by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (DC Comics, 1986)

H ooray for comic books! Pulpy pages of helpful superheroes fighting for the infallible American Way with colorful art and kid-targeted fantasy paving the way for gleeful insignificance!

Or at least that's how it was until 1986, when writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created Watchmen, a 12 issue miniseries for DC Comics. After Watchmen, people stopped thinking of comics as the amusing red-headed stepchild of popular culture and started to think of them as a legitimate arts medium.

Instead of relying on philanthropic millionaires or super-powered aliens for Watchmen's characters, Moore and Gibbons took convincing, unlikable vigilantes--like the sociopathic Rorschach and the rapist The Comedian--and put them in tights and masks, forcing readers to think about what real-life superheroes would be like. In doing so, Moore and Gibbons held up a cynical mirror to everything from Vietnam and Nixon to America's longstanding fascination with simplistic heroes. Sure, Watchmen has genuine wannabe heroes working alongside its megalomaniacs, but its characters are ultimately fighting for imaginary ideals in a realistic, imperfect world. Despite their best intentions, the Watchmen are simultaneous heroes and anti-heroes, both tolerated and despised by the populace they want to protect.

As Watchmen begins, superheroes--now outlawed--have grown old; some are in retirement homes, others have day jobs. Crime-busting hideouts lie covered in dust, and ex-supervillains have served their time in jail, or retired and found Christ. Then, a burned-out ex-hero is brutally murdered, forcing the remaining superheroes to evaluate the cultural and psychological effects they've had on society and themselves.

Watchmen reads less like a comic and more like a sprawling novel about genuinely lost souls--and in doing so, shows how versatile and powerful comics can be.

It undermined a glut of assumptions about comics (and pop literature in general)--that they couldn't be insightful, or symbolic, or incendiary. After Watchmen, superheroes weren't safe anymore--and, in a manner of speaking, neither was American literature. ERIK HENRIKSEN