Set in an alternate 1985 where costumed heroes are real—and outlawed—Watchmen follows six adventurers. Rorschach, half-mad, continues his vigilante activities. Nite Owl is retired and a worrywart. The former Ozymandias—the world’s smartest man—is now one of the richest. The Comedian is murdered at the very beginning; after the Keene Act passed, he was allowed to continue operating as a government enforcer. Dr. Manhattan was transformed into a superbeing in a nuclear accident in 1959; he is America’s strategic weapon in the arms race with the Soviets. And the former Silk Spectre is his girlfriend.
These people are not boy scouts, fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way. They are flawed individuals with motivations that are often murky, even to themselves.
Who watches the watchmen? Who indeed?
The very presence of masked adventurers over the last fifty years has transformed society. Dr. Manhattan is both responsible for many technological advances, such as flying cars, and the locus of much of the world’s tension. When he disappears off the face of the earth, destabilizing the balance of power, the Soviets immediately invade Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Rorschach meanwhile is convinced that someone is going after masked adventurers, and investigates. He’s right. There is something going on—something unspeakable.
Watchmen tells a complex story, weaving together many different strands into a tapestry that is a triumph of the comic book. The narrative moves back and forth across fifty years, collecting many viewpoints. And the comic within the comic–the Tale of the Black Freighter—accentuates the main storyline. The artwork too repays careful study. There’s often two or three things going on in a single panel. Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Originally published in twelve issues, Watchmen was promptly republished as a book. It is one of the titles that gave rise to the category of graphic novel, deserving the Hugo that it won. The film adaptation will be released in March.