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Watching the Watchmen, By Dave Gibbons

A fascinating exploration of the birth of a master work, Alan Moore's 'Moby-Dick' of comics

Watchmen, first published in 1986 and never since out of print, can lay claim to being the greatest ever comic. I say comic, because it was originally published in 12 monthly instalments: its later collection into a single volume did more than anything else to popularise a new artform – the "graphic novel".

The scale of its success startled even its creators, the writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Gibbons has now written about the book's frenzied genesis in Watching the Watchmen, a companion tome full of original sketches and letters, among which is gushing praise from Watchmen's then publisher. Watchmen, wrote Jenette Kahn, "set a standard other writers are aspiring to attain". The note from her design chief, Richard Bruning, is more succinct: "The finest comic yet produced. No shit."

As a young reviewer, I witnessed at first hand the circus that greeted Alan Moore on the fan circuit. The bearded giant was mobbed even in the toilets for his autograph, and he has shunned conventions ever since. Two decades later, the hype juggernaut is picking up pace once more. Tantalising trailers herald the release, next spring, of Hollywood's version of the book which many – including Moore – deemed unfilmable. A million copies of the original Watchmen (Titan £17.99) are being printed to satisfy expected demand. So does it live up to the legend?

Reading Watchmen again now, I would say yes. Its vaunting ambition is evident right from the multi-layered title: it references Juvenal's "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" ("Who watches the watchmen?"), but also Albert Einstein's lament about the atom bomb that "if only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker", and even alludes to the teleological "Watchmaker" argument for the existence of God. At the heart of the book, as in much of Moore's work, is a question that had not been posed in half a century of superhero comics: if there actually were a being with powers so limitless that he might as well be called a god, would he really manifest himself in tights and a cape, fighting for "truth, justice and the American way"?

The Watchmen of the book are a league of retired superheroes, squeezing on their costumes for one last hurrah as they track down a "mask-killer". In what was in 1986 a revolutionary notion, they are depicted as morally ambiguous, their lives freighted with regret, a fact reflected even in John Higgins' muted colouring of the artwork. None of the group has any physical superpowers, except for one man: Jon Osterman, a nuclear physicist who, after the obligatory freak accident, is transformed into the blue-skinned superbeing Dr Manhattan. He now perceives time in a non-linear, "quantum" fashion – where past, present and future occur to him simultaneously. His gradual estrangement from human society, and from his former friends and lovers, is both poignant and terrifying.

Some of the superhero tropes in the book, particularly a rather silly ending (changed in the movie), may alienate the neophyte comic reader, but it still stands as a work of prodigious breadth and depth. Moore has said that he wanted Watchmen to be "the Moby-Dick of comics". He writes famously detailed scripts for his collaborators to illustrate. A sample of his original typescript is reproduced in Watching the Watchmen, and it's fascinating to see how Moore spends a whole page describing exactly how the first small panel of the book should look.

Because of this, and because of Moore's fame (he also wrote The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell and V for Vendetta, all great books that became not-so-great movies), the input of artist Dave Gibbons is often underappreciated. Watching the Watchmen does much to set the record straight. The nine-panel grid that gives the book its intricate, symmetrical, watch-maker's structure was Gibbons' idea, for instance. He also suggested the smiley-face badge that, spattered with blood, became the book's emblem, and was co-opted as the mascot of 1988's second Summer of Love.

Beautifully laid out by the graphic designer Chip Kidd, who gave a similar treatment to Batman and Superman, Watching the Watchmen will be of interest to any serious fan of Watchmen. If that's not yet you, why wait for Hollywood before getting started?

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