Revisiting Watchmen’s Property Values

Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics reviewed by Martin Flanagan

Watchmen continues to compel. Viewed amidst today’s popular and scholarly obsessions around unfolding serial and transmedia »universes« – where decades’ worth of stories provide the creative fuel – the amount and variety of content which springs forth when a book collecting a mere twelve issues (from 1986-7) is cracked open again can still surprise.

Andrew Hoberek’s approach to Considering Watchmen is inclusive and varied, but one central aim becomes apparent as the book progresses. This narrows (and this is no bad thing) to a final consideration of how Moore and Gibbons’ work has grown from an initial station of provocative »moment of disruptive bad form« (181) within the systems of comic storytelling to a kind of manual directing literary would-be innovators to escape the confines of minimalist realist fiction. Hoberek attributes the latter to the agency of the many literary tributes it has received from the likes of Michael Chabon, Junot Dìaz and Amy Bender, which receive detailed attention towards the end of the book. Not simply kowtowing to traditional hierarchies, the influence that Hoberek considers worthy of measure does not move in the expected direction. Rather than tracking the softening of dismissive attitudes to Watchmen’s medium and genre as it reaches the canon, the direction marked by Hoberek casts the series not as a comic upgraded to literary status, but as a salutary signal sent into the realms of literature itself. Thus, he is interested in how comic (and specifically, although not straightforwardly, superhero) genre features showcased in Watchmen have been used to refresh creative practices. This is in contrast to the now standard account of the series’ imitable adoption of novelistic strategies (see Van Ness; Wright, 272); an interpretive tactic that is rejected by Moore himself, as Hoberek points out (24). The fresh take, or even reversal of critical logic here is summed up in the cheeky title of Hoberek’s introduction, »Is It Literature?«: the question is revealed as starting out from the wrong side.

It is easier now, thirty years after the enormous impact of the series, to evaluate Watchmen in such a way. The layering of high artistic and thematic ambition with popular or »low« culture vernacular forms and premises has been well worked-through during Watchmen’s journey through an ever-improving reputational cycle: the series, as Hoberek details in his introduction, has become increasingly validated as high art (even as its popular – and to Moore, controversial – progeny of films and prequel comics proliferate). For the novice, Hoberek samples many of those formal aspects and issues of valuation. Perhaps reflecting the hard-to-grasp-on-first-reading sheer compendious­ness of Watchmen, Hoberek elects to simplify his own structure via a three-part division into major chapters on »Poetics«, »Property« and »Politics«. None of these chapters disappoint. The reader may wish to know that »Property« is mainly concerned with how comic industry discourses readable from the series line up with its general dystopian countenance. An example would be Watchmen’s positive diegetic reflections of a more ramshackle, but artistically free production approach characterising earlier comics – running through, also, the alternative cultural scene within which Moore’s art developed in 1970s England – that be­comes displaced by what Hoberek terms a »narrative of corporatization« (107) descending on industry conditions in the 1980s. This sacrifice of individual voice for a sterile and regimented corporate state of production – associated diegetically with the entrepreneurship of key figure Adrian Veidt (the hero Ozymandias) – informs the discussion of ›property‹ more than does DC’s active exploitation of the Watchmen story and characters in the world of commerce (which might be suggested by another connotation of the word ›property‹).

The »Politics« chapter makes concession to the British origins of Moore’s authorial mindset and sense of chagrin at what appeared to be a declining British culture in the 1980s, while recognising that the political bite of Watchmen’s counter-history is officially trained on American society. Another level of politics – the opposition of Moore-like uncompromising auteur figures to that corporate, Veidt-like mode of production of comics after the rise of the direct market in the 1980s – is revisited often, as in other critiques, but with added nuance. Hoberek opines that Moore’s thought on the grounds of individuals and systems, »shaped by a left-wing intellectual tradition« (120) that – in its opposition to totalitarianism and championing of a ›do-it-yourself‹ philosophy, proves as suitable for comic-creating free thinkers as for urban vigilantes – travels a circuit back into an »inadvertent« (146) coalition with principles of the Neoliberalism heralded by Thatcher and Reagan. A further opposition that Hoberek would like to complicate is that between experimentalism (in the sense of autonomously-authored, modernist art) and the ostensibly more humble practices and modes of address of serial fiction. Here, Gibbons’ key role is recalled, although it is true that as in other accounts, Moore figures as the (reluctant or otherwise) master planner.

The book leaves a feeling that those seeking a particular way of reading Watchmen – one that situates its innovations and countless formal echoes firmly within textual traditions of comic narrative – may be slightly disappointed, although this kind of thing is provided to an extent (in the discussion of Gibbons’ debt to Ditko and the nine-panel grid, for instance). However, accounts with such priorities can be found elsewhere (see Klock). Hoberek’s comics scholarship is solid and effectively applied, and his reading of Watchmen in comic form terms only goes as far as it needs to support his overall aims. His guiding questions are literary and status-focused, rather than medium-related; his book is concerned not to demonstrate the towering stature of Watchmen but to understand it. This gives this well-argued book distinctiveness. If the most academically familiar story about Watchmen (and much of Moore’s work) is its place in accelerating the »growth« of a medium, Hoberek’s take – that what the series offers in »expressive [genre] power« (67) is embraced by a younger generation of literary authors such as Bender and Diaz as a rejuvenating gift – represents something a little different.



  • Klock, Geoff. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. New York and London: Continuum, 2002.
  • Van Ness, Sarah. Watchmen as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel. Jefferson: McFarland Press, 2010.
  • Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003.


Considering Watchmen
Poetics, Property, Politics
Andrew Hoberek
New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2014
Comics Culture Series
224 S., 24,00 Euro
ISBN 978-0-8135-6331-2