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In 1986, Watchmen skewered the way we love superheroes. It’s still as relevant as ever.

Why we keep coming back to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen.

The cover of Watchmen #1 featuring the eyes of a smiley face and a splat of blood.
The cover of Watchmen #1.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Watchmen was never meant to be a regular superhero comic book, and it made its intentions clear right from the jump.

Average readers might not notice what makes Watchmen so different. But superhero comic book covers tend to be superheroes striking poses fighting evil or supervillains striking poses fighting good, with a certain strategy to their art: According to the 2017 annotated version of Watchmen, because of the way comic books are displayed in an overlapping pattern in comic book stores, the trick is to push titles toward the center and keep the imagery to the center and right of the cover page.

The covers for all 12 issues of Watchmen — released just over 30 years ago, from 1986 to 1987 — balk at this. The title, written in all caps, traces up vertically on the left, near the spine. No characters appear on the covers, nor are there any fight scenes or scintillating imagery to lure the reader in, a break in ranks for superhero comic books.

No gimmicks, no tricks — no tradition. Watchmen hinted that it wouldn’t be anything like the superhero comics status quo before a reader even started leafing through an issue.

What happens in the book bears this out. Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons begin with what seems like an everyday superhero story: a murder mystery, a band of heroes coming together, an all-powerful blue-skinned being, and humanity’s existence hanging in the balance.

But slowly, Watchmen unfurls into something much darker and keener: a story that, while rife with ostentatious characters like mad genius Ozymandias and all-powerful Doctor Manhattan, is much more grounded in showing us what it’s like to be powerless.

We’ve heard over and over from other beloved comic book heroes that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Instead, Watchmen presents an uncomfortable scenario, a too-real reflection of how personal responsibility tends to evaporate in the presence of that great power.

Despite how much Watchmen bucked comic book trends at the time, it had the weight of one of the medium’s biggest names behind it. After a start in underground comics, writer Alan Moore created the acclaimed series Marvelman and V for Vendetta (both in 1982) before moving onto DC Comics. There, he was tasked with revitalizing Swamp Thing and creating the character comics fans have come to know as John Constantine. Even if you’re not familiar with those specific works, most of Moore’s creations (and others he would go on to write, like The Killing Joke) would transcend comics and be adapted into television, movies, or inspire other comics and pieces of pop culture.

But Moore’s bonafides and DC Comics’ publishing power (as the home of Batman and Superman, among others) did not ensure Watchmen’s success. The book was still an ambitious bet for what it was: a superhero story that went against the grain of superhero stories that people loved.

Watchmen turned out to be a commercial and critical success. Although sales figures for the period are warped by comic books sold at both newsstands and stores versus comic book stores alone (Watchmen was the latter), and some distributors at the time did not record their sales figures, Watchmen’s first issue was among the top five bestselling comic books upon its initial release, according to ComicChron; the following 11 issues also placed within the top 20 of the comic book sales charts.

And in 1988, when the comics’ run had wrapped, Watchmen won a Hugo Award, a major accolade for science fiction and fantasy fiction, one of only nine graphic novels to ever win the award.

The series continues to be regularly reprinted in a collected edition, and it sells in large numbers. In 2008, ahead of a 2009 Watchmen film adaptation, DC printed 900,000 additional paperback copies of the novel, up from the 100,000 sold the year before, the New York Times reported. Both were huge numbers for the publisher and showed the interest that the series continued to command decades after its debut.

Thirty-three years after the first issue of Watchmen arrived in 1986, it remains clear that the bet is one that Moore, Gibbons, and DC made good on. There is no Western comic book or graphic novel more revered or more discussed than Watchmen. Watchmen is considered “the moment comics books grew up,” routinely makes lists like “the comic books you need to read before you die,” and has been called the “Citizen Kane of comics books.”

It’s also the only graphic novel to appear on Time’s list of the 100 best novels released since the publication began in 1923, with critic Lev Grossman writing in 2010, “Told with ruthless psychological realism, in frugal, overlapping plotlines and gorgeous, cinematic panels rich with repeating motifs, Watchmen is a heart-pounding, heartbreaking read and a watershed in the evolution of a young medium.”

In 2009, Watchmen was adapted into a movie, which was decidedly less praised than its comics counterpart. But starting Sunday, October 20, Watchmen is getting a new life as an HBO show — already hailed as one of the best television shows of the year — helmed by Damon Lindelof, the mastermind who gave us Lost and The Leftovers.

Accompanying the show is the reassurance that one doesn’t have to be familiar with the source material to enjoy it. Having seen five episodes, I can vouch for that. But there’s a reason Watchmen has become an immortal piece of pop culture (though it should be noted that Moore isn’t a fan of adaptations of his work).

Watchmen takes the simple idea of a superhero and forces us to examine why we’re so drawn to that fantasy. Moore and Gibbons close the distance between fiction and reality to unearth something a little more disturbing (or reassuring, depending on how you read it) about our place among, and obsession with, superheroes, villains, and justice. And it’s somewhere in that space that we can find a little more understanding about the world we live in.

Who watches the Watchmen?

