Written by Matthew Edwards 

“What happened to America? What’s happened to the American dream?”
“It came true. You’re lookin’ at it.”— Alan Moore, Watchmen

ClockIn American comic books, Alan Moore’s Watchmen has been placed on a pedestal, exalted as graphic storytelling at its finest. Securing both a Hugo award and a place in Time Magazine’s “All-Time 100 Novels,” Watchmen was one of the first works of the comics industry to be a recognized work of art. Now, nearly thirty years since publication, Watchmen’s impact can still be seen in comics, changing how superhero stories have been told ever since. If there’s only one graphic novel you’re ever going to read, it should be Watchmen.

So what makes this comic so special?

Basically, Watchmen heralds the “Dark Age” of comics. Starting in the 80s and still going strong today, the Dark Age is an emphasis in mainstream superhero comics on darker storylines geared for a mature audience. Before Watchmen, comics were seen as a waste of time, fantastic tales of super men saving damsels in distress. After Watchmen, philosophy, psychology, mature themes, and mature content are now standard in any superhero comic on the shelves. Nowadays, it is adults—not children—that visit their local comic book stores.

Watchmen had a role in this change due to its nature as deconstructive literature. What Watchmen did was to take the shining world of superheroes and brings them into the gritty, messy world we call reality. It touches on the social and political climate of its time while asking if things would be different if superheroes existed. With the fear of nuclear war throughout the graphic novel, Watchmen questions if even superheroes could save humanity from killing itself. These ideas are explored in a visually stunning murder mystery, with a use of color that reflects the nihilistic implications of the text; its bleakly powerful coloring haunts your mind with the filth and hopelessness of the world.

Gaze Into The Abyss

This commentary against superheroes saving the day launched Watchmen’s success. Watchmen draws attention to the stereotypical story of the superhero while resisting the common notion of superheroes as saviors. Watchmen’s tone demonstrates a hopelessness in humanity; the work reverberates with a sense that mankind cannot accomplish anything besides eventual self-destruction. This is seen when Rorschach, a “superhero,” speaks to his therapist about mankind and God.

“Looked at the sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating, dark goes on forever, and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.”

These powerful words demonstrate the hopelessness in Watchmen of a world without God. Since there is no explanation of existence besides what humans make for themselves, Rorschach views the world as inherently vile due to mankind’s ill treatment of one another. In the face of the abyss, mankind cannot blame any God or force for their misery. Humanity itself rushes toward oblivion. Rorschach is not the only character to view the world in this way—rather, the majority of Watchmen’s characters believe that life itself is meaningless. The characters of Watchmen view the world as shattered. They are broken watches without a watchmaker.

Through this theological crisis, Watchmen wars against superhero stories. Superman cannot save the world of Watchmen. Neither can God. Humanity is on its own in Watchmen, and—left to its own devices—this will result in eventual self-destruction. In this way, Watchmen reveals the disease of mankind, but does not offer a cure. Watchmen emphasizes the horrors of death and destruction in a world without God, and a world without someone flying through the clouds to save us.

“I Leave It Entirely In Your Hands”

Watchmen brought escapist comic readers back to reality, claiming that this world would be equally troubled with or without superhero help. However, this critique on superhero stories reveals that theology was already asserted in comics. Watchmen solidified the existence of theology in comic books, showing how from Action Comics’ first issue there has been a theology of salvation found in superhero stories, a salvation by the strong to save the weak—something presented as unsettling and questionable in Watchmen. Still, Watchmen brings the subconscious to light, revealing the fact that philosophy and theology have been existing in comics from the beginning, and will continue to exist as comic books and graphic novels continue to be created. Watchmen’s ending draws attention to this by having the last words spoken by a character be, “I leave it entirely in your hands.” In this way, Watchmen created space for future comic book storytelling, while deconstructing the superhero story of the past.

Regardless of what’s to come, Watchmen has clearly left its mark in comic book history, changing the industry forever by dissolving the unquestionable good cliché superheroes. But the story is not over. Watchmen started the discussion, revealed the theology, and invited supporters—and opposition—to join in the conversation. Watchmen’s nihilism is not the final word on superhero stories, and the Dark Age of comics will not be the last age. What will become of comics, and their theology, is left entirely in our hands.

Are you a Watchmen fan? A comic fanatic? Check out what StoryForge is up to at Wonder Con as we team up with Making Comics!