Top of the tree of SFX Magazine’s recent “100 Greatest Graphic Novels” special issue – and which comes as no surprise to anyone who reads graphic novels – was Alan Moore’s Watchmen. First published in 1986, it turned the idea of superheroes completely upside down and, alongside Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, foretold a darker side to comics which hasn’t really gone away.
More reminiscent of DC’s Justice League than Marvel’s Avengers, a team of costumed vigilantes whose fates have diverged dramatically, with some living just under the radar (and probably on the wrong side of the law) while others are successful, either as businessmen, scientists or government sponsored assassins. In the guise of a murder mystery, a massive conspiracy unravels which (without giving the plot away) serves to shine a light on the damaged figures who tend to become costumed vigilantes. I mean, would Batman really be Batman if he hadn’t been an orphan? It’s wonderfully written, raising intelligent questions while giving the reader memorable characters and some stunning artwork.
But is it the best graphic novel ever written?
What I found interesting about the list was that my choice came in at number 2 – Maus, a retelling of the Holocaust featuring rodents and is one of the very few graphic novels that has actually made me cry (another one also made the list – We 3 by Grant Morrison). Although it perhaps wasn’t the game-changer that Watchmen turned out to be, Maus introduced many young people to a difficult historical subject in a novel and very moving way, without shying from the violence and devastation inflicted. I found it a great read at school and would happily recommend it to any child studying the subject at school as an introduction.
Having said all of this, any of the top five could easily have been the Greatest Graphic Novel. I’m just not convinced that Watchmen is it.