Watchmen: An Oral History

By the early 1980s, Moore (now focused on writing) and Gibbons were the leading lights of a vibrant U.K. comics scene. In particular, Moore had earned a rep as a pomo visionary with Marvelman, a subversive reimagining of a cheesy Captain Marvel clone. Meanwhile, American comics, facing weakening sales, were seeking to cultivate an audience that was no longer composed primarily of children. Adjusting to shifting tastes, DC looked to England for new voices. Moore's first work for the company, Swamp Thing, made him a star. In 1984, DC asked Moore to work his revisionist magic on a group of superheroes acquired from the defunct Charlton Comics. Moore invited his pal Gibbons to collaborate.

MOORE
In my late teens, as I was daydreaming about becoming a comic-book writer, I found myself thinking about a line of '60s superheroes published by Archie Comics: What if one of them was found murdered, and through the investigation, you explored the world they lived in? I intended to resurrect that idea with the project that became Watchmen. But when we submitted the proposal, DC realized their expensive characters would end up either dead or dysfunctional.

LEN WEIN (Watchmen editor)
Dick Giordano, DC's executive editor, had worked at Charlton and may have been attached to the characters. But he liked Alan's story, and asked him to reconceive his pitch with new characters.

GIBBONS
The Charlton characters were superhero archetypes. There was the Superman figure, the Batman figure.... We realized we could create our own archetypes and tell a story about all superheroes. What were their motivations? How would their very existence change the world?

MOORE
I also wanted to write about power politics. Ronald Reagan was president. But I worried readers might switch off if they thought I was attacking someone they admired. So we set Watchmen in a world where Nixon was in his fourth term — because you're not going to get much argument that Nixon was scum! For me, the '80s were worrying. ''Mutually assured destruction.'' ''Voodoo economics.'' A culture of complacency... I was writing about times I lived in.

GIBBONS
Alan saw comics on the same continuum as novels and movies, and would apply the same critical and creative disciplines. He was unlike other writers, who were only writing comics until something better came along. Alan never felt that way.

II. Fearful Symmetry

After sealing the deal, the two artists spent a day at Gibbons' house sketching costumes, brainstorming details about their alternative U.S., and discussing influences, including comic-book creators Will Eisner (The Spirit) and Steve Ditko (Spider-Man). Their surprising touchstone: MAD magazine's famous 1953 skewering of Superman, ''Superduperman.'' ''We wanted to take Superduperman 180 degrees — dramatic, instead of comedic,'' says Moore, who declares Harvey Kurtzman's MAD the ''best comic ever!'' Many choices for Watchmen deviated from the comics norm, like using moodier, secondary colors and dividing the page into a claustrophobic nine-panel grid instead of a few panels of varying size.

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