Citizen Kane. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Sopranos. Watchmen. Of this list, the following can be said: (1) Each is a masterwork representing the apex of artistry in its respective medium; (2) you might have no idea what Watchmen is.
Except that in our superhero-saturated, cult-pop moment, Watchmen's fingerprints are everywhere. On Lost. On author Neil Gaiman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer auteur Joss Whedon. On almost every comic book published since 1986. Yes, Watchmen is a comic book. But for many honest-to-God not-crazy people, it is much more. ''Watchmen,'' declares Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, ''is the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.''
Or, at least, just plain great. First published in 12 installments by DC Comics, Watchmen is considered the first ''adult'' (meaning sophisticated, not naughty) superhero comic. It is the signature work of English writer Alan Moore, whose trailblazing oeuvre also includes the movie-friendly V for Vendetta, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Produced in close collaboration with artist Dave Gibbons, Moore's saga concerns Rorschach, a demented vigilante with a morphing inkblot mask who investigates the murder of a mystery man named the Comedian though that might be the skimpiest summary ever of a comic book that's also an intricate conspiracy thriller, a radical deconstruction of superhero archetypes, a furious allegory of Cold War anxiety, and a tour de force of narrative technique. Says Whedon: ''Watchmen took the history of comics and used it as a template for examining the human condition in a way no one had seen before.''
Nearly 20 years after changing the way people think about comics, Watchmen is poised to reenter the pop consciousness. An oversize, recolored edition is now in stores, and talks are under way to produce a long-in-development movie adaptation at Warner Bros. With Watchmen echoing in the culture, EW asked its creators including the notoriously press-shy Moore to discuss its history.
Raised in the slums of Northampton, England, by a family that put a high value on literacy, Moore was reading and writing by 5 and was obsessed with mythology. At 7, he discovered American comics like The Flash and Superman. ''All these godlike characters, in a vision of America that to me, growing up in the terrorist streets of Britain, seemed like the future...glorious!'' says Moore, 51. ''It opened up a utopia of the mind.'' Gibbons, 56, grew up outside London and dreamed of working in comics. His parents encouraged a more practical profession, so he became a surveyor. He hated it. In 1973, Gibbons saw an ad in an underground paper for a fantasy bookstore. Giant floating eyeballs were involved. The store's owner hired him to draw promo materials, which were discovered by an agent repping comics artists. Years later, Gibbons learned that the surreal ad had been sketched by a budding cartoonist named Alan Moore. ''Alan's psychedelic eyeballs were the turning point in my life,'' says Gibbons.