Probably the most highly acclaimed graphic novel of all time. According to the front cover, it is listed as one of Time Magazine's 100 best novels. Yes, it is books like these that mean that anyone who dismisses comic books as childish is either ignorant or stupid. The rest of us know that comic books are like any other medium, there is good and bad, childish and adult. This book is definitely good, and very adult.
It has been said that Watchmen ruined the costumed hero forever, tarnishing the squeaky-clean image of the superman types. If that is true, it was for the better; I've read some of the real early Batman and Superman stuff and it is disgustingly cheesy and sickeningly moralistic. Although, on doing some further research (Wikipedia) it seems that Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns beat Moore to it by a couple of years. Either way, throw in the likes of Gaiman, and comics simply have not been the same since the mid-to-late 80s.
So, yes, Watchmen is dark. Real dark. But it's about more than just the darkness of the story, it's about the darkness of the characters. Not a single one of the costumed heroes in this story doesn't have some kind of darker side. They all have secrets, they all have flaws and, most importantly, they all have an amazing level of depth and complexity. None of these are just heroes fighting for justice just because it's the right thing to do. They all have complex motivations, and sometimes conflicting motivations. It is this level of characterisation that really makes Watchmen special. The amazing, complex, edge-of-your-seat story is practically secondary.
But, the story itself is really amazing. A perfectly realised alternate world, where superheroes exist, but aren't necessarily the boon we'd like to think they would be. There's unfolding mystery, plenty of action, and a multitude of characters with overlapping stories, spanning decades.
The story's ultimate climax is devastating and brilliant. And the final moral dilemma faced by our heroes is truly one that will keep on turning in my mind, with no satisfying answer. It is a beautiful conundrum: Is it worth serving justice if it will doom the world?
My only criticism here (and it is a minor one, because I was able to suspend my disbelief) is that I don't really buy the whole 'introduce an outside enemy and all internal fighting will cease' thing. It's been suggested many times before, particularly in sci-fi, but I don't think reality bears it out. I mean, just look at Iraq - the Shiites and the Sunis may be trying to kill the Americans, but that's not stopping them from killing each other.
Anyway, there was one moment that I will always remember as being a brilliant antidote to a comic book and movie cliche - that is, when Ozymandias is "monologuing" (explaining his diabolical scheme to the heroes) and he is asked when he was going to execute his plan, he replies:
"Dan, I'm not a Republic Serial villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago."
Now that is devastating.