More than two decades later Watchmen is still “the Citizen Kane of comics”, but it got one thing wrong however: the tragic story of Kitty Genovese . . .

Published in 1986 to 1987 as twelve monthly issues and an eventual bestselling graphic novel, Watchmen truly stretched the “horizons of the graphic novel” as a blurb on the back cover declares. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen has held up remarkably well. Here is a piece of work that can be described as both canonical and highly influential and still cannot be dismissed as “it was good – for its time” in spite of countless imitators over the years.

Without Watchmen there wouldn’t have been any Heroes, Hancock or The Incredibles (the movie which “borrows” from it the most). Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (which also first appeared in 1986) Watchmen not only rewrote the message behind comics, but also the medium itself. Unlike most comics it uses a nine-panel-per-page grid resulting in more vertical images. It also threw out chop sock kapowy sound effects and thought balloons in favor of a more “filmic” voice-over narration like the one in the original cut of Blade Runner.

Most famously it made the world of spandex-wearing superheroes more “adult” by making its heroes flawed and setting them in a more realistic and gritty urban milieu. Think Superman – the Movie meets Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and you’ll have idea of what to expect. Set in an alternate history world of a 1986 in which Richard Nixon is still U.S. president instead of Ronald Reagan and the Cold War is still at its height and the word “détente” is never so much as uttered once. This is world that is one red-button push away from global nuclear destruction!

In Watchmen’s world superheroes are also real. Or make that superhero, singular. Only one of the so-called superheroes in the book, Dr. Manhattan, has any “real” superpowers; the rest are just supers of the Batman variety: masked adventurers with no real extraordinary powers. In fact Dr. Manhattan is so insanely powerful (he can alter matter and time at whim) that he single-handedly maintains the uneasy peace between the two superpower rivals of Russia and the United States. Manhattan also single-handedly won the Vietnam War for America, which explains why they changed the U.S. Constitution to re-elect Nixon for the umpteenth time.

Dr. Manhattan used to be an atomic physicist named Jon Osterman who turned into the god-like Manhattan following a freak accident involving a particle testing chamber at a secret nuclear facility. Manhattan is however becoming increasingly alienated from humanity, unconcerned with its everyday existence and issues. “You’re drifting out of touch, doc,” one character tells him. “You’re turnin’ into a flake. God help us all.”

"It’s like a bubblegum wrapper with the meaning of life on it!”
- Watchmen director Zack Snyder"

What makes Watchmen stand up so well to this day is both its compelling characterization and its much celebrated “dark” outlook on Life, the Universe and Everything. “It’s like a bubblegum wrapper with the meaning of life on it,” Watchmen director Zack Snyder enthused. One aspect which has gone relatively unremarked upon is the way Watchmen effectively builds up its alternate history world by blending both the familiar and familiar. This is a world very similar to ours (or at least circa ‘Seventies) in which fashions are slightly “off” and electric cars clog the streets instead of fossil fuel ones, courtesy of the brilliant Dr. Manhattan’s scientific research. Still, we catch glimpses of the familiar: then vice-president Gerald Ford, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the Soviets invading Afghanistan, street punks listening to a John Cale song on a ghetto blaster, familiar New York streets, etc.

Although it appeared in the mid-Eighties, the world of Watchmen is more influenced by the realities of the 1970s than any other decade. It is very much infused with an obsession with violent street crime and issues revolving around societal decay typical of the era. Not only was violent crime in the ‘Seventies at an all-time high and much higher than nowadays, but that turbulent decade also saw the rise of behavioral psychology and several depressing human behavioral experiments that painted a rather bleak picture of humanity. (The findings of the famous – or is that infamous? - Milgram’s 37 experiment were first published in 1974 for instance. It could be argued that these experiments revealed more about the men who dreamt them up than their test subjects though.)

All of these psychological experiments seem to underwrite nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s assertion that man is a “disease.” (The full quote is: “The Earth has a skin and that skin has diseases, one of its diseases is called man.” Incidentally, a different Nietzsche quote is used in Watchmen.)

Another dedicated Nietzschean – or at least in his misanthropic leanings – is Rorschach, one of Watchmen’s masked vigilantes. (More psychiatry: the Rorschach test is a psychological test that involves showing inkblots to test subjects. It is named after the early 20th century Swiss psychiatrist of the same name that devised the test.) Rorschach is one of the more fascinating characters in Watchmen, an uncompromising and violent vigilante wearing a mask decorated with Rorschach inkblots. Rorschach has right-wing leanings and a troubled childhood and past. He also is more Punisher than Batman and has no qualms whatsoever about outright killing criminals.

Unlike Batman (or The Punisher for that matter) he however doesn’t have any family or relatives killed off by street thugs or the mafia in his past. No, Rorschach turned to masked vigilantism and crime fighting because he can be described as . . . a concerned citizen. No seriously. On page 10 of chapter VI of Watchmen (basically an “origins” issue) Rorschach reveals to a prison psychiatrist what finally made him turn into a masked crime-fighter: he was upset by what had happened to Kitty Genovese . . .


Next: "The real Kitty Genovese incident was nothing as depicted in Alan Moore's Watchmen graphic novel . . ."




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