Back in the mid to late 1980s, I picked up the first issue in a twelve issue comic-book series called Watchmen. I was a teenager who had graduated from the innocence of Superman into the more troubled existence of Peter Parker and then to the continuing crisis of the X-Men born in a world that refused to understand them. I was ready for something else, something even edgier. The "Have a Nice Day" smiley face that appeared to have blood running down its surface on the cover of Watchmen #1 beckoned. I bit and stuck around for twelve issues.
The author of this masterpiece, one Alan Moore, is a paranoid left-winger (see V for Vendetta, for example), but the man can write. Perhaps the character whom people remember the most from Watchmen is Rorschach, a man in a hat and trenchcoat who covers his face with a mask of ever-changing ink impressions. Rorschach has no superpowers or even the genius and equipment of Batman. He is simply a man determined to set things right and uninhibited in his willingness to do violence to wrongdoers.
Rorschach was once a more conventional hero, we find out, but he has seen too much of the evil in the world and is no longer prepared to accept limits on his efforts to bring retribution. This vigilante, full of retrograde opinions and mourning for an America whose best days are behind her, is Archie Bunker without the laughs.
He is also a good deal more insightful than Bunker. Rorschach walks along a street in a city’s red-light district and notes that he is offered French love, Swedish love, and other exotic pleasures, but American love, he notes, "is like Coke in green glass bottles . . . they don’t make it anymore."
Rorschach is dangerous. And he is Moore’s idea of a conservative. If it is intended as an insult, it is one most of us can live with.
While Rorschach stands out among the characters, many of the rest are also quite memorable. We have The Comedian, a former masked crusader with a dark past who now does dirty deeds for the government. Ozymandias is like a Bruce Wayne who has decided to go public and cash in on his former exploits. The Night Owl is a genius who turns technology and desire into heroism, more like the Bruce Wayne we know and love. The Silk Spectre is a heroine because her mother was. Sh has been taught how to fight, but she became a costumed superheroine as much for the publicity and commercial possibilities as for fighting bad guys. Doc Manhattan is a demigod after having survived the nuclear deconstruction of his cells. As such, he is tempted to rise above the concerns of mere mortals.
All of these characters live in an America that has formally outlawed the independent activities of masked heroes as a response to public resentment and suspicion. What brings them together is a murder. Someone seems to want them dead or out of action. At the same time, the world is consumed in a larger drama of nuclear confrontation: the Cold War is running hot, and tensions may boil over. Doc Manhattan, an exceedingly powerful character, is not sure whether he cares.
This is the backdrop for one of the most compelling dramas ever created in comic book form. The graphic novel (a compilation of the twelve issues of the comic) gained the honor of being named one of the 100 greatest novels of all time by Time Magazine. Watchmen, in its original form, featured emotional depth, a high-quality story, and gripping engagement like no other comic I’ve ever read. If the film can live up to it’s print counterpart, then it will be well worth the money and the time.
—Hunter Baker (J.D., Ph.D.) is the author of The End of Secularism, to be published by Crossway Books in August 2009. He currently serves on the political science faculty at Houston Baptist University and is a longtime contributor to The American Spectator online.