Here’s another classic: Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen was published in 1986, and it’s probably my favourite piece of superhero media. (I’m not usually a fan of superhero stories. They bore me.) It’s about a group of masked vigilantes, the Minutemen, almost all of whom are perfectly ordinary human beings with gadgets and/or extreme psychological quirks – more Batman than Superman, apart from Doctor Manhattan, a former nuclear physicist who gained power over time and space when he was caught in a nuclear accident.
So, yeah. Its key question is: what would late Cold War-era America really look like if a bunch of randomers started doling out vigilante justice? Especially if each of those randomers has a different idea of what justice is and what the world should look like? And if those randomers are granted the support and blessing of the government?
As I’ve said, my understanding of the superhero genre is limited at best – and my reasons for disliking it generally might have more to do with my own greater tolerance for books than films than any actual deficiency in the subject matter. The only superhero film I’ve seen that addresses the same kind of questions as Watchmen does (apart from the film adaptation of Watchmen itself, which I mostly found interminable, running as it does to about two and a half hours) is The Dark Knight, whose focus on just two characters, Batman and the Joker, makes its engagement with those themes more limited than what Watchmen’s wider scope allows it to do. Moore’s expanded cast of vigilantes allows him to explore conflicts within the group around what “good” and “evil” look like, and what they should be fighting for. Is simple superheroing enough? Or should the Minutemen be doing more sustained work towards achieving the greater good?
I did like how the ending dramatises these conflicts to produce something very bleak indeed – it asks us as readers to examine our moral priorities and our expectations for how superhero narratives are “meant” to turn out. It’s a complex novel that gives these vigilantes psychological reality against the backdrop of a world that is itself complex – it allows us none of the black and white moralities of traditional, patriotic American superhero stories.
Something for readers to be aware of is the relationship between vigilante Dan (known as Nite Owl) and his compatriot Sally – a relationship that begins when Sally is sixteen and Dan is definitely Older. Generally, the novel is not kind to its women – there’s only really two of them, for one thing, and one of them exists primarily in order to be sexually assaulted by one of the Minutemen. The other, Laurie, is similarly defined by her relationship dramas, which few of the male Minutemen seem to share.
If that’s something you can overlook, though, it’s certainly worth doing so. Watchmen is a genre-defining novel, one that’s satisfyingly complex even for readers like me who have only a passing knowledge of Marvel, DC and their ilk. Superhero narratives are so prevalent now that their core assumptions and tropes are easily accessible to everyone – and, given their dominance in our mass media today, it’s important to be aware of their history, and of works like this one that have informed their development and their reception.