At the risk of provoking a nerd outcry (and in the interest of explaining the novel to those who haven’t read it) Watchmen is sort of like a really dark The Incredibles. It takes place in a fictional 1985, eight years after the Keene Act outlawed “costumed adventuring” by vigilantes not in the employ of the U.S. government. The novel opens with the death of the Comedian, a former member of both the Minutemen (a 1940s group of masked avengers) and the Crimebusters (the Minutemen’s much more horribly named successors). The Comedian’s death, a probable homicide, leads us to Rorschach (another former Crimebuster, and our protagonist of sorts), who is convinced that someone is purposefully killing masks. The rest of the novel is a whodunit for this mysterious hero-killer, as well as a history of masked crime-fighting and its participants, and a fairly timeless commentary on the ills of society and the threat of nuclear destruction (despite being fictional, this 1985 still includes a Soviet war in Afghanistan). Although it isn’t particularly hard to follow, it would be fair to say that Watchmen has a lot going on.
But despite its inherent geekery (superheroes, physics experiments gone wrong, nuclear war; there’s even a comic book within the comic book) Watchmen isn’t inaccessible, and doesn’t require any particular affinity for comics or science fiction. It is ultimately just a story—a mystery, a character study and even a bit of a romance—and one that frankly would still resonate if it were released for the first time today. It’s engrossing and creative (traditional comic strip panels are broken up by newspaper articles, book excerpts and other documents) and overall just a really enjoyable way to spend a week.
If you’ve never read a graphic novel, I highly recommend Watchmen (and if you have read a graphic novel but you’ve never read Watchmen, I highly recommend Watchmen). It’s not hard to see why the book was so well received, or why it was ultimately adopted into a movie, or why the movie (however long and complex it must have felt to the Watchmen virgin) hewed so closely to many of the graphic novel’s exact scenes, frame by frame. There’s no room in graphic novels for descriptive language, and so the obstacle of creating a thoroughly developed place and time—not only in each scene but in the story as a whole—falls to the artist. It’s a formidable task, and unlike regular books—where an author can probably assume readers aren’t skipping lines of text—one an illustrator may never be entirely sure is appreciated.