Influential Comic Book Returns in Hardcover

watchmenWatchmen: Hardcover Edition
By Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons (DC Comics)

Whenever a new comic book-inspired movie is a big hit, comic book stores report that sales of that hero’s books often spike. Which is why, this past summer, books by Batman, Iron Man, and The Hulk did brisk business. But so too did another comic, one that won’t be seen on the big screen until March of next year, but got a bump nonetheless when its trailer appeared both online and at the San Diego Comic Con: Watchmen, the groundbreaking 1986/86 graphic novel by writer Alan Moore (From Hell, V for Vendetta) and artist Dave Gibbons (Give Me Liberty, Captain America). Though this book has often been called “unfilmable,” and not just by Moore, the rather impressive trailer got enough fans so excited that the book started flying off store shelves.

So what’s the big deal? Quite frankly, Watchmen -- along with Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns -- rewrote the rules for comic book superheroes, and almost every comic that followed was either directly or indirectly influenced by it.

In the world of the Watchmen, being a superhero is against the law. So when the man who used to be The Comedian is brutally murdered, nobody cares save for his former fellow superhero Rorschach, who has become kind of like Batman if the Caped Crusader were even more conspiratorial and crazy. Rorschach thinks the murder of The Comedian is part of something bigger, and he soon tries to enlist the help of his fellow retired heroes to figure out what’s going on, while warning them that they could be next.

Unto itself, this book’s plot may not sound so revelatory. But what made Watchmen so influential is how it portrays superheroes. Unlike the way most good guys had been portrayed up to then, the heroes of Watchmen were not perfect, not happy-go-lucky, not so morally secure. They had problems, they had issues; they were, quite frankly, more human than super.

This was not a new idea. All of the characters that Stan Lee co-created at Marvel, be it Spider-man, Daredevil, or the X-Men, were flawed and had problems. But Watchmen, in conjunction with The Dark Knight Returns -- in which Batman is portrayed as an angry vigilante trying to enact revenge for the murder of his parents -- changed the game, making it seem almost quaint or dated if you had a hero who was, well, heroic. It’s why Superman has become such a difficult character to write lately; he can no longer be a super man, he now has to be a man who does super things but is still challenged.

There is, of course, a lot more to Watchmen than just a dark look at superheroes. It says as much about comics as it does about heroes and the way we react to them, all while telling a grand, epic, politically and socially insightful, and often darkly comic tale that will excite even those who miss all the subtleties. It’s also one of the smartest and best-written graphic novels around, another quality now required of comics thanks to this and Knight.

Not surprisingly, this summer’s sales of Watchmen have prompted the book to be reprinted, most notably in a new hardcover edition befitting the book’s stature. Besides a new cover and other relevant artwork by Gibbons, it also has the re-colored pages previously done for an earlier special edition, as well as essays by Moore and Gibbons from a 1988 version of the book.

Even without the extras, and with its approach not being as revolutionary as is the norm nowadays, Watchmen still holds up. And I don’t just say this as someone who, this past summer, reread the book for the umpteenth time, but as the friend of someone who never read the book before but, prompted by the trailer, borrowed mine and then it read it twice before reluctantly returning it. It’s just that damn good. - Paul Semel

Purchase Watchmen

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Mr. Semel can be found in a comic store every Wednesday.

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