Reviews of Old Comics: Watchmen #1
Watchmen is considered to be one of, if not the best comics of all time. However, it gets seen in today’s light as a complete story. A new or casual reader of comics could forget very easily that Watchmen was published in twelve, monthly installments. Since I started reviewing old comics, I’ve wanted to review some of the stories that are traditionally viewed as the best of the genre. So far, the best comics I’ve reviewed never show up in lists of the best comics ever.
Watchmen has remained in print, much to the spite of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, who will regain the rights if DC ever decides to stop publishing it. At this point, I don’t know that if they did ever gain the rights, they’d be inclined to do anything with it.
Nevertheless, Watchmen remains in the zeitgeist, so I’m going to look at the first issue from a fresh perspective, much like my friends in the ninth grade did when it first came out. I remember my friends Kevin, Todd and Andre pouring over Watchmen, realizing that it was something special. Unfortunately, after that summer, I moved away and didn’t pick up Watchmen again until years later, when I bought it in TPB form, a copy I still have today, a first printing that is well read, stained and dog-eared.
Rorschach’s Journal details the horrible state of the world in the form of grandiose rantings showing a sense of self-importance. This is juxtaposed against the police investigating and cleaning up a murder scene. Edward Blake was the victim of a home invasion that culminated in not only a violent assault and a robbery, but in Blake getting thrown out the window to his death. The motive appears to be Blake’s murder, as the money stolen doesn’t seem like enough to be the intent of the invasion. Blake also has high connections in the government. The police want to follow up discreetly to avoid getting the vigilante Rorschach involved.
Later that night, Rorschach climbs the side of the building and investigates Edward Blake’s apartment and discovers a hidden compartment in his closet that contains a costume and a photo of a Golden Age Super-Hero team. This carries into a scene involving another possessor of that same photo, Hollis Mason, once known as Nite Owl. He is having a discussion with Daniel Dreiberg who took up his mantle later. After they end their discussion, Dreiberg walks home to find that Rorschach has broken in and helped himself to a can of beans. Rorschach informs him that Edward Blake was the Comedian and was murdered. Dreiberg takes the discussion down to his old workshop where all of his old crime-fighting gear is stored and collecting dust. Rorschach has a theory that whomever killed the Comedian is out to pick off all of the masked heroes, and it may have something to do with a memoir that Hollis Mason wrote, which had dirt about the Comedian.
The next evening, Rorschach starts his journal with criticism of his landlady and a resolve to find answers to the Comedian’s murder. He visits a bar and breaks a guys fingers to get someone to give him the information he wants. Unfortunately, nobody knows anything, so he moves on to visit another former crime-fighter, Adrian Veidt, who is known as “the world’s smartest man” who has marketed his fame as a costumed adventurer. Their discussion covers the Comedian working for the government and gaining a reputation for ruthlessness. Veidt also defends his decision to retire two years before the government shut down all costumed adventurers. Rorschach leaves warning Veidt that there may just be a killer out there gunning for all former costumed crime-fighters, including Veidt himself.
Rorschach then breaks into a military installation to warn the last former crime-fighters on his list, both of whom live together. One of whom Rorschach refers to as “the indestructible man.” He meets the powerful Dr. Manhattan, a naked blue giant (who quickly assumes normal size and his live-in girlfriend, Laurie Juspeczyk and informs them of the Comedian’s death. They already know, and Dr. Manhattan is unconcerned with it and Laurie is glad he’s gone, since he tried to rape her mother when they were in the same crime-fighting group. The conversation angers Laurie to the point that Dr. Manhattan teleports Rorschach outside the complex right as he’s warning them of a possible killer of masked crime-fighters.
Upset about the confrontation with Rorschach, Laurie suggests getting together with Dan Dreiberg to reminisce with a more pleasant person. Dr. Manhattan apologizes for not joining them, but his research is at a critical stage. She calls Dan and schedules a meeting for later that night.
As Rorschach roams the street, pondering the few clues he has around the Comedian’s death, Laurie and Dan meet in a rooftop restaurant going over old times which takes a morose turn when they remember that the Comedian has been killed.
A text piece at the end of the issue is the beginning of Hollis Mason’s book Under the Hood, detailing how he came to become a masked crime-fighter and the beginning of the phenomenon following the appearance of “Hooded Justice.” a masked vigilante that was rumored to be a circus strongman.
There is a reason that Alan Moore is considered one of the best comics writers of all time, and it’s on display here. Not only does he start a broad story by naturally introducing all of the characters, but he wraps the first issue up in a manner that seems like a natural break. Within the story, the history between the characters is laid out in enough detail to set the stage for further revelations that reveal more about who killed the Comedian. Everything we learn about the Comedian is third person, so its revealed that he was apparently a patriotic sociopath.
The characters were meant to be the old Charlton super-heroes, and Alan Moore was asked to change them so DC could work them into their main DC Universe of characters. Frankly, I’m glad that they did. Looking solely at this issue, Alan Moore would have been forced to battle the prior understanding of these characters by the readers, and in creating a new batch of characters based on the Charlton heroes, he was freed up in going in different directions with not only their current personalities, but in their pasts as well.
Dave Gibbons does a great job of pacing the story effectively and this has to be the best use of a nine panel grid style of layout. Sometimes he uses larger panels, but in doing so, keeps to the confines of the grid. He keeps the fantastic down to a minimum, and only drags it out when introducing Dr. Manhattan. He takes care to demonstrate the fluid nature of the design on Rorschach’s mask, and despite his obvious neurosis, gives the vigilante a sense of nobility that comes from his self-righteousness.
The real shining star art-wise is the colorist, John Higgins. Higgins relied on a color scheme of secondary colors, orange, green and purple. This makes Dr. Manhattan pop when he shows up, but also adds a bit of an otherworldly quality to the book, which almost adds a sense of safety that as a reader, we’re peering into another world. With most super-hero comics trying to ground characters into a world very similar to our own, Higgins lets us know we’re safe, even if everyone in the story is not. He also does all of this fantastic work in an era before Photoshop, so all of the colors are broad with sharp cuts that someone seem to bleed into each other.
This issue has been collected in the Watchmen TPB. As I mentioned, DC keeps it in print so it is easy to find even at a bargain. More deluxe volumes are more expensive but as the story as a whole. Finding the individual issue may be a little harder, but far from impossible. Expect to drop a few dollars on it, but look for bargains, because they do exist. It’s valued at nearly $50.00, but a quick search on eBay pulls up listings far under that.
FINAL RATING: 9.5 (out of a possible 10)
The only thing keeping this from a 10 is that it’s the beginning of a larger story, and no story-line or subplot gets resolved here. I don’t expect it to, so it only costs it a half point.