So What Was It Like To Read WATCHMEN Back In 1986, In Real Time?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 12.06% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

There are currently thousands of kids who have no idea what it was like to wait years for the next Harry Potter installment.  They just arrived, conveniently, in a world where all seven books were waiting for them.  If they’re a fast reader, during a summer without much to do, they might mow through all of Harry’s adventures in less than a week.
Those of you who lived through the Harry Potter series, though, know that the experience of reading a series is changed significantly when you have to wait  years to find out what happens next.  It’s a far more interactive experience, because you can only get so far in the story before your mind whirls with theories on what might happen next.  You re-read the existing chapters, searching for clues.  You form deep and doomed attachment to relationships in the book, wanting, needing these two people to end up as friends, knowing that the next installment might shatter all your dreams.
Watchmen has been a unified graphic novel now for damn near thirty years.  So it’s easy to forget at that one point, people were waiting months for the next issue to arrive at the comics shop, dissecting individual issues, unsure how it was all going to end.
Thing is, Watchmen was an entirely different beast from Harry Potter, as the fandom for Watchmen took place largely in a void.  Harry Potter’s fandom was magnified by the Internet, where fans could gather in a virtual group to exchange theories, encourage each other to write fanfic; all we had in 1986 was BBSes, which weren’t nearly the same.
Basically, you’d talk over Watchmen if you had some comic-toting friends, but finding people as into it as you were was difficult at best.  Fandoms were isolated islands: I don’t doubt some people had social groups where they all got together and dissected every panel, but I had my friend John and a couple of buddies down at the comic shop, and then my fandom died.
Then there was the issue of availability.  If you wanted to get into Watchmen, there were no collected graphic novels, and back issues were hard to find.  I lent out Watchmen a lot, particularly as the series went on, because people would get into it around issue #9, but because it was a fine seller they couldn’t find issue #4 in the racks.
Some people had a bizarre take on Watchmen, simply because they couldn’t find issue #1, #3, or #6, so they actually didn’t know what had happened in the beginning and tried to fill in gaps.  Considering how continuity-heavy Watchmen was, that meant some people were really struggling to make sense of it.
Yet what I remember about reading the series in real time is disjointed:

