’Initially, Watchmen gained a lot of its readership because it was taking an unusual look at superheroes, but actually it was more about redefining comics than it was about redefining one particular genre,’ said Alan Moore, the famous writer of what has been called the greatest comic book of all time, to a London music newspaper a few years ago. ‘There hasn't been a more sophisticated comic released in the 25 years since, which I find profoundly depressing, because it was intended to be something that expanded the possibilities of comics rather than what it has apparently become – a massive psychological stumbling block that the rest of the industry has yet to find a way round.’
It’s a stumbling block because Watchmen is an Irony in a genre which is fundamentally Epic in nature. Like most Ironies, it draws its strength from the Epic archetypes that it undermines or puts into a different perspective. The providential, participative and fundamentally orderly universe of the Epic story is twisted into the dark, distanced and chaotic inversion of an Irony.
Watchmen's Dr Manhattan is the only really ‘super-powered’ character in the graphic novel: the others, Rorschach, Nite Owl and friends, effectively become costumed vigilantes as a response to a world in which Manhattan’s ‘super powers’ are possible. Moore said that he was ‘interested in the superhero in real life’, and took the colourful world of the comic book super-hero from its two-dimensional home, placing it in the gritty, political and violent context of the mid-20th century. Another of Moore’s famous works, V for Vendetta, went on to inspire real people to wear facsimiles of masks from the comic book and film as part of the Anonymous movement. This was a trend with Moore - taking Epic templates and placing them in realistic, contemporary political frameworks: ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that what superheroes might be – in their current incarnation, at least – is a symbol of American reluctance to involve themselves in any kind of conflict without massive tactical superiority. I think this is the same whether you have the advantage of carpet bombing from altitude or if you come from the planet Krypton as a baby and have increased powers in Earth's lower gravity.’
Prior to this Ironic re-planting of the genre, Moore loved that superheroes represented ‘a wellspring of the imagination… Superman had a dog in a cape! He had a city in a bottle! It was wonderful stuff for a seven-year-old boy to think about.’ As in other Epics, the hero of a standard comic book tale was a larger-than-life character, imbued with power over the ordinary world in some way, whether through random mutation, possession of a Power Ring, being struck down by some kind of chemical/radioactive accident or being bitten by a radioactive spider. (Radiation, the bogey energy of the mid-century’s Cold War, was a source of possibilities well as an invisible threat.)
‘I suspect that a lot of superheroes now are basically about the unfair fight. You know: people wouldn't bully me if I could turn into the Hulk,’ Moore said in the same interview. But in saying so, he is missing a point: the fantasy of the super-hero is that of a weaker human being dreaming about suddenly gaining supernatural power. It’s the hope of someone born into an Ironic culture for an effective way of restoring truth and justice (‘and the American Way’) rather than a violent impulse. Or it was, until Moore and others darkened it.
Moore philosophises about comics in other places. ‘There is something about the quality of comics that makes things possible that you couldn't do in any other medium,’ he says. ‘Things that we did in Watchmen on paper could be frankly horrible or sensationalist or unpleasant if you were to interpret them literally through the medium of cinema. When it's just lines on paper, the reader is in control of the experience – it's a tableau vivant. And that gives it the necessary distance. It's not the same when you're being dragged through it at 24 frames per second.’ This is pertinent to the Epic/Ironic transition too: a cheaply-printed, brightly coloured book that can be held in the hands and read at a speed appropriate to each individual reader is an Epic proposition; a film, played at a universal speed in a darkened hall, full of shadows and loud, in-your-face violence is an Ironic one.
Watchmen in a graphic novel format stands exactly between the two. It takes the Epic forms of comics, the panelled pages, the colourful characters, the sequential plots that are familiar from the child-based medium, and stands them on their heads, adding a movie-like flow along with a considerable measure of adult darkness to the pictures and script. It’s a balancing act which Moore maintains overbalanced in the cinema version (from which he had his name entirely withdrawn). Moore claims not to have watched Watchmen the movie, feeling, he says, ‘emotionally distanced’ from it. He also claims not to have even a copy of the graphic novel any longer. It’s as though, in darkening the Epic innocence of the medium through Watchmen, V for Vendetta and other works, Moore has envenomed his own imagination: ‘Much as I love the medium, I despise the industry. ‘I've always despised it to a certain degree but after this last few years and all this nonsense with the films, I believe it to be a completely poisonous place that isn't really going anywhere. I did once feel I was part of a movement that wanted to change comics into something that was valuable to culture, but I don't really feel that kinship in the way I used to.’
‘To me, all creativity is magic,’ Moore says. ‘Ideas start out in the empty void of your head – and they end up as a material thing, like a book you can hold in your hand. That is the magical process. It's an alchemical thing. Yes, we do get the gold out of it but that's not the most important thing. It's the work itself. That's the reward. That's better than money.’
Which works while the well-spring of creativity is drawn from clean waters. But if those waters are muddied, especially by one’s own efforts, the gold can turn out to be lead.