Note: This post originally appeared on my discontinued website maartensity.com. The published date and time has been adjusted to approximate the original.
What is left to say about a work hailed as one of the finest graphic novels, and a breakthrough for the genre when it was first released back in the mid-80s? The answer is: tell others to read it too!
Watchmen is such a pivotal work that it is essential reading just to understand the new type of graphic work that have been published in the last 20 years, in contrast to the more stereotyped superhero comics I--like many others--enjoyed during my boyhood years. Good superhero comics can no longer ignore the self-reflection brought about by Moore's bleak and penetrating look into the ordinary lives of superheroes.
But read it not only for that--it stands by itself as a highly entertaining story, breathtaking in its visual style and superb structural arrangement. It is a nearly flawless masterpiece that is both an obituary of and an homage to the superhero genre.
I find it useful to think of its nearly perfect execution in slight contrast to From Hell, because they allow one to juxtapose two master works by one author. Both works are masterpieces, but their natures are different. From Hell is a work whose project is doomed from the outset, because everyone who knows ripperology knows that the mystery cannot be solved. Yet the story bravely sets out to create a credible version of events. But it also ponders the nature of that mystery, its implications, and its relevance to us. It is both a narrative and a metanarrative. From Hell's playing field is ultimately more difficult than Watchmen's, because it is also up against the whole literary field, and its past. It is closer to what Bolano would have called "the difficult work", the one that struggles with the thing it cannot quite achieve. Watchmen, by contrast, achieves its goal with room to spare--and that's a compliment whichever way you look at it.
Rorschach was arguably my favourite character, and I'd like to finish this little ramble about Watchmen (and From Hell) with my favourite lines from the novel, uttered by him. Rorschach finishes his last journal entry, and decides to post it to the New Frontiersman newspaper to reveal the truth about the catastrophe. By doing so he acknowledges his own limitations, and he admits as much in his final entry:
"For my own part, regret nothing. Have lived life, free from compromise and step into the shadow now without complaint. Rorschach, November 1st, 1985."
These words reveal that he is leaving the reality he knows for one where he is uncertain of his footing. It shows him as vulnerable, a man who is ultimately fixed in his identity, but not afraid to follow it through until the end. He has great self-knowledge, and knows his limitations, even if he is unwilling to give up on them.