I don't think I can write a review that does this book justice. Watchmen is a Cold War era graphical novel that follows the complicated lives of six self-made super-heroes, from their upbringing to present events. These six, however, aren't your typical supermen or women; save one, the "costumed vigilantes," "masked adventurers," or whatever else they choose to call themselves, are just as human as the next person. Each character's motivations for fighting crime in costume are explored through excerpts of written documents that Moore sandwiches in between chapters. He fills in the background of his story not by awkward, forced dialogue, but through a few chapters of an autobiography, newspaper articles, all things that we see in the story and read for ourselves later, as if we happened to pick them up on our way out. By about the third chapter, through this and other devices, we realize that some of the main characters, far from being perfect super-humans, have serious psychological problems, and others that we thought were for or against us might be much more complicated.
Dave Gibbons' artwork is fine, and gets the job done, but it's very clear that Alan Moore's writing makes this story what it is. He's fond of narrating two events at once, in alternating frames, using the same text for each. For instance (one of my favorites): a man is fumbling through sex, for what we assume is the first time in many years, while a television in the background narrates a gymnastics competition, all the way through the "dismount." I could flip to any page in the book and find more of the same, some funny, some serious, all very, very well-done.
Nothing in this book seems overblown, as you might expect from some comics. Moore writes an mostly realistic (albeit exaggerated) story up until the final chapters. One of only a few stretches was my favorite character, Dr. Manhattan, the once nuclear physicist turned god-like glowing blue man when his "ionic field" was removed, and he had to rebuild himself. His character provides a very different perspective in the face of worldwide nuclear destruction, and an obstacle in one particular debate over the world's future. This book was written in the mid-1980's in a series of installments, and clearly plays off WWIII paranoia, but the only thing in each chapter that might be dated (save words like "devo" and people talking about taking Katies) is the art. Moore's super-hero/political/historical satire tells the stories that comic books have been known for since the 1950's, but in a completely different, more human light. If there's one book that can lend legitimacy to graphic novels as a literary medium, I think this is it.