  • The EC Comics homages (with the pirate ship) were largely considered irritating, because we wanted to find out what the hell was going on with Dan and Rorschach and Doctor Manhattan, and here was this stupid comicky storyline elbowing out plot we wanted to read.  It was as if you were desperate to find out what happened to Harry Potter, and instead was this cut-rate pastiche of Gilderoy Lockhart’s adventures taking up fifty pages in every book.
  • Because of that, it was widely speculated (“widely,” in this case, meaning “in the Norwalk/Westport area I lived in”) that there would be some meta-crossover, where the comic-pirate world would turn out to be another “real” world like Watchmen, because why the hell would Alan Moore spend so much time on this thing if it wasn’t plot significant?  (As it turned out, the answer was most likely “Because he only plotted six issues and needed filler.”  In retrospect I’ve come to like the EC comics storyline more, as it’s very thematically correct, but when you’re mad to find out What Happens then “thematically” really clogs up the pipeline.)
  • The reveal of Rorschach was, interestingly enough, largely met with a nod.  None of us saw it coming (though, as with everything in Watchmen, the clues were there), but though I’m told other isolated groups of fandom reacted poorly to their grim-and-gritty power hero being a homeless fanatic, we thought it quite fitting.  We also, correctly, saw Rorschach’s true nature as a critique of fandom – we noted our own poverty and dedication, and filled in the details.
  • The thing that shocked us the most, over time, was Rorschach’s humanity.  If you look at the early comics, imagine reading repeatedly for basically seven months (there were mild production delays, IIRC) and seeing Rorschach as this cold, callous element of destruction. He destroys his old enemy, albeit accidentally.  He even destroys his psychologist.  So when that first moment came when he apologized to Dan, offering the handshake awkwardly, that was like a bomb going off for us. The idea that Rorschach could evolve made the series feel like it could go anywhere – you may note that of all the characters, Rorschach is the only one whose non-superhero name I don’t innately recall – and so when he started to change, we felt completely at sea.
  • The truly weird thing in retrospect is how strong we believed the female characters were in Watchmen.  And this is what I call “Star Trek Syndrome,” where you have a work of fiction that’s groundbreaking and progressive at the time, and then as society evolves the original show becomes an embarrassment.  The Original Star Trek, with Captain Kirk, was actually really progressive – they let women on the bridge, and occasionally let them be doctors! – yet as the years passed and “women on the bridge” became an expected thing, all the other bits of Kirk slapping them on the ass and seducing all of them made him look like a troglodyte.  Likewise, you see that with Joss Whedon – Joss is getting so much flak for being “not a feminist” these days, but when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was made, it really was feminist-progressive for television.  It’s just that twenty years later, we’ve got higher standards.
  • So yeah, in retrospect, the “rape turns into love” plotlines are embarrassing in Watchmen, and Laurie’s ham-handed mother issues don’t hold up too well, but at the time having a woman characterized as equally as a man was so shocking to a comics industry that usually had women as walking plot devices.  Hell, having a complex relationship with her mother – a scene where they just talked! – was pretty groundbreaking to a bunch of nerds who were used to having women catfighting a la Lois Lane and Lana Lang.  And even now, Laurie’s being front-and-center as someone whose opinion matters, where in a very real sense the whole plotline involves Manhattan convincing her of the correctness of his vision and vice versa, is something you don’t see terribly often in comics. Even if Laurie doesn’t make her argument explicitly, convincing Jon by the sheer nature of her raw emotions.
  • The fan theories only really exploded once it was revealed that Adrian was the main villain – though we were all wildly incorrect as to how that would work.  Before Adrian, we were convinced the series was en route to a team-up, where they’d find the villain and punch him (which was, to be fair, the standard plotline in comics before that, and again, to be fair, this was the stunted fan theories of a couple of comics nerds in a sedate town).
  • Even back then, we also bitched extensively about Adrian’s super-crappy password and lack of biometrics.
  • After Adrian was revealed as the villain, however, we were unsure.  We correctly saw the nuclear destruction out there, and were half-convinced the missiles would fly with a nuclear holocaust. We thought he might be brainwashing politicians, as there was some evidence of his manipulating the media well.  We knew about the alien biology, yet didn’t understand what that meant.  We trusted that Alan Moore would bring it through.
  • Okay, and you can bitch about your cliffhangers -but after reading for almost a year, “I did it thirty-five minutes ago”  remains one of the most shocking plot twists I’ve ever seen anywhere, in any media. It’s good in the book; imagine waiting for eleven months to get there, convinced the protagonists were gonna save the day through luck and spunk, then realizing that a) they had failed, and b) we’d have to wait several weeks to find out what happened afterwards. Jesus.
  • And we felt like, well, he kinda didn’t. The annihilation of New York was shocking, and watching all the side characters we’d come to love get destroyed had the emotional effect, but I remember feeling at the time like, “That’s it?  That’s his plan?”  And it’s kind of like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi in that we liked everything surrounding that – his motivations, the worldwide reactions, the fact that his plan actually succeeded – but the actual destruction itself felt like, really? Alien flops on top of Manhattan? Fine. I didn’t watch the movie, but when I found out they were changing that aspect, I remember nodding my head and going, Yeah, that’s probably for the best.
  •  At the time, we felt like Laurie’s “Let’s fuck” was really simplified, and not quite as beautiful as Moore meant it to be.  I thought that was because, maybe, I didn’t have a lot of experience with sex, or funerals, and with time I’d come to understand the fullness of it.  And nope; I know what he’s getting at with “Tandoori to go,” but the scene still feels a little creepy to me, Mister Alt-Sex Polyamory dude.  Maybe some love it.
  • We did, however, agree that the ambiguity of the ending kicked ass, and I think part of the reason Watchmen continued to have such an effect for years after is that you could always ask any group of nerds “So did he pick up the right package? Should he pick up the right package?” and get a spirited debate going.

Thing is, for all its flaws, Watchmen is deep in my writing-DNA. It hit me when I was growing up, and to this day when I plot I wish I had the clockwork finesse of Alan Moore.  Afterwards, I went on to read Swamp Thing (and if you think back issues for Watchmen were hard to find, imagine getting forty issues of a not-particularly-popular series that only had the first seven issues in graphic novel form), and that really turned me on to what good prose in comics could do.
I know, objectively, Watchmen has flaws. Realistically, however, internally, to me, it’s flawless, such an overwhelming cauldron of ideas that even its errors somehow attain magnificence.  And a large part of that is due to reading and rereading it obsessively, one month at a time, as the issues came out.
If you had your personal experience back in the day, reading it before the graphic novel, I’d love to hear them.

1 Comment

  1. Bea
    Jun 1, 2015

    I didn’t have this experience with Watchmen–but I sure had it with ElfQuest.
    I lived in the American Midwest in a small town–nobody in school checked out the graphic novels except me (I knew because I was head librarian), so I had no one to talk to during the 60-90 days between issues when Siege at Blue Mountain came out.
    The experience is so different now–there’s new ElfQuest and people just turn around and talk about it with someone online! I just marvel at that.

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