November 28, 2017

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Spirit of '85- a look at Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen #1

 

With the release of Doomsday Clock #1, DC Comics, Geoff Johns, and Gary Frank are looking to the past of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen to ground the current DC Universe. In his constant way of trying to rewrite Alan Moore (see Green Lantern,) Geoff Johns is engaging in his own brand of weaponized nostalgia and trying to drag a company’s’ entire output along with him. So instead of following Johns and Frank in their nostalgic cynicism, let’s try to imagine a bit of what it would be like to read and write about Watchmen #1 without having any idea what it was going to become.

Reading it some thirty odd years later, Watchmen #1 reads like surprisingly small and intimate comic even while it introduces gods and sociopaths disguised as superheroes. Beginning with a murder mystery, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons turn the story of brightly costumes do-gooders into a story murder and conspiracies. This first issue isn’t the beginning of anything new but signals the end of an era for these characters. In the opening pages, as we watch a beefy, older man get pummeled and tossed out a window, Moore and Gibbons end an age of innocence.

Now even before this comic, there had been a darkening of comics, one you could trace back to the 1970s and a reaction to post-Vietnam America. The colorful optimism of Batman Superman and Spider-Man roles into the biting satire of Howard the Duck and even Moore’s own Marvel Man and V For Vendetta. Frank Miller tapped into and grew out of the same zeitgeist, culminating in his own The Dark Knight Returns. But unlike the Comics which preceded them, Miller, Moore, and Gibbons questioned not only the world around them but the heroes we used for escape from that world.

Watchmen #1 introduces “heroes” who outlived their usefulness by at least 10 years. They had basically been legislated out of existence in 1976, driven into retirement, secret government service, or underground to carry on their crusade. With silver-aged names like The Comedian, Rorschach, Nite Owl, The Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, and Dr. Manhattan, Miller and Gibbons begin to explore what comes after the age of heroes with the death of one of those characters.

Laying the foundations of their story with the murder of The Comedian, Moore and Gibbons begin their story with death. It’s just the death of one man but thanks to the conspiracy theory that Rorschach puts together, that someone is out to kill all of the costumed heroes, it’s one death that’s just waiting for everyone else to catch up to it. With this one man’s death, a cycle of more death is practically a given thanks to the way that Moore and Gibbons build their story. If any other character had picked up on the death of the Comedian, maybe there would have been a chance for another possible outcome but since it’s the hero with the weakest grip on reality, Rorschach, it’s hard to see how there could be any happy ending to this story.

This issue isn’t about following clues or trying yet to figure out who killed the Comedian. It’s about Rorschach warning his allies, probably the closest things he has to friends, about his deepest fears. He thinks someone is out to kill all of them so he goes to warn them. Read that way, Watchmen begins on a surprisingly humane level. On some level, it’s about a man trying to protect the people who mean the most to him. Of course, that man is more than a bit of a sociopath with delusions of grandeur so your mileage may vary on just how touching Rorschach’s actions are.

Those “friends” all accept Rorschach in different ways. Dan Dreiberg, once the hero Nite Owl, sees in Rorschach the man who was once his partner is simpler and more innocent days. Dreiberg is the only one who seems concerned about Rorschach and what he’s going through. Adrian Veidt sees a reminder of his past and what he’s come from. The smartest man on Earth has turned his days as a costumed adventurer into a huge business. And for Dr. Manhattan and Sally Juspeczyk, the government's secret weapon and his tenuous connection to humanity, Rorschach is just another pest, one to be disposed of as quick as possible so that they can get back to their own protected world and work. And these are the people that Rorschach is looking out for. Without revealing everything about these characters, Moore and Gibbons skillfully navigate this cast to begin peeling back the layers in subsequent issues.

Watchmen is a mystery and it’s all right there in the first issue and even in the first pages. While everyone likes to think that the question behind this book is “who watches the watchmen?,” it’s really “who killed the Comedian and why?” Maybe we could have more reliable detectives to this mystery than Rorschach, a vigilante who, at best, is barely tolerated by his contemporaries and, more realistically, disgusts them with his own barely tenable grasp of reality. Not the best detective to solve a murder mystery. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s first issue tells us everything we need to know about this world and these characters. It’s a solid foundation for them to continue to explore and expand this world and these characters.

Watchmen #1
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn & Lettered by Dave Gibbons
Colored by John Higgins
Published by DC Comics