“Who watches the Watchmen” appears as graffiti on a roll-down door on an auto repair shop in a panel of the comic “Watchmen.”
“Who watches the Watchmen”?
Gibbons/DC Comics

The central theme of Watchmen is the question of “Who watches the Watchmen?” — a variant translation of the Roman poet and satirist Juvenal’s “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or “Who guards the guards themselves?”

Originally, Juvenal posed the question in the context of Roman women and wives. Juvenal was concerned about the purity of Roman women and questioned who would make sure everyone’s wives stayed pure and innocent if wives could just seduce whoever was watching them.

It takes on a little different context nowadays, as Juvenal’s sexist observation is instead applied to things like police or national security or anyone with any power.

Watchmen is primarily concerned with who keeps the people with the most power in check. And Moore and Gibbons, through their immersive saga, show that the most powerful will do everything they can to stay that way.

Watchmen takes place in a similar but alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is still president and superheroes, except for ones employed by the government, are outlawed. That leaves some heroes, once adulated and admired, now on the outs. One of the government-regulated heroes, The Comedian, is found murdered, which spurs Rorschach, a law-breaking vigilante detective, to reconnect with his fellow former superheroes, because he believes there’s a plot to kill all ex-superheroes.

Here is a very abridged and condensed summary:

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.

Over the series’ 12 issues, the intricate plot hangs on another ex-hero, Adrian Veidt a.k.a. Ozymandias, who sees a worldwide nuclear conflict brewing between the United States and Russia and other superpowers. His idea is that if the countries unite, they won’t blow each other apart, inspiring him to create a fake enemy to bring world peace.

Rorschach, after breaking a few fingers along the way, figures this out and is appalled. But by the time this plan has been fully revealed and partially executed (mass killings in New York have ensued), the other former heroes are then given the choice to go along with the coverup.

The “heroes,” including the almighty Doctor Manhattan (you know, the naked blue one), reluctantly go with Veidt’s plan. Despite their supposed heroism, they kept the secret to ensure a future where people, fearing an inter-dimensional war, trust their heroes more and become more obedient.

Rorschach is the only hero who doesn’t go along with the idea, which prompts Doctor Manhattan to kill him to ensure that no one ever finds out who was behind all the chaos.

Essentially, the most powerful and good people of this world are capable of the most dastardly things. Then why do we trust them? Where are our own personal responsibilities in this?

And do these heroes especially care about us the way we care about them? Absolutely not.

A panel from Watchmen
“Watch the Skies” is one of the messages that appears in Watchmen that refers to skepticism of overarching authority.
Gibbons/DC Comics

Like other superhero stories, Watchmen spins out allegories for our real-world ills. It isn’t difficult to trace a line from the themes in Watchmen to Moore’s abhorrence of Reaganite politics and policies — the arms race, the Cold War, the way we mythologize authority figures — at the time.

But even today, Watchmen’s critiques feel relevant. It can read like a takedown of the superficial way we fantasize ideas of superheroes courtesy of Marvel’s billion dollar moviemaking machine. Or it could be about the rise of American authoritarianism and how xenophobia and racism are just as powerful as an interdimensional alien threat at spurring people to throw away their own rights.

Moore and Gibbons don’t simply explain the pitfalls of trusting superheroes and how power corrupts, but rather seek to show how power and its relationship with fear make superheroes or powerful people so alluring to you and me.

Watchmen is packed with deliberate intent but it isn’t always interpreted that way

One of my favorite things about Watchmen is the amount of detail that’s poured into each panel. For example, one of the recurring symbols in the book is the classic smiley face smeared with a trail of crimson blood, embedded into panels with masterful subtlety:

A panel from “Watchmen” showing the character The Comedian looking beat up and wearing a smiley face badge with a blood smear on it. The text reads, “Somebody really had it in for this guy.”
The bloody smiley face seen on The Comedian.
Gibbons/DC Comics

As the annotated version points out, Gibbons and Moore used the smiley face because of a research experiment they’d heard had been done on babies, in which babies will respond to the most basic depiction of a smiling face.

“A yellow circle with two black dots for eyes and a black smile drawn in was the simplest design that will elicit a response from a newborn baby,” the first annotation in the book reads, gleaned from an interview Moore did with George Khoury, the author of The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore.

Smearing blood on the face that is “the simplest design that will elicit a response from a newborn” was their way of really driving home the loss of innocence. Moore and Gibbons also wanted to draw a line between the idea of a newborn’s positive reaction to the smiley face and the teen and adult reaction to superheroes: The very basic idea of a superhero, a caped crusader, elicits a basic response of nostalgic reverence or awe from many of us.

What happens when that gets bloodied and corrupted?

With all the painstaking detail that Moore and Gibbons paid to the comic, it’s almost comedic that Moore and Gibbons’s work has been interpreted to mean the inverse of what they set out to do and is seen by some fans as a justification of heroism and vigilantism.

In 2015, headed into the fight to become the Republican presidential nominee, Senator Ted Cruz did a series of interviews about pop culture. One of the topics broached was his favorite comic book superheroes. One of his favorites, he said, was Watchmen’s Rorschach.

