Owl), the superpowered but emotionally detached Doctor Manhattan and his lover Laurie Juspeczyk (the second Silk Spectre), and Adrian Veidt (once the hero Ozymandias, and now a successful businessman). The plot thickens when Doctor Manhattan is accused of spreading cancer, which results in the only super-powered hero leaving Earth; Adrian Veidt is attacked and almost killed, and Rorschach is framed for the death of an old nemesis, Moloch. Fearing that Rorschach was right and that there was a conspiracy in play, Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk, now lovers after Laurie left Doctor Manhattan, come out of retirement and break Rorschach out of prison. Laurie is taken to Mars by Doctor Manhattan to try to convince him of the relevance of human life, which in the end he accepts and then they both travel together back to Earth. When they teleport they return to New York City where a Cthulhu-like creature has devastated half of the population. A trail of tachyon rays lead them to the Arctic, just as Rorschach and Nite Owl, who have started to suspect their old comrade Ozymandias was behind everything, were confronting him.
The story comes to an end after Veidt admits that he had killed the Comedian, orchestrated Doctor Manhattan´s exile, staged an attempt on his own life to be above suspicion, and murdered Moloch in order to frame Rorschach, all in an attempt to neutralize those that could have stopped his plan to avert nuclear war by engineering an alien invasion. As he discloses this information, he shows on several tv screens news broadcasts confirming the cessation of global hostilities and the beginning of a new era of cooperation against a perceived common enemy. While Nite Owl find Veidt’s plan cruel and despicable, none of them can argue against the results, for the world has come together and the possibility of a nuclear war seems to have been averted altogether. For the good of the world, most of the vigilantes agree that what Veidt had done should not be revealed, and hence will go without punishment. But Rorschach would not compromise and he leaves with the intent of disclosing the conspiracy and Veidt’s involvement to the world. As he leaves Veidt’s lair, he is confronted by Doctor Manhattan who does not hesitate to kill him to safeguard the future of humanity. Afterwards, Doctor Manhattan leaves Earth to create life in another galaxy, but before he leaves he reminds Veidt that nothing ever ends as an answer to his question of whether he did the right thing.
The comic closes with a reporter going through the crank file of his news agency and picking up Rorschach’s journal, which he had kept throughout the comic and sent to the news agency before he went to confront Veidt.
Originally, Alan and Dave’s plot was meant to cover only six issues, but they had been hired to create twelve! They resolved the problem by incorporating short texts that gave a kind of biographical portrait of one of the main characters interspersed between the more plot-driven issues. Furthermore, connected with the main story line, the comic intertwines brilliantly an assortment of secondary characters discussing current events: a fatalist proclaiming the end of the world, regular people listening to tv news, the conversations of a newsvendor, and a teenage boy reading a pirate comic book called Tales of the Black Freighter-a pirate story designed to parallel (and comment) on the development of some of the main characters. In addition, Alan and Dave also included many fictional primary documents, such as biographies of old superheroes, newspaper clips, arrest reports, etc., which were added to the end of every chapter with the exception of the final one. This literary device of a story with in a story is used in this comic to its maximum effect incorporating additional layers of meaning. This reminds us that the comic was meant to be read not once, but several times in order to grasp the full impact of the story and to understand the symbolism behind every word and image.
Towards the end of the comic, Alan realized that his main storyline was similar to an episode of The Outer Limits called “Architects of Fear,” but instead of changing the ending he acknowledged this source by referencing it in the last issue of the comic series (Jensen 2005).
Watchmen: The Visual Composition and Colour
The visual composition of Watchmen became a statement that demonstrated not only the unique qualities of comics as a medium but also its main strengths. In terms of style, Dave had a lot of artistic freedom to develop the visual world of Watchmen. He began by consistently organizing the space on a nine-panel grid layout. Regular superhero comics had different sized vignettes and by systematizing the layout he automatically created a different feel to the comic. Gibbons considered this structure to have more “authority” (Salisbury 2000, 80). This systematic layout was welcomed by Moore who could control the pacing and visual impact of the storytelling to a degree that he had not been able to do previously.
