There are a few seminal graphic novels and miniseries that every fan of the comic genre should take time to read. Alan Moore's Watchmen, first published in 1986-7, is one of them. I don't recommend it just because it's a classic, of course. I don't expect you to be impressed by a comic-book deconstruction of superhero funnybooks after so many other talented creators - from Frank Miller to Kurt Busiek and back - have done similar high-profile projects. Nor should you necessarily read it for its historic significance in the superhero canon, or because it was nominated for the prestigious Hugo award for s.f., or in anticipation of the cinematization which may or may not actually get made. It's just a good book.
In what has lately become common practice, Moore creates his own cast of superhero type characters - variations of the icons that DC is known for - and then plays them off each other over some forty years. The main focus is on a generation of former "heroes" - Rorschach, the Nite Owl II, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, and the Comedian - who have been forcibly retired from independent crimefighting. While exploring the dynamics of this loosely-knit group, he explores several types in themselves, exaggerated to their logical extremes. Dr. Manhattan, likened specifically to Superman several times, is isolated and dehumanised by his power. Rorschach, who shares with Nite Owl some of Batman's attributes, highlights the Dark Knight's fanaticism. There is some treatment of comic vigilantes' tendency to the extreme political right and of the ambiguities of homosexuality and homophobia that comics have been accused of, but these are addressed only in passing as some of the motivations leading people into the superhero profession. The list of such influences is not a pleasant one, but then, these are not the kind of people you'd necessarily want protecting your city. No overdeveloped sense of responsibility or unending drive to defend the unfortunate here. Quite the opposite: the danger of unchecked power, both individual and social, dominates the book. It's a very bleak, violent, and graphic depiction of the superhero scene, and it's definitely not for everyone.
Granted, in reaching for extremes Moore surrenders the human ambiguities and nuances that make archetypes like Superman and Batman palatable in the long run, but he manages to provide an impressive series of features on individual characters while advancing the larger plot (which involves, naturally, the fate of the world). Psychological profiles blend with comic book mayhem in this genre-bender, which borrows elements from detective stories, science fiction, pirate tales, autobiography (no, not Moore's own life story - I hope), etc. etc. There's a lot to pay attention to, and your reading will definitely be different on your second (and third, and fourth) read-through.
Visually, the book may not have the pop of our current post-Image milieu - Dave Gibbons' grid panelling and predominantly middle-distance storytelling don't leave much room for splash pages and pin-up shots - but the linear artwork works well with the alinear script. There's plenty of subtle detail to search out once you know what to look for, lending the book to multiple readings.
And, heck, it will probably change the way you look at some of your other graphic novels, too. After all, it is a classic.
Next Month: Look out, here comes "Barry Ween, Boy Genius!"