There's been some discussion about Watchmen in the movie thread, but the graphic novel certainly deserves discussion of its own, and now is as good a time as any. In fact, the movie demands discussion of the graphic novel, simply because it's one of the most faithful adaptations of any source material of any kind, ever -- in fact, a case could be made that it is the single most faithful adaptation of any source material, since only comic-book art could exert such a profound influence on both the visual and the verbal aspects of a film.
So much is this the case that, as I work on my Watchmen review, I find that I have chosen to begin with six paragraphs all about the graphic novel, which I am posting here in the hope of getting discussion going.
In my review of Miller's ill-advised recent cinematic take on Will Eisner's The Spirit, I wrote that The Spirit had been the Citizen Kane of comic-book art, and The Dark Knight Returns had been the Godfather. Watchmen does not suggest a similar cinematic analogy, but reading it one might be at turns reminded of Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie and Clyde, Dirty Harry, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Taxi Driver.
It is a work of remarkable density and sophistication, a deconstruction of the superhero genre rather than, like The Dark Knight, a reinvention and a deepening of it. Subversive, cynical and nihilistic, Watchmen paints a universe in which Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight would feel right at home -- in fact, he might just find that there was nothing for him to do here.
In this world, the amoral Comedian, who regards life as a meaningless joke, is one of the so-called heroes. The psychotic Rorschach schizophrenically sees the world in morally black and white terms while simultaneously regarding morality as a projection of human meaning onto meaningless patterns. Dr. Manhattan, the only figure in the story with obvious super-powers, is so detached from humanity by his godlike status and quantum perspective that he has a hard time seeing a meaningful difference between life and death. Then there's an Olympian figure who sets out to save the world by an act more monstrous than the Joker's wildest machinations.
On one level, Moore sought to craft a narrative exploring what masked vigilanteism might look like in the real world, with flawed and marginal characters rather than the altruistic do-gooders of traditional comic-book mythology. On another level, although he made some effort to imbue his characters with varying outlooks, Moore's anarchic, atheistic worldview clearly informs the narrative as a whole.
The story could be called a critique of super-hero hubris, of those who in setting out to help mankind set themselves above the rest of humanity. The title is an allusion to the Roman poet Juvenal's pointed query, "Who watches the watchmen?" (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) The climax threatens to rip the rug from under traditional heroism altogether -- until a final twist rips the rug from under the climax, and the story seems to end as it began, with a meaningless, deadly joke.