When Watchmen was first published in 1986 by DC Comics as a 12-part miniseries, the term “graphic novel” was barely known in the United States. The Europeans and the Japanese had been taking the comics medium seriously for years, though, with the French referring to their publications as “albums” and the Japanese unabashedly gearing their work to adult audiences. In the States, where the medium was invented, they were still comic books, largely relegated to a literary and graphic ghetto. A revolution had been quietly festering for years, however. Jim Steranko’s work on Marvel’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., built on Jack Kirby’s action style, redefined what could be told in the confines of a 7”X10” vertical layout. Neal Adams and Denny O’ Neil laid the groundwork for resurrecting Batman from campy cartoon to grim avenger. Mostly, only the comics diehards took note at the time. That all changed in 1986, when writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbs, along with colorist John Higgins, teamed to produce a 12-part series for DC called Watchmen.
Watchmen wasn’t a superhero story so much as it was a tale of youthful excesses and midlife crisis set against a backdrop of murder, conspiracy and global turmoil in an alternative 1980s. That it continues to reflect the uncertainty of Western Society As We Know It may explain why those 12 issues evolved into a single edition that’s never been out of print since first published, It also explains why a movie version, once thought impossible, is scheduled for release in March 2009. And it definitely explains why Time named it one of the 100 most important novels of the last 75 years.
Twenty some-odd years later, comes Watching the Watchmen, artist Dave Gibbons’ recollections on how the masterpiece came to be. At 256 pages bundled in a 12” X 9.5” hardcover edition, there’s no denying that this is a book that any fan of Watchmen would consider an essential companion piece to the series that became a graphic novel. Given Watchmen’s cult status, that’s not surprising.
But Watching the Watchmen is much more than a coffee table book. Sure, there’s a wealth of art (early sketches evolving into finished illustrations), and that would be enough from a historical perspective. Dave Gibbons’ detailed memories of how it all came to be paint a landscape of the world before computers and FedEX, where everything was actually done by hand, and delivered via cab to the participants in the project. Consequently, the book works as a time capsule that seems somewhat quaint today, even though it all came about scarcely 20 years ago.