All right, so let's talk about Watchmen. No doubt you've heard the movie version -- after about twenty years of false starts -- is hitting theaters in March (have a look at the preview here, if you like). You can get the book in about twenty different forms now, among them the standard version, which is perfectly good and the Absolute Edition (extra big and with lots of added supplementary material), which is astounding. Whichever you choose, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' perennial classic and benchmark of the sequential art form has been discussed and re-discussed over and over and over again. As one of the three graphic novels that put the form on the map for mainstream readers (along with Spiegelman's Maus and Miller's Dark Knight Returns), and one of Time Magazine's 100 greatest novels of all time, there is very little I could put into a new light for you in the space I have here. On the other hand, Watching the Watchmen: The Definitive Companion to the Ultimate Graphic Novel (by Gibbons, Kidd and Essl) has plenty of new and interesting stuff to say about it. Since Dave Gibbons, the artist of the original comics, has opened up with stuff about its earliest conception and never-before-seen sketches and ideas, this is going to be about the most in-depth analysis of the work you're going to find, this side of sitting down for a cup of tea with Watchmen author Alan Moore. As he is notoriously unhappy with the idea of this Watchmen in particular, I wouldn't count on that happening any time soon. For my part, I will say this. In my own personal theory of the evolution of the super-hero (and the super-hero comic), Watchmen is one of the three comics that have defined the genre. Action Comics #1 (featuring the first appearance of Superman) invented the super-hero. Amazing Fantasy #15 (featuring the first appearance of Spider-Man) made the super-hero recognizably human and introduced the notion of metaphor into a genre that had been painfully literal up to that point. It also gave the super-hero a motto ("with great power comes great responsibility," don't you know). Like those two comics, Watchmen (originally published as twelve monthly issues), summed up all that had come before it and paved the way for everything that would come after it. It dragged the super-hero into a context so real it was a bit disturbing and gave its characters such layered (and dark) personalities that the world suddenly realized comics, as the saying goes, weren't just for kids anymore. It pushed the potential of the genre to such a level of sophistication that it is still one of the very few works that could actually be considered graphic literature.
Now, if you're looking for something about super-heroes that's got depth and power but you maybe haven't heard of before, definitely hunt down a copy of the Golden Age (by Robinson and Smith), which is actually about the end of the Golden Age (Golden Age super-heroes, that is). As the Justice Society of America returns from World War II, they find a world that doesn't seem to need or want them anymore, and they each find their lives tumbling out of control in various ways without the mission of justice that has always guided them. So, while you've got Green Lantern trying to hold his business together and Hourman finally realizing that he's a drug addict, unable to quit popping the pills that grant him an hour of super power every day, you've also got the Manhunter -- homeless, hopeless and a little bit insane -- being pursued by a group of shadowy killers. Why? Because he's stumbled onto the secret of the world's newest, shiniest super-hero: Dynaman. Would you be surprised to learn that Dynaman, though rallying 1950's America behind him, has a very dark secret and an even darker agenda? Lemme tell ya, this thing is thrilling all the way through, but pretty much the entire last chapter, as all the plots come boiling together, features about the most spectacular battle I've ever seen in a comic book, as the heroes assemble one more time against the most powerful among them. Not everyone makes it into the Silver Age alive.
So Watchmen and the Golden Age aren't the most uplifting super-hero books ever. Unless you consider great stories, excellent characterizations, evocative art and thrilling action uplifting, that is.