Alan Moore

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Watchmen Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Alan Moore's Watchmen. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Alan Moore

Alan Moore was born in 1953 to a lower-class family in Northampton, England, where he grew up with his parents, younger brother, and grandmother. Although their region had high levels poverty and low levels of literacy, Moore nonetheless enjoyed his childhood. From an early age, Moore read all manner of literature. He performed well in school until he moved to a middle-class elementary school, where he came to suspect that their curriculum was designed to brainwash students into being docile citizens. In the 1960s, Moore started contributing his writing to independent magazines and even developed one of his own. At the same time, Moore started selling LSD at his school and was expelled for it in 1970, which hampered his future academic interests. Moore spent the next several years doing various jobs, but he felt restless spending his work hours doing something he didn’t love. He eventually quit his day jobs to commit himself to writing and illustrating comics, which he published independently and with various small magazines. However, Moore’s income was so small that he and his wife collected government unemployment benefits to keep themselves and their daughter afloat. In 1979, Moore created the comic strip Maxwell the Magic Cat, which ran in a local paper and earned him a consistent income until 1986, when he ended his relationship with the newspaper because they ran an article that denigrated homosexual people. Moore also pitched a script to the British comic magazine 2000AD, whose editor saw serious potential in Moore’s writing and put him to work on their Future Shocks series. Moore’s reputation as a comic book writer increased, and by 1984 he was receiving work offers from Marvel UK and DC Comics in the United States. Len Wein, the head of DC Comics, hired Moore to revamp the Swamp Thing character, which Moore did so successfully—both artistically and commercially—that DC hired additional British writers to revamp other failed characters as well. In 1985, DC Comics let Moore write several stories for Superman, on which he worked with illustrator Dave Gibbons. Gibbons co-created Watchmen with Moore in 1986. Watchmen, which was one of the first comics to subvert the superhero comic genre by depicting deeply flawed heroes, was wildly successful and established Alan Moore as one of the most important comic book writers of all time. However, despite Watchmen’s success, Moore’s relationship with DC Comics soured over merchandising rights and royalties. In 1989, after finishing V for Vendetta, Moore left DC Comics. He set up an independent publishing company called Mad Love with his wife, which he ran for several years before returning to mainstream comics in 1999. Under DC Comics, Moore formed the imprint America’s Best Comics, through which he produced many widely successful series, including The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. In 2019, Moore announced that he was officially retiring from writing comic books.
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Historical Context of Watchmen

Watchmen creates an alternate version of the American 20th century, imagining the effect that costumed heroes and Dr. Manhattan would have had on contemporary events. The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan help America win the Vietnam War, which in actual history stretched from 1955 to 1975 as a protracted fight against North Vietnamese Communists, and which America thoroughly lost. The Comedian, as a covert operative for the American government, helps bury the Watergate scandal, which actually occurred between 1972 and 1974 and ended Nixon’s presidency when the journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein discovered massive corruption and abuses of federal power. Additionally, the Comedian implies that he assassinated President John F. Kennedy, who was truly assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas in 1963. Watchmen’s story is set against the building threat of World War III, a looming nuclear apocalypse triggered by tensions between America and the U.S.S.R. (which Watchmen often refers to as “Russia”). Though never named, this tension directly refers to the real tension of the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the latter half of the 20th century. In this era, fearful of Communism, the U.S. government resolved to “contain” Soviet expansion in the wake of World War II. However, after seeing the devastation that America’s atomic bombs unleashed on Japan, the U.S.S.R. immediately developed its own atomic weapons. This triggered an escalating arms race between the two powers, leading to the development of the hydrogen bomb and the constant threat of nuclear war. Through the 1950s and 1960s, constant paranoia about nuclear attacks lingered throughout America. Many civilians built bomb shelters in their yards and schoolchildren practiced nuclear attack drills regularly. Fear of nuclear winter thus became a defining factor of American life in those decades, and it subsequently shapes Moore’s depiction of American life and security in Watchmen.

Other Books Related to Watchmen

Watchmen critiques the same popular comic book hero archetypes that Alan Moore spent much of his career writing. Before penning Watchmen, Moore wrote the Superman comics Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and For the Man Who Has Everything. These both appear to have influenced his depiction of Dr. Manhattan, who parallels Superman, except that Dr. Manhattan must deal with the moral and psychological consequences of being a superhuman amongst mortals. Shortly after finishing Watchmen, Moore wrote his take on Batman, The Killing Joke, which explores the psychology of the Joker and argues that he is not altogether different from Batman himself, much like the characters of Watchmen blur the line between hero and villain. Moore’s dark take on the hero comic genre continued with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which features a British crew of superheroes preventing Armageddon in 1898. Watchmen’s political focus also surfaces in Moore’s V for Vendetta, a series about an anarchist revolutionary who campaigns against the fascist state and convinces civilians to embrace an anarchist society. Even outside of Moore’s considerable body of work, Watchmen’s influence permeated the comic book world after 1987. This is especially true of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which follows the character Dream through a dark, mature fantasy world that reinterprets various mythologies in the same way Watchmen reinterprets superhero tropes. Mark Millar’s Batman series The Dark Knight Returns also draws on Watchmen, exploring the popular character as a flawed vigilante operating in spite of the government’s opposition to him.
Key Facts about Watchmen
  • Full Title: Watchmen
  • When Written: 1985
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: Published as 12 issues from September 1986-October 1987
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Graphic novel
  • Setting: The United States between 1940 and 1985; Mars; Antarctica
  • Climax: Adrian Veidt reveals his plot to fake an alien attack on earth, killing millions of people.
  • Antagonist: Adrian Veidt
  • Point of View: Alternates between third-person narration and first-person narration by various characters.

Extra Credit for Watchmen

Sour Relations. Moore’s relationship with DC Comics ultimately soured when he realized they’d written misleading licensing contracts for Watchmen, which enabled them to take possession of the story indefinitely.

Spin-offs. Although intended as a one-shot story, Watchmen has spawned movies, TV series, and numerous prequel comic series.