Writing a review of Watchmen, I have to say, is somewhat akin to trying to write a review of the complete works of Shakespeare -- I know it's good, you know it's good, and trying to argue anything else will make the reviewer come off sounding like a pretentious dick.
But on the occasion of reading the Absolute edition of Watchmen, I think there is some value in examining Watchmen from a modern perspective -- though the story is only twenty-two years old, I think many would argue that Watchmen was the beginning of a certain trend in comics from which we are only now emerging, such that while "modern" may be something of a relative term, it's valid to say that one can have a perspective on Watchmen now looking down on it from the top of the hill, that one couldn't have while we were still climbing.
Mark Waid makes the argument in his introduction to Greg Cox's Infinite Crisis novelization that writers trying to emulate the "grim and gritty" tone of Watchmen, together with Dark Knight Returns, effectively sent comics on a very dark path for the following twenty years. If Watchmen were to come out today, however, there's every reason to believe we might see it as not so gritty. Certainly, every page is flooded with the threat of nuclear holocaust, and Rorschach metes out unwaivering vigilante justice, but what the book reveals about heroes -- that they have personal lives, that they have arguments, that they have sexuality, that some of them are heroes for all the right reasons and some of them for all the wrong ones -- are lessons I think we've already learned. In part the reason that Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis was so effective, of course, was that it took place in the mainstream DCU -- we've seen tales of Elseworlds dystopia before, and I'm not sure it works any more.
Watchmen posits a universe where the first heroes were masked men -- normal people in costumes, eventually replaced by the "superman," Doc Manhattan. Interestingly, this both is and isn't the story of the mainstream DC Universe -- originally, the 1938 Superman was the first superhero, and everyone who came after was either equally or less powerful, but Superman was the standard; in the post-Crisis DCU, the Justice Society were the first superheroes -- for the most part, normal masked men -- and then Superman arrived in the modern era. For the most part, however, the mainstream DCU didn't have the adverse, almost apocalyptic reaction to Superman that Watchmen's universe did to Doc Manhattan -- but it's almost hard to believe that they did not. If anything, Watchmen demonstrates how ridiculously peaceful the current history of the DCU is, and makes a much better argument toward one of the various reasons that Lex Luthor hates Superman -- that Superman robs the common man of his potential -- than the recent Lex Luthor miniseries did.
I'm hard-pressed to read Watchmen without seeing the various Charlton characters in their original roles. Certainly, in this era of Maxwell-Lord-shot Blue Beetles, chapter seven of Watchmen is one of the defining Blue Beetle stories, even if it reduces the arc of every other Blue Beetle story to follow to Ted Kord, fat and retired, reclaiming the Blue Beetle mantle. Doc Manhattan's storyline suggests great storytelling potential for Captain Atom, potential that DC has only tapped on occasion -- it's interesting to consider how human Captain Atom often is in comparison to Doc Manhattan, and how whereas Doc Manhattan uses his atomic knowledge as a wedge to drive him further from humanity, Captain Atom has been at times almost too concerned with humanity's affairs, as we see in his various incarnations as and around Monarch. And the Silk Spectre's similarity to Black Canary over Nightshade makes the Comedian seem more and more like a take-off on Green Arrow rather than Peacemaker -- a troubling comparison, to say the least, but an interesting one.
But in my mind, one of the most lasting and groundbreaking aspects of Watchmen is in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's ability to create an entire universe's mythology from scratch -- and moreover, to make that universe feel real in the span of only twelve issues. Moore states himself in the additional material in Absolute Watchmen (reprinted, I believe, from earlier sources) that the main story of Watchmen is really standard superhero fare, in which just about any superheroes could have been utilized. What I believe is more compelling is the human story in Watchmen -- the newspaper vendor, the psychologist, the taxi driver, and all the others, snuffed out in the final chapters, not to mention the media outlets, the sugar cubes, and on. This is an element of creating truly compelling stories -- superhero or otherwise -- largely unmatched, I think, until recently, with both Grant Morrison's Seven Soliders of Victory and DC's 52, and it's here where Watchmen shines. The full page spreads at the beginning of chapter twelve, showing the destruction of New York, are all the more moving with the Absolute edition's oversized pages.
These thoughts come in part of a larger curiosity I have now, having finished Infinite Crisis and it's related trades, and shortly to move on to the One Year Later trades, about where the overall DC Universe has been and where it's going. And this has everything to do with some of the insinuations Infinite Crisis made about the Death of Superman, Knightfall, Emerald Twilight, Wonder Woman killing Maxwell Lord (and Superman killing General Zod), and the like -- that is, where DC Comics was in the mid-1990s; how, looking back from Infinite Crisis, DC Comics reinterprets itself as having been in the mid-1990s; and where we find ourselves today. We'll pick up these threads at another time.
[Slipcase, hardcover volume contains character profiles, thumbnail and promotional sketches, scripts, thoughts from Moore and Gibbons, and etc.]
More on all of this coming up, with a review of Absolute DC: The New Frontier and some of the ways it relates back to Watchmen and forward to DC's new direction.
Update: Just heard on the Collected Comics Library podcast that the Absolute edition of Watchmen is now sold out at DC Comics. (Said podcast also includes a mention of your friendly neighborhood Collected Editions blog. Thanks Chris!)