Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen—which was released by DC Comics as a 12-issue limited series in 1986 and 1987 and eventually collected into paperback—was a radical deconstruction of the comic book medium. Instead of flawless heroics, its protagonists—including the psychotic vigilante Rorschach, the near-omniscient Doctor Manhattan, the ineffectual Nite Owl—struggle with self-doubt and personality conflicts after one of their own is murdered.
Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Zack Snyder's 2009 movie adaptation, plus the pending arrival of an HBO series, we’re taking a look at a few things you might not know about Moore and Gibbons’s seminal work.
1. Watchmen was originally supposed to feature familiar faces.
When English writer Alan Moore (Swamp Thing) came up with the idea for a murder mystery set in the realm of costumed heroes, he drafted a proposal for DC Comics editors that used characters from Charlton Comics, a lesser-known line of titles featuring more obscure characters like Blue Beetle and the Atom that DC had recently acquired. In his pitch, Moore described the suspicious death of a Charlton hero dubbed the Peacemaker, with the Question—a blank-faced inquisitor seemingly devoid of emotion—on the case.
Fearing Moore’s story would be too damaging to established characters, DC editor Dick Giordano suggested the writer instead come up with a new cast. Though there are obvious parallels—the Question transformed into calculating detective Rorschach, with a morphing ink blot over his mask—Moore and artist Dave Gibbons soon devised a lineup that served the needs of his story while arguably becoming more famous than the heroes Moore had initially planned on using.
2. Watchmen took some design cues from Mad magazine.
Both Moore and Gibbons were interested in subverting the superhero genre in much the same way they had seen it turned upside-down in the pages of Harvey Kurtzman’s satirical MAD magazine and its "Superduperman" parody: The difference was that Moore was aiming for drama rather than comedy. For Gibbons, some of the visual tricks seen in MAD were perfect for the story they were trying to tell.
“I’d … like to say that when it comes to the kind of storytelling we did in Watchmen, we used many of the tricks Harvey Kurtzman perfected in MAD,” Gibbons told Entertainment Weekly in 2018. “The thing for instance where you have a background that remains constant and have characters walk around in front of it. Or the inverse of that, where you have characters in the same place and move the background around. We quite mercilessly stole the wonderful techniques Harvey Kurtzman perfected in MAD.”
3. The smiley face logo was a happy accident.
Most promotional material for Watchmen is adorned with a smiley face button with a trickle of blood to reference the death of the Comedian, the crime that sets the story in motion. The button was an addition by Gibbons after he and Moore had designed the brooding character and realized there wasn’t anything about his costume that indicated a sense of humor. Gibbons sketched in the smiley face button, which came to represent the contrast of Watchmen itself: a world of colorful heroes that masked a sinister undercurrent. The button also echoes the Doomsday Clock that appears in the comic: The blood spatter that appears on its face is in roughly the same spot as the hand of the clock that marks five minutes to midnight.
4. Alan Moore made richard nixon a character so that he didn't turn off readers.
Part of the Watchmen narrative involves a creeping and corruptive political influence. In the story, Richard Nixon is serving a fourth term as president. Moore chose Nixon because he was concerned using then-current president Ronald Reagan might turn off readers who supported the politician. “You’re not going to get much argument Nixon was scum,” Moore told Entertainment Weekly in 2005.
5. artist Dave Gibbons made sure the book had “understated genitals.”
Full-frontal nudity was not a common occurrence in comic books in the mid-1980s, but Moore and Gibbons didn’t receive any negative feedback when they decided to show genius scientist Doctor Manhattan unburdened by pants in several issues. Gibbons credited the lack of controversy to Manhattan’s “understated genitals.” By having them resemble the type of nudity seen on Greek statues, Gibbons believed people might not even notice they were staring at a blue penis—for a page or two, anyway.
6. Neil Gaiman provided some assistance.
While writing scripts for Watchmen, Moore would sometimes phone author Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Good Omens) and ask for random bits of information. “I was his occasional research assistant,” Gaiman said in 2005. Moore asked for sources of quotes he planned to use in the book. Some came from the Bible; Gaiman eventually loaned him a book about birds from which Moore obtained a quote about owls for Watchmen #7.
7. Moore and Gibbons communicated by taxi.
Without fax machines at their disposal, Gibbons was often forced to wait for Moore to mail him script pages so he could work on illustrations. When Gibbons ran out of pages, Moore would sometimes hire a taxi driver to shuttle more of the script the 50 miles to the artist's house house.
8. Time magazine dubbed Watchmen one of the 100 best novels of the past 100 years.
When Watchmen was originally published in the mid-1980s, only faint praise was afforded to comic books, which were still perceived as fodder for juveniles. (Or juvenile delinquents.) Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen shot a flare into popular culture signaling that comics were becoming more ambitious. In 2010, TIME Magazine agreed, citing Watchmen as one of the 100 greatest novels published since the magazine’s inception in 1923 and a “watershed” moment in the comic medium.
9. Moore felt “swindled” by DC COMICS.
In the contract for Watchmen, DC promised Moore and Gibbons that rights to the characters would revert to them a year after the book went out of print. Moore found this satisfactory at the time but soon realized the publisher had no intention of ever allowing the title to go out of circulation. He has long refused to participate in any anniversary celebrations, sequels, or other ancillary projects, even though he claimed in 2010 that DC offered him the rights to the title back if he participated in a continuation. "They offered me the rights to Watchmen back, if I would agree to some dopey prequels and sequels," Moore told WIRED in 2010. He declined.
10. The Watchmen movie could have been much different.
When Zack Snyder released Watchmen in 2009, it was met with a mixed reception—though it was likely as close to a faithful adaptation of the comic in a single feature film as anyone was likely to get. Snyder was admittedly reverential of the source material, an approach that may have escaped earlier attempts. At one point, Arnold Schwarzenegger was being considered for the role of Doctor Manhattan, and Terry Gilliam (Brazil) was set to direct.
No matter how much Snyder’s film or any future adaptations exercise fidelity, Moore has said he has no plans to see any adaptation. “My book is a comic book,” he said in 2006. “Not a movie, not a novel. A comic book.”