By Sara Karlovitch
When you walk into your local comic book store and pick up the latest edition of “Captain America” or “Wonder Woman,” what do you expect? An action-packed little adventure full of characters hellbent on doing “the right thing,” always out to save the day? Usually, that’s the case. Very rarely is the reader in store for something darker, something that raises ethical questions we tend to ignore.
The 1987 series “Watchmen” does exactly that. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, the Detective Comics series provides readers with an anti-hero story.
Before I get into my review, a little comic book history lesson is crucial. Comic books, like any media, go through “ages” that are defined by a few main characteristics. Comic books started with a Golden Age in the ’40s and lasted until the mid-1950s. The golden age was defined by heroes like Superman and Captain America. Comics were for little children and the stories were juvenile.
The Golden Age gave way to the silver age, which ended in the’70s. The silver age is defined by “The Fantastic Four” and “The Flash.” Comic book giant Stan Lee exploded onto the scene at Marvel Comics and remains in an active role to this day. It is important to note that Silver Age comics were similar in structure to the Golden Age comics. Villains were very clearly villains and heroes were very clearly heroes, no philosophical discussions going on here.
The Silver age birthed the Bronze Age, which lasted until the mid-1980s. The Bronze age was more morally ambiguous. The line between heroes and villains became blurrier. More importantly, non-Caucasian heroes were becoming more common. Unfortunately, most were horrible stereotypes, but the groundwork was laid for the more diverse field of comics we see today.
Out of the ’80s comes the Dark Age, more commonly referred to as the Modern Age. Stories like “Secret Empire” and “Sandman” blur the line between hero and villain even further. These stories deal with heavy social, moral and political issues.
Think of the Modern Age is similar to the Bronze Age, but with more diversity and for an older audience. LGBTQIA+ and non-white heroes are becoming common. Most importantly, who is reading comics is shifting radically. Comic book consumption has grown with women, the LGBTQIA+ community and minorities.
The Modern Age is a more adult, sophisticated era of comics. Comics are no longer just for little kids, they’re for adults. I can sit here as a full-grown woman and carry around my comics in public without shame.
The series that is considered to have started the Modern Age is the series I am here to discuss today: “Watchmen.” In “Watchmen,” the line between hero and villain is gone and the reader is left grappling difficult questions with no easy answer.
“Watchmen” follows the story of a group of has-been superheroes called the Watchmen. They saved the country from crime during the ’70s, but the public became concerned that the vigilantes were going unchecked, that the power was going to their heads. They hang up their capes, Nixon wins a third term and nuclear war with the Russians is imminent. Things get particularly messy when someone begins killing masked heroes, and the Watchmen have to get the gang back together for self-preservation.
“Watchmen” is full of twists and turns. No character is as they seem. There are profound moral questions like how much sacrifice is okay for the greater good, and when does catching the bad guy become less about justice and more about power?
“Watchmen” started the modern age of comics, it pushed an industry into adulthood and its influence can be felt everywhere. Antiheroes are everywhere now despite being a rarity in the gold through bronze ages. Darker heroes like Marvel’s “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil” are the new normal.
“Watchmen” started a movement, a new era in the comic book continuum. But why was it successful? Why do we, as a comic book audience, love to read about shitty heroes?
It is my belief that it boils down to this: Antiheroes are simply more interesting. When you pick up “Wonder Woman,” for example, you know Wonder Woman is going to save the day. You know that she’ll never be tempted by the dark side. She’ll never question her own morals and beliefs. A story like that makes us feel safe. Diana (better know as Wonder Woman) never questions herself, or her methods of exacting justice, so neither should we.
However, the Watchmen question everything. It leads the reader to question their own morals along with them. The Watchmen explore the darkness in each of them, and their potential for corruption. Their actions have consequences, often grave ones. This arch is more compelling, more complex than the traditional comic book.
“Watchmen” compels us to question our heroes, to ask ourselves difficult moral and philosophical questions. Throughout the graphic novel, the slogan “Who Watches the Watchmen?” appears over and over. Who watches the people in power? The people calling the shots? In the book, the answer is complicated and the distraction around it isn’t easy. However, it is an essential conversation, one that we need to have today.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of the “Watchmen Movie” Facebook‘s page.
Sara Karlovitch is a sophomore journalism and government and politics major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.