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Watchmen | Context

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Brief History of the Comic Book

The earliest versions of 19th-century comics were in strip form and generally found in newspapers. Publishers eventually realized the money-making potential in compiling old strips into a book format, and in 1897 the first comic book was published. The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats, a black-and-white book filled with already-published material, was soon followed by compilations of The Katzenjammer Kids, Buster Brown, and Mutt & Jeff. The first monthly comic book, again a retread of old black-and-white comics, was published in 1922; the first comic book to incorporate the modern comic book layout, Funnies on Parade, followed in 1933.

In 1935 National Allied Publications decided to try something different. The company's first-ever comic book, New Fun #1, was also the first-ever comic book full of completely original material. Owner Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson needed more money to keep his comic book gamble going, and in 1937 he partnered with two magazine distributors to create Detective Comics, Inc. Ownership and official names changed over the years, but Detective Comics, formerly National Allied Publications, was nicknamed DC Comics before adopting that as its official name in 1977.

In June 1938 DC Comics changed the industry forever with the introduction of Superman in Action Comics #1. Created by author Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster, the superhuman "man-of-steel" inspired dozens of spin-offs and knock-offs, including Batman, the Green Lantern, the Flash, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel. Secret identities, skintight costumes, and extraordinary capabilities ushered in what is known as the Golden Age of Comics, which lasted from 1938 to 1956. Stories about superheroes crushing diabolical villains were especially popular during World War II, as they were both patriotic and cheap to ship to soldiers overseas. In the early 1940s individual issues featuring Superman, Batman, or Captain Marvel sold more than 1.5 million copies each. Today individual comic sales top out at around 100,000 copies for the most popular franchises.

When the war ended, so did the nation's obsession with superheroes. Romance, crime, Western, and horror titles rose to popularity, but soon came under fire for "corrupting the youth of America." Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent suggested comics were teaching children terrible values and morals and encouraged parents to prohibit such reading material. The comics industry hastily assembled the Comics Code Authority, which developed a number of guidelines and restrictions about comic content that same year. Among other things, women had to be drawn "realistically" and good always had to triumph over evil. Vampires, ghouls, werewolves, and cannibals were prohibited, which effectively ended the horror genre. Other genres, including romance and crime, were impacted as well. With little else to write about, the industry returned to the superhero. This time story lines were more silly than sinister and the campy new characters bordered on the ridiculous.

Realism made a comeback in the 1970s as the Comics Code Authority rolled back some of its restrictions. A new generation of writers and illustrators, including Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and Frank Miller, began addressing social issues in their work. Horror comics were reintroduced, and superheroes of different races and gender began appearing on the page. This era, known as the Bronze Age, was the precursor to the works that would turn the childish comic book into a "grown-up" literary staple.

The Graphic Novel

Graphic novels are long-form narratives created in the style of comic books. The genre gained popularity in the late 1970s, largely thanks to Will Eisner (1917–2005), dubbed "the father of the graphic novel." Eisner categorized his acclaimed book A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978) as a graphic novel, calling the term an "adequate euphemism" for a comic book that deals with "meaningful themes."

Literary and comics scholars often cite Watchmen as another foundational work of the graphic novel genre, alongside Art Spiegelman's Maus (1987) and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight (1986). All three deal with serious themes like morality, fate, and identity, and are far more sophisticated than the usual comic fare. Like Eisner's work, this new trio of graphic releases defied easy categorization and found success outside the traditional comic book audience. Yet the term graphic novel rankles Moore. In 2007 he told the London Telegraph, "[t]hat pompous phrase was thought up by some idiot in the marketing department of DC [Comics]." He prefers, instead, to call books of that ilk "Big Expensive Comics."

That's not all Moore was unhappy about. When he and Gibbons set out to do Watchmen, Moore hoped their gamble on dark and complex superheroes would encourage other writers and artists to make their own stories as "technically complex and ambitious." Instead many were inspired by the book's dystopian tone. More and more flawed superheroes in dark universes began to crop up in comic books, and Moore unwittingly found himself the father of a completely new genre. That was never what he intended. He began to distance himself from superheroes and mainstream comics, and, by 2009 after disputes with DC, he all but left comics for good.