Symmetry became an important structural element not only in terms of the visual composition of the action (see for example the central pages of Watchmen #3, Fearful Symmetry), but of the whole narrative across the the 12 issues where the plot-driven chapters (1, 3, 5 and 8,10, 12) are balanced with the chapters connected with character development (2, 4, 6 and 7, 9, 11). Furthermore, the covers of the 12 issues were meant to be a close-up of the first panel in the story and it was soon to be followed by an epigraph that came from either classical (ie. “who watches the watchmen?” is a quote from Juvenal’s Satire VI, “Against women” (c. AD 60–127) that asked “quis custodiet ipsos custodes”) or pop literature (ie. issue #6 begins with “The Abyss Gazes Also” which comes from “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Friederich Wilhelm Nietzsche).
Gibbons also spent a lot of time working over the designs for the different characters, favouring in some cases easy-to-draw features, like Rorschach’s hat, and a multitude of details that kept repeating themselves throughout the comic and that Moore admits did not pay any attention to at first (Salisbury 2000, 77). In this way, repetition of images and motifs helped to frame a self-contained narrative with complex multi-layer readings. All these elements, plus the well developed characters established a world that is at the same time alien and believable (Keane 2003).
The use of colour also set the comic apart from the typical superhero stories. Instead of going with bright primary colours, Higgins chose a muted pastel palette that gave more of a realistic feel to the design. Gibbons’ superhero stylings and Higgins’ colouring complemented each other well. Both elements, line and colour, were used to advance the plot by showing fluid action in a world that existed because of the embellishment and delineation of colours. When DC finally decided to digitize Watchmen, Gibbons and Higgins were presented with the opportunity to change things. Nevertheless, except for fixing some minor mistakes, both left the comic as it was first published since by then the artwork and the colours had become part of what made it so iconic.
It is difficult not to argue that the combination of story and art in Watchmen elevated visual storytelling to the stature of literature. It is no wonder then that when the 12 issues came together in a single volume, they were described as a graphic novel-a term that had been coined in 1964 by Richard Kyle but that it did not become popular until the 80s with works like Watchmen or Frank Miller’s The Return of the Dark Knight.
Check out the second part of this video for an interview with Dave Gibbons and John Higgins that was conducted at the Cartoon Museum in October 2015.
Watchmen: The Phenomenon
It is not an exaggeration to say that Watchmen is one of the most iconic graphic novels of the 20th century. Since it was first published as a collection in 1987 by DC, Watchmen has been recognized in Time ’s List of the 100 Best Novels as one of the best English language novels published since 1923. Furthermore, Watchmen has received several awards that span different categories and genres including: Kirby Awards for Best Finite Series, Best New Series, Best Writer, and Best Writer/Artist, Eisner Awards for Best Finite Series, Best Graphic Album, Best Writer, and Best Writer/Artist, and a Hugo Award for Other Forms.
Since Watchmen was published in 1986, it has been reprinted as a trade paper back graphic novel (ISBN 0-930289-23-4). In 1987 a special hardcover edition was produced by Graphitti Designs that contained 48 pages of additional material, including the original proposal and concept art. Later on, in 2005, DC released Absolute Watchmen(ISBN 1-4012-0713-8), a hardcover edition of Watchmen in the DC Comics series which aimed to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The book featured a slipcase as well as restored and recolored art by John Higgins at Wildstorm FX, under the direction of Dave Gibbons. This new edition also included the bonus material from Graphitti Designs, which made this material widely available for the first time. Another hardcover edition (ISBN 1-401219-26-8) was released in 2008 at the same time that the first teaser trailer of the film adaption of Watchmen directed by Zack Snyder hit the theaters–which was later released in 2009. As a response to the high demand for the graphic novel, the company had to print more than a million copies of the trade collection, which is an unprecedented number even for contemporary standards. Even today, the comic continues to sell well in all its formats including the digital one.
The importance of Watchmen cannot be overstated. It has been repeatedly acclaimed as a turning point in the history of comics and the fact that it has never gone out of print (to the dismay of Alan Moore) demonstrates that it is still as relevant today as it was when it first came out in ’86. Don Markstein from Toonopedia remarked “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” (Markstein 2003-2009).
When a literary work is as pervasive as to stay in the collective consciousness of popular culture for so long, it demonstrates that it has transcended its original medium. And here is where the importance of Watchmen truly lies!
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