A Look at the Watchmen During Banned Books Week

As comics and graphic novels become an increasing part of library collections, it should come as no surprise that comics and graphic novels are increasing showing up on the list of challenged books, especially in school libraries.  During Banned Books Week, Modern Graphic History Library looks at one comic book series on this list : Watchmen.


Watchmen, Book 2 cover

Watchmen, written by Alan Moore with artwork and lettering by Dave Gibbons, is a critically acclaimed story set during the cold war years of the 1980s in an alternative timeline where the United States won the Vietnam War.  It won the 1988 Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction work in a form other than a novel or novella.  It also appears on Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels (as well as its list of 10 best graphic novels.) As a result, people mistakenly think of Watchmen as a graphic novel, when actually, it was published by DC Comics as a self-contained story in 12 parts, issued monthly starting in September 1986.  In 1987, all 12 issues were published as a book, which is how one will mostly likely find it in libraries.

Watchmen has been challenged twice, according to the American Library Association. The first challenge was in 2001 at a high school in Harrisonburg, Virigina.  Three years later, it would be challenged again at a school in Florida serving grades 6-12. The Virginia challenge was unsuccessful ; the results of the Florida challenge are unknown.  The reason for both challenges was that it was inappropriate for the age group of the library.  There are not specific details about what was deemed inappropriate, but possibilities could be violence (including an attempted rape) and use of profanity.

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Watchmen, Book 1 cover

Watchmen is a very violent story: very graphically violent.  The cover of the first issue, with blood dripping down a smiley face, is a sign of the violence to come.  The smiley face is a recurring image throughout the series, as is the dripping blood. The back cover of every issue has a clock. In issue one, the clock starts at 12 minutes to midnight, and increases one minute per issue, along with blood dripping down the page.  By issue 10, the page is almost covered in red.

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Watchmen, Book 10 back cover

The smiley face is the symbol of The Comedian, a crimefighter who worked independently but also as a group called the Crimebusters, before the government banned superhero vigilantes.  The Comedian ends up working for the U.S. Government and helps the U.S. win the Vietnam War.  His murder in the beginning pages of book 1 sets in motion the plot that the members of the Crimebusters are being targeted.  This causes the remaining members to reunite at the Comedian’s funeral and some decide that they need to investigate, vigilante ban or not.

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Watchmen, Book 2, page 9

Watchmen was innovative in many ways.  One was its use of a nine-panel grid.  While some comics books had used a nine-panel grid before, it was used as part of other pages of varing grid panels of varing sizes.  Watchmen used the 9 panels consistently,  providing a uniform structure.  When larger panels are needed, they (almost always) are expanded within the confines of the 9-panel structure.

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Watchmen, Book 2, page 19

The story itself can be very “wordy” with lots of dialogue and thought-narrative, especially from the journal of Rorschach (named after the ink-splotch pattern he uses in his costume).  In other cases, the entire page has no words, just using the image to tell the story.

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Watchmen, Book 1, p. 5

While Rorschach’s investigation is the driving force of the plot, there is no main character.  In fact each character eventually gets time devoted to telling his or her backstory.  It also includes a secondary set of superheros, the Minutemen, who were the Crimebuster’s predecessors. Furthermore, there are various New Yorkers that the reader meets along the way.

Each issue also includes a quote at the end of the story, which fits into the plot of that issue.  Many people think that The Watchmen are the name of the superheros ; in fact, it is based off the quote Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, attributed to Juvenile, which translates to Who watches the watchmen? This quote is also scribbled throughout the series as graffiti in the streets of New York City.

There are lots of flashbacks, plus “supplementary” material at the end of the issues.  These supplements include excerpts from Nightowl’s memoir, excerpts from a pirate novel that one of the New Yorkers is reading, or the business proposal by one hero make money off of Crimebuster-related action figures.  It can at first feel overwhelming to keep track of everyone ; some of these characters and supplements first appear to not be relevant to the main story.  In the end, everything does in fact have some relevance to the story.  In fact, by rereading the series, the reader picks up on juxtapositions with the text and the images that suddenly take on a more significant meaning.

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Watchmen, Book 10, p. 30.

Because of the intricate detailing of the story, the use of flashbacks, and the creative juxtapositions of image and narrative, Watchmen doesn’t feel like a typical “comic book.”  Watchmen helped shift the viewpoint that comics were just fantasy short stories, but could be literature as well.


Watchmen.  Part of the Center for the Humanities Comics Collection

Case study : Watchmen. Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.