The Cold War

The term Cold War describes the nuclear stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II. Once allies against the Germans, the two nations found themselves at odds when the Soviet Union's Red Army established left-wing governments in the territories liberated at the end of the war in 1945. The United States and Great Britain feared the next step would be the spread of communism; by 1948 that was the case.

The United States had already proved its nuclear capabilities in the August 1945 bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, intended to end World War II quickly with few additional American deaths. The Soviets, whose territories and armies were devastated during World War I, didn't want to risk military inferiority again. They developed their own nuclear weapons and detonated their first atomic warhead in 1949. A struggle for supremacy ensued, and tensions continued to rise over the next decade. In 1958 the Soviets and Americans began developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which have a minimum range of 3,400 miles. In 1962 the Soviets moved some of their ICBM stock to Cuba, where the missiles easily could be aimed at the United States. The resulting Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. After the Soviets and the United States reached an agreement, the Soviets removed the missiles from Cuba. The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963—which banned nuclear testing in outer space—soon followed.

Tensions between the two superpowers eased in the 1970s but ramped up again in the 1980s as both parties began building their nonnuclear weapons and tried to gain influence in developing nations. The pages of Watchmen reflect this struggle for world domination and the ever-present threat of war.

The Influence of Charlton Comics

Alan Moore began writing for DC Comics' Swamp Thing in 1983, and not long after began brainstorming story lines for characters other than the humanoid plant. He had great success giving an old character new life in the comic Marvelman, but this time he wanted to resurrect a whole group of heroes. Moore first considered reviving characters from the unpopular Sentinels of Justice, a group of crime fighters from Archie Comics. As Moore visualized it, one of the Sentinels, named The Shield, would be found dead, and his fellow crime fighters would have to solve the crime. In his view it didn't really matter who the superheroes were as long as the characters appealed to readers' emotions.

Meanwhile, DC Comics purchased the rights to several characters from Charlton Comics, a failing comic book publisher. Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons, who already had a relationship with DC, proposed using newly acquired characters like the Question, Captain Atom, The Peacemaker, and Thunderbolt to tell a story about the perils of power and the limits of heroism. DC Comics declined—the company wanted to be able to use their new properties for years to come, which wouldn't be possible if Moore and Gibbons killed off some of them and made the others into morally complex characters who seemed out of place in traditional superhero stories. Moore and Gibbons loved the story, however, so they created their own set of superheroes to fill the shoes of the Charlton characters.

These new characters were inspired by the Charlton originals but given far more depth and back story. Moore says that made writing Watchmen a lot easier—he could make the main characters into anyone he needed them to be. He was also free to add minor characters and story lines, like the newsstand regulars and the comic-within-the-comic, The Black Freighter. These additions allowed Moore to explore themes beyond the restrictions of a traditional superhero comic book, which ultimately is what made it stand out from its peers.

Critical and Commercial Reception

Readers and critics alike identified Watchmen as something special with the first issue release in 1986. Many praised its sophisticated story and structure, deemed a departure from the usual comic-book fare, and the 12-volume series as a whole won several industry awards: the Jack Kirby Awards for Best New Series, Best Writer, and Best Writer/Artist, and the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best Finite Series, Best Graphic Album, Best Writer, and Best Writer/Artist. Science fiction fans also were quick to praise Moore and Gibbons' work; in 1988 Watchmen won the Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Society, a first for a comic or graphic novel.

While some reviewers praised Moore and Gibbons for expanding the target demographic of comics, traditionally stereotyped as kids' or teens' fare, others viewed Watchmen as so "melodramatic" and "hyperbolic" that it would appeal only to teens and young adults. Other reviewers felt appalled by the book's graphic violence and "vindictive and sadistic tone." Despite these reviews, Watchmen has remained a mainstay on best-seller lists. In 2005 Time magazine named Watchmen one of the 100 top English-language books published since 1923. Twenty years after Watchmen was released, DC Comics ordered another million copies printed to keep up with demand after its long-anticipated film adaptation went into production. The film was distributed in 2009 by Warner Brothers.

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