In the mid-Eighties, comics changed. Dramatically. Part of this was down to a classic superhero who surprised everyone by suddenly acting darker and more adult than he’d even been before. Yet, at the same time, a vigorously bearded gentleman named Alan Moore, who had made quite a reputation for himself in the United States comics scene, was showing what comics could really do. Alan Moore’s Watchmen remains to this day one of the greatest comics to ever see print. A 12-part 400-page graphic novel, Watchmen was originally going to utilise a number of low-tier superhero characters owned by Charlton Comics, which had then recently been bought by DC Comics. What ultimately emerged was something genuinely revolutionary. A veritable masterpiece of comic book storytelling bearing a flawless structure, Watchmen was astounding and is still widely hailed by many as the best superhero story ever made.
Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it inspired – for better or worse – an entire genre of determinedly dark and gritty superhero comics but more importantly, it elevated comics to the kind of critical attention that the medium had rarely, if ever, received. To date, Watchmen remains the only graphic novel to win a Hugo Award and was also the only graphic novel to appear on Time magazine’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present day.
However, Moore’s relationship with what is arguably his signature work is a decidedly mixed one. Certainly, he’s immensely proud of the series and what it achieved, but thanks to standard industry contracts of the time, Moore’s royalties were severely limited, which understandably left a profoundly bitter aftertaste. Moore’s anger at the situation – disputes over which led to the permanent souring of his relationship with DC – is easy to understand when you consider just how much the publisher has benefited from the immensely successful Watchmen. The collected edition is currently on its 19th printing (excluding last year’s best-selling hardcover edition) and the book provides DC with a not-inconsiderable degree of critical cachet.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Watchmen debuted. Looking back, did you anticipate the impact it has achieved since?
Yes and no. If you’re asking did I anticipate before issue one that the book would have the impact it would, then no. No idea at all. As far as me and Dave Gibbons knew, we were embarking upon something that was perhaps a slightly darker, more ironic take on the superhero, a kind of outgrowth of some of the ideas that I’d already kicked around in Marvelman. Instead of Marvelman having one single character, we could do like a whole continuity of characters and apply the same kind of realistic sensibilities. But what we expected to get out of it was a slightly darker superhero comic.
When did you realise that you had something special on your hands?
Around about issue three. In fact, I could probably tell you which panel, that while I was writing issue three, I suddenly realised what we could do with Watchmen – we had somehow broken through in to a whole new possibility in the language of comics. By issue four, I knew that this was going to turn some heads. By the end of the series, I think at the time I actually said: “It will be a good 15 years before anyone comes up with anything to match this in terms of complexity”.
Watchmen is also generally credited with taking the comics medium far closer to literary status than had ever been done before. What do you think made Watchmen different?
What made Watchmen work was the fact that I was trying to exploit the possibilities of comics as a medium. Comics are not literature and they are not film and they are not gallery art. They are something different. They have their own kind of language. That we could have the details in the back of the panels telling a whole backstory and we could use them to almost kind of program the reader with certain symbols that would evoke a certain set of associations or an emotional effect. We were able to juxtapose what was happening in the pictures and what was happening in the words to startling effect, here or there. Play with the time frame… do all of these things that you can’t do in literature and you can’t do in films. It was trying to come up with a language that was unique to comics.
Your scripts are incredibly dense with description – is that because you don’t want to leave anything to chance, that you want everything just the way you perceive it?
Partly it’s that. I don’t mind if artists deviate or come up with a better idea than what I have put down in my elaborate script notes. All I want to do is give the greatest possible support. There is also an element that, when I first started in comics, it was very much a situation where I didn’t know who was going to be drawing the script. It could be a great artist; it could be someone on their first job. So you tend to try to write, if you like, an ‘artist-proof’ script, where all the information they need is right there – you’re not leaving it up to them to think of anything necessarily. So I did tend to evolve this thing where I did a complete script where I would talk about everything from camera angles to lighting to ambience to emotional atmosphere to the inner motivations of the character, what they are thinking, what expressions they have got on their faces – very, very thorough. I think that most artists tend to enjoy that.
Frank Miller commented that, with Watchmen, you performed the autopsy on superheroes, while he got to perform the brass-band funeral with The Dark Knight Returns. Do you agree with that?
In a lot of instances you’ll find Watchmen and Dark Knight grouped together, and this is because both came out of the same comic company at the same time. They both showed a darker vision of the superhero. I think that there is an essential big difference between them, though. At the time, when I was doing Watchmen, somewhere in my head I got this vainglorious notion that Watchmen would be the absolute deconstructionist last word on the superhero, and that somehow, mystically, after it had been published, all the superhero book publishers would, I don’t know, turn to westerns or something like that, but it would be impossible to do superhero comics afterward – which was completely stupid and a completely misplaced hope. What you really got afterwards was a kind of more pretentious superhero comics, often with a lot more nasty, gratuitous violence. Dark Knight was certainly a grimmer picture of Batman, but if you look at the subtext of both books – in Watchmen, all of the characters are flawed in some way. There is no way that they work in terms of the conventional idea of the hero. Their presence is more of a problem for the world that they inhabit than any kind of ray of salvation or hope. With Watchmen, I was actually exploring the real-world ramifications of these characters and ideas. There was that big difference between what Dark Knight and Watchmen. They’re two very different works.
