There is one thing that can be said for a graphic novel that makes TIME Magazine's Top 100 List of Best Novels--it gets noticed. There is so much controversy as it is as to whether a graphic novel can ever be considered literature. This is even true within the genre: when Neil Gaiman won the World Fantasy Award for an issue of Sandman, the rules were changed so that such an affront to literature would never take place again. For such a mainstream venue as TIME to choose a graphic novel was a huge step, either for Alan Moore in particular or the speculative genres in general. After reading Alan Moore's Watchmen, I'd say it was a bit of both.
America has long had a complicated, naive and fascinating love affair with superheroes. There is a commonly held view that the superheroes of various decades were a reflection of the spirit of the era: the dreams people held, their ideas of good and evil. Most of these comics heroes sprung fresh and simplistic from the imaginations of their creators, without much thought being given to the ideas they represented--and that, perhaps, is one of the reasons that comics have yet to acquire "literary" status. Another reason is the cartoonish differentiation between good and evil which appears in a great deal of fantasy and in most comics.
Watchmen is an entirely different breed: it is an extremely knowing, hyper-conscious look at the relationship between superheroes and the people who dreamed them up. It is in part an analysis of America's relationship with superheroes; the other part is, more disturbingly, a projection of how heroism might be defined in a postmodern world--where the lines between good and evil, rather than becoming blurred, simply vanish without a trace.
It's no coincidence that all the costumed heroes in Watchmen are middle-aged, nor do I think it's coincidence that in nearly every panel it is always raining or otherwise dreary. The primary colors of Superman, the fact that it was first published on the eve of WWII, bespeak a certain brightness, an innocence. It was a time that is perceived in hindsight by many Americans as a simple time, when it was obvious that the war being fought was a just war. It was a time when modern America was in its youth and the peak of its confidence.
In contrast, Watchmen is set in the twilight years of America--the late 80's--when innocence and clearly defined boundaries between good and evil have been replaced with the popularity of postmodernism. The middle-aged protagonists, themselves in their twilight years, are a reinforcement of this idea, which is that the rules have changed since the simpler days of WWII and worse yet: no one knows what they are anymore. Costumed heroes are no longer regarded as heroes, but as a societal menace; and the deep, dreary colors of the cityscape evoke an atmosphere of disillusionment and confusion.
The story is told in a variety of ways: one way is through text, particularly the autobiography of a 30's costumed hero. In it, Moore shows in insidious ways what he perceives to be the narrowness of vision of that time in America, well-intentioned though it might be. There is also a graphic story, seemingly unrelated, that runs throughout the novel of a man who eventually becomes a monster through his own fear of an invisible enemy. And then there are all the characters, who are all human, all aimlessly downcast, and of whom only one has what could be described as superpowers. The task they eventually undertake--to unmask a killer and a plot to nuke New York City--is turned on its head at the end; at the end, it turns out that what they are actually seeking is a new moral code for a new era, and what they discover is truly terrifying.
I don't want to give away the ending of the book; all I can say is that no analysis can be complete without revealing it. Therefore I will only say that Moore purposefully dispels of any moral preconceptions we might have had, and does so skilfully. His ending is also extremely controversial and cruel on an almost unbearable level, yet cannot be condemned entirely without leaving more questions. Much of the book, especially the beginning, is not so remarkable, which leaves me to think that it is the ending that has earned Watchmen its cult and even literary status among comics readers. I would be wary of anyone who is entirely comfortable with the moral conclusions that Moore seems to have drawn by the end of the book; at the same time, to contradict them outright is to miss the point. And with that paradox, the reader is left hanging at the end, any hope for satisfaction thwarted. There are no answers, because the old rules have changed or gone.