The blood stands out in the gloom of Watchmen. New York is the setting for Alan Moore’s graphic novel, in the midst of the 1980s and the United States’ impending nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Few comic book series have ever inspired such devotion to a singular storyline as Watchmen did. The characters’ brutal realism within their world is anchored not only by carnage, but also the fear that armageddon may be impossible to avoid.
When all has transpired and the full scale of what atrocities have taken place is laid bare, Watchmen asks the audience to consider a simple question: what price is too high to pay for everlasting peace? It’s a moral riddle with no clear answer.
The graphic novel has several other cultural messages for modern society as well—Watchmen deals with class imbalance, god complexes, police brutality, and more—but the crux has always been about society’s mutations under corruption.
Here are our reasons for why Watchmen is the absolute best graphic novel ever written to this day.
4. Watchmen’s Complex Characters
Watchmen’s principal characters are mere mortals who wear costumes and defend their city against criminals. Characters like Nite Owl, Ozymandias, The Comedian, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach are proficient fighters but have no superpowers to speak of.
They’re not only mortal, but complex. These human beings who once formed the group known as The Watchmen are now retired (except for Rorschach). They’re flawed and morally gray. They started in idealism but slid into pessimism, even cynicism.
John Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) is the only character in the story to have superpowers—ones that make him a living god and cause him to slowly lose his grip on his humanity. Yet he’s the only thing that can bring humankind away from the brink of war.
The fully-realized and deeply-written characters of Watchmen never appear in any other comic books, but they’re so memorable and instantly recognizable. Events like Comic-Con are filled with them—particularly Rorschach—every year to this day.
3. Rorschach the Unique Protagonist
If there’s one character in Watchmen who typifies the intricacies of the story, it’s Rorschach. He’s the unrevealed hero who never takes off his mask to make himself known. Not even to his teammates.
Rorschach is willing to kill and maim people, all in the name of never compromising on his ideals. His methods are extreme—even to the other Watchmen—but as his character unfolds, we start to see why he never reveals himself and why he never compromises.
His steadfast adherence to his staunch ideals of truth—and his belief that world peace can’t be bought at any cost—are what lead to his final moments. His actions end the story on an unpredictable and intriguing note, with his detailed findings sent to a newspaper.
There has never been a character like Rorschach in comic book history. He was made for a dark and gritty world that was overflowing with scum—so much so that he felt justified in killing those who did wrong, and he’d do so without a wink of hesitation.
2. Watchmen’s Moral Dilemmas
Every character in Watchmen has a view on the final actions of Ozymandias. Even Ozymandias himself acknowledges that he must live with the guilt of killing millions of people to “save the world.”
The logic and justification used to kill millions in the name of saving billions, and whether that’s good enough of a reason to do so? Well, that’s something the readers must also decide individually.
As the assembled Watchmen are in the same room with each other once again, this time they’re divided in their actions. Will they choose to uphold the newfound peace, or tear it down for the sake of truth?
Their decision is one that’s reached out of necessity. For the survival of the human race. It’s a verdict that’s based on a fear of the unknown—a verdict that Rorschach can’t accept, leading to his own demise.
When the graphic novel ends, the reader is left with a sense of who they are as a person—because the reader must confront their own moral stance on everything that has happened, and the answers we find in ourselves may come as a shock.
Few other graphic novels have the depth of Watchmen, and none leave the audience as enthralled by the final question.
1. Watchmen’s Iconic Art Style
The work that Dave Gibbons and John Higgins did to bring the graphic novel to life has become iconic. The Watchmen and the world that they inhabit was brought to life by the intense color of the original series, balanced against the dank streets of 1980s New York.
Zack Snyder’s 2009 film Watchmen stuck closely to the original renderings. Even if some characters had a more “movie” look afforded to them, the intent from Snyder and his team was there for all to see.
The HBO mini-series that served as a sequel to Watchmen went one step further and gave the requisite characters perfect comic-book-accurate looks. It felt like the original comic book came to life again in the 21st century.
All of this to say, Watchmen is so distinctly of its own style and direction, in ways that infuse the story and world with a spirit and quality that’s unique in the graphic novel world.
Combine that with all the other points regarding Watchmen’s characters and narrative, and you end up with a graphic novel that’s leaps and bounds beyond every other graphic novel to date.