Giving Cruz the benefit of the doubt, this list could easily have been the work of assistants and his PR firm to pick heroes that would make Cruz seem cool and well-read; superhero stalwarts like Iron Man and Spider-Man were also on the list. But Rorschach in Watchmen is a repugnant, egotistical nihilist, a hateful, paranoid vigilante who constantly puts himself above the law.

Moore has said Rorschach is an homage of sorts to highly regarded comics artist Steve Ditko and his right-wing ideologies, drawn from writer Ayn Rand’s polarizing theory of objectivism that Moore vehemently disagreed with.

“[Y]es, Steve Ditko did have a very right-wing agenda (which of course, he’s completely entitled to), but at the time, it was quite interesting, and that probably led to me portraying [Watchmen character] Rorschach as an extremely right-wing character,” Moore said in a 2000 interview with Comic Book Artist magazine.

“I have to say I found Ayn Rand’s philosophy laughable,” Moore added. “It was a ‘white supremacist dreams of the master race,’ burnt in an early 20th century form. Her ideas didn’t really appeal to me, but they seemed to be the kind of ideas that people would espouse, people who might secretly believe themselves to be part of the elite and not part of the excluded majority. I would basically disagree with all of Ditko’s ideas, but he has to be given credit for expressing these political ideas.”

A panel from “Watchmen” in which the character Rorschach writes in his diary, “Slept all day. Awoken at 4:37. Landlady complaining about smell. She has five children by five different fathers. I am sure she cheats on welfare. Soon it will be dark.”
Rorschach and one of his journal entries.

Given how Moore felt about Rand and Ditko and how he created Rorschach to be a vessel for these views, interpreting Rorschach to be a hero worth emulating becomes antithetical. Though you could argue that with how xenophobic and racist President Donald Trump turned out to be, maybe idolizing a Rorschach was, at the time, a clever ploy from Cruz to appeal to a like-minded, at-times-extremist voter base.

“The first time I read Watchmen I immediately embraced this uncompromising character who, when the going got tough, put his head down and refused to let the government tell him to stop doing the right thing,” Susana Polo, comics editor at Polygon, wrote in 2015 of Cruz’s affection for Rorschach, explaining how it’s easy to see the character as a hero.

“This early alliance with Rorschach’s point of view made later parts of the comic pretty disturbing for me, as Rorschach’s extraordinarily negative opinion of women and the poor and the LGBTQ community is made known, as his intrusive behavior towards his friends arises, as he terrorizes a reformed and terminally ill supervillain for taking unprescribed painkillers, and as he brutally kills animals for their owner’s crimes,” she added.

Just as off base was Zack Snyder’s 2009 cinematic interpretation of Watchmen, which received a bevy of mixed reviews. A recurring criticism within the negative reviews was that Snyder, who has a cinematic track record of eroticizing masculinity and violence and has been criticized for dabbling in racism in his movie 300, kind of missed the point of all the violence and the critical eye against superheroism that Moore and Gibbons baked into their comic.

“[M]ore disturbing than the soulless copycat feel of the film’s narrative was the overwhelmingly fetishized violence of Snyder’s visual style,” Esquire’s Dom Nero wrote in a 2018 retrospective on the film. “The brutality of Watchmen is meant to be seen from a lens of empathy, not aggression.”

The way Cruz and Snyder think about Watchmen brings up the classic conflict of an author’s intent versus an audience’s interpretations. But dismissing their views as “wrong,” while tidier, isn’t nearly as fascinating as figuring out why their interpretations are so off from what Moore and Gibbons intended.

“For a long while, I’ve thought that what Moore and I had created was itself like a Rorschach blot: a sprawling, eccentric design of words and pictures that readers could interpret and add emphasis to in their own minds,” Gibbons wrote in his foreword to the 2017 annotated version of the graphic novel. “I’ve now come around to thinking that the twelve issues of Watchmen are actually less like a Rorschach test for the reader and more akin to ... a blizzard of words and pictures much like the seething broadcast information from which Ozymandias himself attempts to distill meaning.”

If Gibbons’s first hunch about how readers would interpret the work was correct, then it seems Cruz and Snyder and like-minded fans find something in Watchmen that stokes their fantasies about justice, violence, and law handed down — missing Moore and Gibbons’s signals about how this world isn’t built for objectivism.

In that same vein, there’s a sentiment that Damon Lindelof’s HBO series is going to help us forget the maligned 2009 adaption. It’s not a straight adaptation, but rather a sequel set in a 2019 version of the world that Moore and Gibbons built. HBO’s Watchmen gives comic book fans hope that Lindelof and HBO do Moore and Gibbons right, that this timeless story speaks to their souls in a way that other pieces of pop culture don’t.

No doubt, we’re all allowed to feel any which way about Watchmen. But the way we feel about Watchmen, any adaptation of Watchmen, and the rich world of comic books like it, are feelings sparked by our own personal values, perceived hypocrisies and injustices, and barometers of heroism. And the magic of this book is that it allows us to tap into those feelings by losing ourselves in its story.