In 2005, for the twentieth anniversary of Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel Watchmen, Tom Shone wrote an article written for Slate entitled, "Did the comic book really need to grow up?" "Reading Watchmen today," he writes, "is a distinctly underwhelming experience. Its fans would say that's appropriate: The world's first anti-heroic comic book is supposed to be, well, anti-heroic. The mode is pyrrhic, deflationary, its tone deadpan, spent." This is a kind of loop-around argument that is impossible to defend against; it raises the opposition's point and then dismisses it summarily without comment. It is, in essence, a roundabout way of saying, "So what?"
So what? What is it about Watchmen that makes it so special? What makes it one of Time's 100 Greatest Books of the 20th century, and the only graphic novel on the list? Shone's article does a fair job of encapsualting the plot, but I'll try my own hand at it here: In the universe of Watchmen, it is 1985 and tensions with Russia are at a fever pitch. Nixon, having assassinated Woodward and Bernstein, is in his sixth term and Americans deal with the daily threat of nuclear annihilation--the hand at "five minutes to midnight," as a newspaper headline reads. The main cast of characters exist on this backdrop as the second generation of "masked adventurers"--superpower-less vigilantes modeled after now unpopular comic books--deals with middle age and the specter of personal failure. Vigilantism has been outlawed for some years. When the book opens, a famous "mask" has been thrown from a window and killed, and Rorschach--the only hero to have not given up in the wake of the 1977 Keene Act--believes that the act is part of a murderous rampage against their kind. His investigation, in which he collides with his old allies and enemies, leads to a conspiracy much more sinister (and in grand comic tradition, contrived) than any had anticipated. "Such is the inverted central conceit of the book," Shone writes, "in which superheroes are far too busy defending themselves from the world to contemplate saving it."
So what? Well, isn't it refreshing to see a comic book where the characters are actually, you know, characters? The plot of Watchmen borders on sheer nonsense at time--especially the end, which is as silly and indulgent as anything in the old comics Shone thinks don't "need to grow up"--but at it's heart it's about character. One of Moore's chief concerns, I think, is mapping the world of superheroes onto our own. Instead of living in comic book world, where every hero acts out of his commitment to justice, what would happen if being a superhero were possible in our world? Of course, no one's motivation would be the same--some, like Rorschach, would be drawn to such a profession because of their obsessiveness and pathology. Others, like Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl, would do it because they idolized the first generation of heroes; many, like Laurie Juspeczyk, the second Silk Spectre, would be born into it. Watchmen is a world where superheroes have petty jealousies and difficult relationships; they're not Charles Atlas cookie-cutters in blue spandex. Furthermore, Moore's graphic novel is crammed full of more symbols and meta-narratives than a Thomas Pynchon novel.
Ultimately, the answer to the question "Why did the comic book need to grow up?" is the same as the reason we all must grow up--it isn't a choice. All genres must be constantly rethought, reenvisioned, and retooled to remain vibrant and alive. I recall my professor once making what seemed to me a very fatuous rhetorical question--"Why are some of the earliest known works of literature the best?" He was referring to the epics of Homer, of course, but if you ask me, I have difficulty appreciating the epics without later writers who took those conventions and turned them on their head, from Vergil to Petronius to Milton. You might as well ask Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry why the Western had to grow up. Growing up is what we do as human beings, and in this postmodern world of ours there is no low art anymore. The comic book had to grow up, because otherwise the world would move on without it.
Shone writes, "One gets the feeling that Moore wanted to make us feel guilty for enjoying this—to take in the episode as one would a guilty pleasure. 'See apathy! Everybody escapin' into comic books and TV! Makes me sick,' shouts a news vendor, peddling comics while the streets around him run red with blood." He suggests that this is "self-hatred tricked out as superiority," and suggests it is--ironically, given the title of his article--an "old adolescent standby." But in taking the vendor's word as gospel he misses the complexity of the dialogue completely. The vendor's words are meant for us, surely, but they're also meant for the characters of the novel, who have literally "escaped into comic books," chastizing them for the hubris that is required for a person to put on a pair of tights and fight crime. And though it's meant for us, too, it doesn't seem like Moore--whose entire life is wrapped up in comic books and graphic novels--to insult his reader in such a way. But it could as well be a sign that Moore knew that Watchmen would symbolize a changing of the guard in his business; interviews show that he certainly has that sort of ego. But what Moore is doing here is not presenting an escape at all; by injecting a long-lacking realism into the comic book genre, he is taking the escape and turning it into a loop so that we end up where we begin. If the world of comic book heroes looks scarily like our own at times, where do we turn for comfort?
When Shone calls it "a comic book that wants to let the air out of your tires," he is precisely right. If, like Shone does, you go into it looking for that sense of wonder and escapism that we associate with comic books, you will surely be underwhelmed, as he is, and you too may say "so what?" But this comic book isn't about those things; it's about failure, loneliness, regret, death, and unstoppable tragedy. I don't want to give away too many plot points, but if you look at the page reprinted with Shone's article--with the extended white space, marked "Comics, grown up"--you will understand that Watchmen is not a book where the heroes, validated at last, swoop in at the last second to avert disaster. In their world, like ours, that sort of thing simply doesn't happen.