“Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone.” Thus spake Rorschach, the terse, trench-coated heart of the classic 1987 graphic novel Watchmen. Re-released in deluxe format on the eve of its 20th anniversary, Watchmen imagines a loose band of citizen crime fighters seeking to emulate super-heroes. Rorschach, victim of a horrendous childhood, wears a black-and-white mask and rains vengeance on evildoers—incinerating a murderous kidnapper for openers. Later, his bleak philosophy is contradicted when two of his crime-busting compatriots, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, make love after a massive holocaust (“Being alive is so damn sweet”), their shadows echoing the scorched silhouettes of Hiroshima. In Watchmen‘s ersatz 1985, Nixon reigns in a fifth term and God exists in the form of Dr. Manhattan, a diffident watchmaker transmuted into a supremely powerful being (and handy counterweight to the Reds’ nuclear arsenal) by a botched physics experiment.
Unlike other pivotal graphic novels, Watchmen embraces the superhero genre, elevating the creation myth of comic books from juvenile fantasy to adult literature. Alan Moore’s stygian comedy is sparked by the death of another masked vigilante, the Comedian, his blood-spattered smiley button a motif artist Dave Gibbons morphs into radiation symbols, cemetery statues, and radar screens. Gibbons’s tight drawing and multi-textured design — chapters end with monochrome excerpts from newspapers, psychiatric reports, and other fictional texts — drive the plot’s intricate gears. (Script facsimiles reveal his skill at distilling Moore’s voluminous stage directions into crisp, interrelating panels.) These two Brits help us fathom our own culture: Rorschach, a patriotic hardass, roams a pre-Disneyfied Times Square, cold-shouldering the hookers and lamenting, “Was offered Swedish love and French love … but not American love.” Our native art form has never been more passionately realized.