Widely considered the Citizen Kane of graphic novels, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon’s mid-80’s masterwork Watchmen offers tremendous value to the AP Lit classroom. Yes, there are superheroes and costumes. Yes, there are panels and word balloons. Yes, the violence is plentiful and the themes adult. And yes, the color pallette feels dated. (It was the 1980s — forgive them.) Beyond the aesthetics, one finds a deeply complex, multilayered narrative thick with allusions, symbolism, archetype and an exploration of the same themes found in more traditional texts. Here are five reasons to consider adopting Watchmen into your AP Lit reading lists.
1. Allusions Stacked Upon Allusions Provide Opportunities Stacked Upon Opportunities
Writer Alan Moore loves him some poetry, particularly Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Blake’s “The Tyger” serve far greater purpose than simple post-script references at chapters’ ends in Watchmen. One of Watchmen’s central characters adopts Ramses II’s alternate moniker for his superheroics. (Spoiler alert: Close reading Shelley’s poem reveals complex layers of foreshadowing and character development.) Similarly, Moore & Gibbons employ Blake’s concern with symmetry and alignment to inform Watchmen’s narrative structure and thematic intent. Roger Whitson’s essay published in ImageText provides a rich look at just how deep the connections to Blake go.
Prefer a more contemporary poet? Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and “Desolation Row” provide what amounts to the spine of the graphic novel. And if King James is more your style, Job and Genesis surface in poignant fashion.
Where I once waited until reading Watchmen with my AP Lit students to explore these poems and allusions, I now try to work as many as possible into the year. When students encounter Shelley and Blake, the experience is that much the richer having seen them outside the context of Watchmen’s struggles with morality and time.
2. Fictionalized Non-Fiction Enhances the Narrative & Reinforces Importance of Interdisciplinary Thinking
Moore created an entire world for these character to inhabit, one with its own history — based largely upon our own but with some important alterations. (President Nixon continues into his fourth term during the early 1980s of Watchmen.) At the close of each chapter, Moore crafts a number of fictionalized non-fiction pieces. Excerpts from a supposed autobiography, psychiatric evaluations, scientific case studies and news articles provide a depth to the graphic novel’s reality. While one can traverse the narrative without interacting with those end pages, delving into them reveals important thematic insights as well as clues to the unfolding mystery. Knowledge of physics and chemistry, psychology and philosophy, political science and history all come to bear on unpacking the layers of the narrative.
Our AP Lit students are not living in vacuum of literary analysis and composition; why not read a text that draws upon the content knowledge they explore outside our classrooms?
3. Non-Linear Narratives Challenge How Students Perceive Story
At its core, Watchmen is a mystery. A former masked vigilante dies in the opening panels and his former teammates seek to uncover the truth behind the murder. And that is where the typical narrative flow ends. Each character’s backstory arrives via flashbacks as long as chapters or as short as three-panel transitions from present-to-past-and-back-again. And just when the reader settles into that expectation, one discovers a comic-within-the-comic, a pirate story that parallels the search for justice and loss of humanity the characters of Watchmen encounter.
Why not just deliver a chronological narrative? Why a story within a story? Why use multiple formats of storytelling within a text? These are questions we ask of Joseph Conrad and Mary Shelley, James Joyce and William Shakespeare. Why not ask them of Moore and Gibbons? And how might the added visual literacy necessary to understanding the text make these questions even more challenging?
4. Superheroes Are Everywhere Right Now as Are Questions of Relevance
Our current generation of high school students have been living in a super-heroic rich environment. They have grown up in an era of cinematic Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman and Avengers. Just as they do not know a world without internet, most students do not know a world without super-heroic iconography on everything from t-shirts to food stuffs.
While the technology on display in Watchmen speaks to the 1980s in which it was crafted, its themes prove all-too-relevant in a world where a healthy distrust of authority and growing public dissatisfaction with the government collides with the entrepreneurial spirit and belief in the power of the individual to create change. Watchmen offers a highly literary lens through which students may ask questions about heroism and commercialism, idolatry and humility, media and morality.
5. Reading Comics Improves Learning
This isn’t breaking news and yet comics — even post-Maus, post-Persepolis, post-Fun Home — continue an uphill struggle for acceptance as literary text. Josh Elder’s Reading with Pictures organization provides research-based arguments for comics and graphic novels as learning tools. Recent research from Jeremy Short shows the power of not just for young readers but for all students and adults. And if you want even more justification, check out Marek Bennett’s comic workshop resources.
If one has never read comics before, Watchmen can intimidate. And at the same time, every year I have students who haven’t read a single comic book take to the unique opportunity Watchmen affords. They find Rorschach a complicated character ruled by his black-and-white moral compass. They find Dan an everyman milquetoast worth their cheers. They find Laurie struggling with generational demons that color their own family experiences. True, Watchmen isn’t for everyone. Yet it certainly merits taking time to determine whether it is well-suited to your students.
Dan Ryder teaches English at Mt. Blue Campus in Farmington, Maine. Having presented his work at education conferences and comic conventions alike, the 2014-2015 school year marks his fourteenth year of teaching Watchmen. Follow him on Twitter at @WickedDecent and learn more about him at www.danryder207.com.