Alongside the widespread acclaim that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns received, they are often accused of kick-starting the ‘grim ’n’ gritty’ period that followed in the superhero genre, which was often done rather ham-fistedly. Do you think that was a regrettable element of the book’s success?
I think it was me who first actually blamed Watchmen and Dark Knight for kick-starting that. At the time, I found it rather depressing. I felt that Watchmen in particular had a deleterious effect on the industry; there was all of this joyless grimness everywhere. Watchmen was actually not about grim superheroes. The only thing I was interested in Watchmen for, and the only thing I remain interested for, is the storytelling. The elaborate, crystalline story structure… the insanely detailed dove-tailing of imagery and words and I hoped that if people took anything from Watchmen it would be that. But, unfortunately, I guess it was easier to take Rorshach’s brutality or the cynical, world-weary viewpoint.
What are your feelings on the state of the superhero genre?
I think that there are some individual good works. Generally, I think it’s completely dead in the water and exhausted. You’ll get people like Warren Ellis who has a freshness to his imagination. On the other hand, you have someone like Mike Allred, doing his weird, nostalgic, demented vision of superheroes. For a while, I was getting ‘the big DC’… well, I think it was Garth Ennis who referred to it as ‘The Big DC Bag of Shite’… but that’s what we all call it now. I’ve got them to stop sending it to me recently as it was just so depressing. I don’t even read Marvel Comics, but I’m assured that the situation is as bad there, if not worse.
Much has been made of Watchmen’s apparent cinematic nature – do you agree?
Most people looking at Watchmen who were unfamiliar with comics would evaluate it with something that they are familiar with – whether that be film, so you get people saying ‘Watchmen is very cinematic’, when actually it’s not. It’s almost the exact opposite to cinematic. When I met with Terry Gilliam – who was at one point proposed to be the director of a Watchmen film – and he asked me how I would film it, I had to tell him that if anyone had asked me earlier, I would have told them that, frankly, I didn’t think it was filmable. Because, I kind of designed it not to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which are there, but, in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was to show off the things that comics could do that cinema couldn’t, and to show off the things that comics could do that literature couldn’t.
Warren Ellis has asserted that comics is one of the last mediums where you can have a soapbox to rant upon about things that are relatively free of commercial constraint. It could be said there are elements of that in Watchmen. Do you agree?
Certainly. I was a lot younger then and a lot ‘rantier’. With Watchmen, I was able to use the hero icons to play a kind of chess game, where I could consider ideas of absolute power, in an abstract sense, but embodied in these big characters. What marks my work these days is that I feel less inclined to preach in the same way that I did then. That’s not to say that I don’t deal with issues that don’t concern me. I don’t always feel that they are best expressed in a superhero comic.
Watchmen spearheaded the sudden popularity of ‘Graphic Novels’, but that surge ultimately failed to sustain itself. Why do you think this was?
After Watchmen, one of the things I deplored most about the comics industry was that everything was in the hands of the marketing people, who, very often, had no idea of the comics industry at all… they’d just been marketing people for another company and got a job with a comics company and then would be bringing in their half-arsed ideas. When comics in the mid-Eighties seemed as if they had finally reached their Xanadu, we were getting attention from outside the medium, where comics actually looked like becoming an actual cultural phenomenon that would be enjoyed by everybody – the point that we’d dreamed about for years. What happened was that the marketing department saw it as a marketing opportunity, not a creative opportunity. So, after Dark Knight, Watchmen, and things that were worthy of serious attention, you’ve got this flood of so-called graphic novels that were just big, expensive comics. They completely devalued the entire medium.
Following such widespread deconstruction of the genre, do you think the time is right now to rediscover the magic of the superhero genre?
The alchemists used to have these two principles that they could more or less divide the entire universe up in to, and these were referred to as ‘Solve et Coagula’. ‘Solve’ is to take something apart and examine it – it’s analysis. ‘Coagula’ is to put it back together again – synthesis. Analysis and synthesis… Solve et Coagula… and to some degree, the analysis, this is deconstructionism. This is what we were doing with Watchmen. I remember when I was a child, and there’d be old wristwatches that had been abandoned and left in the sideboard drawer, and if you got permission from your Mum and Dad, you could perhaps get an old screwdriver and start to take them apart, take all the little cogs out, which is why that perhaps turns up as a motif in the Dr Manhattan stuff in Watchmen. It’s very easy to take things apart, even if you do it in an elaborate way, like Watchmen. Taking apart the conceptual apparatus of the superhero… it’s not rocket science… but putting it all back together in a more benign and more transcendent form that works – a more flexible form, a better, improved form – that is something which is a bit more tricky.
For you, where does Watchmen rank in your comics work?
Watchmen will always be very special to me because it was a real breakthrough in terms of technique. It was quite ground-breaking, there was a range of techniques that Dave and I developed specifically for the book, but by the time I finished Watchmen, they already felt like a cliché to me. It has a lot of emotional depth that I was very pleased with. I love the convolution of Watchmen – it is a lovely Swiss watch piece.
Watchmen is available to buy now from DC Comics.