Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is generally rated as one of the best graphic novels ever written, and is perhaps the comic book with the highest profile among both comics readers as well as academics.
Watchmen is an epic deconstruction of superhero mythologies that traces the lives of several costumed adventurers across multiple times and places, initially following the efforts of Rorschach to track down the person or persons who murdered Edward Blake, the Comedian. As he meets other characters they become intertwined into the complex plot, with Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl II), Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II), Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan), and Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) being the primary actors throughout.
All of this occurs in a United States that has been reimagined to fit the appearance of costumed adventurers in which Nixon has remained in the White House since the seventies, the cold war still rages, and the inventions of these new scientists and powered individuals have changed the way the world is lived. As readers, we encounter this through a number of minor characters and subplots that appear throughout the book, providing a complex web of relationships that comment on and explore the events of the text in a useful fashion.
Originally published as a series of twelve individual issues, each issue is a chapter of the larger story but fits neatly as a single story as well, so that each of the twelve parts has a coherent narrative arc, often one that follows an individual character. While the central narrative revolves around a mystery of who killed Blake and might be trying to remove the other adventurers, the importance of history and remembering the past is vitally important to the text as a whole, and is often articulated through these individuals.
Instructors’ Teaching Experience
As a big fan of comics and Watchmen myself, I avoided this collection in my first semester, fearing that I would not be able to do it the justice I felt it deserved. In my second semester I taught it, and while I feel that my class enjoyed it a great deal, I never felt as though I had really explored what it had to offer them. Overall I think it is a great text and my students responded to it quite well, though using it demanded that I recognize the inability to cover it fully. I would recommend using it, though now the movie is coming out and I don’t know if that will affect students’ perceptions of the book. [Jacob Horn, email@example.com]
Script vs. Panel
One of my favorite activities and one that seems to work quite well is to play with students’ expectations of how complicated a particular text could be – especially something that seems as transparent as an image. In the Absolute edition of Watchmen, Moore’s original script pages for the first few pages of the comic are reprinted, and he literally covers four pages with single spaced text to describe what he wants Dave Gibbons to draw into these panels. You can use this with your students by asking them to do analysis of the first panel of the first page, seeing how much they can get out of it, and then by reading to them Moore’s script of what he was thinking it would look like. This works really well to help the students understand that they are probably not going too far when they perform analysis – if anything, they aren’t going far enough. You can find a PDF of Moore’s original script for the first page right here. [Jacob Horn, firstname.lastname@example.org]
At the end of the book, Ozymandias commits a terrible crime for relatively noble intentions, and putting him on trial can be quite useful. Students enjoy getting to present a case for one side or the other, and in both cases you can get great arguments. Moore leaves the event wide open, and because of that it makes for great debate. [Jacob Horn, email@example.com]
Tracking the Comedian
Throughout the book we are treated to the histories of many of the main characters, though the Comedian never receives a true background. Instead we are forced to reconstruct much of what he believes from others’ reactions to him and second-hand information. If we suspend our understanding of the potential bias of these recollections, it can be interesting to ask students to follow the Comedian and what he means throughout the book. As a ‘secondary’ character who is dead before the book begins, he haunts it and its characters – asking why this is the case can make for a fun regular theme to return to throughout the classes spent reading. [Jacob Horn, firstname.lastname@example.org]
Signage pervades the panel backgrounds in Watchmen and asking the students to track the advertisements, graffiti, and other signs can provoke some great discussions. The most obvious signage is the series of ads for the perfume “Nostalgia,” and so I begin a short discussion there, asking students to look at the ads and think about their function in the story. I then assign a short reading response and I ask the students to share their insights during the next class. The assignment follows:
Flip through Watchmen and ponder the signage (advertisements, etc.) that populates the panel backgrounds. Choose one sign and explain (400-600 words) its relationship to both the smaller plot points in the chapter and the larger themes unfolding in Watchmen as a whole. Consider the image itself, looking at elements like color, font, size, placement, shape, accompanying images, etc. How do these elements make meaning? Also consider what is happening around the sign. Who is in the same panel as the sign? What are they doing? What connections can you make between the people, the events, and the sign? Lastly, consider some of the larger themes in Watchmen. How is the sign related to one of the novel’s major themes? [Travis Johnson, email@example.com]
A nifty discussion of Watchmen AND teaching Watchmen can be found here.
Scott Eric Kaufman adds his own impressive brain power to notions from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics providing salient and useful discussion of how to read gutters, closure, and perspective. He also introduces interesting ideas such as Dr. Manhattan as a figure of the reader and telling your students they stand in as murderers in the FPS moment via the Comedian. [Katherine Bishop]