Who watches the Watchmen? Students at Bellevue College do. English classes that are teaching “Watchmen” like literature are giving serious graphic novels a long-due comeback. Just like eating Cookie Crisp for breakfast, taking notes and studying comics for homework is so sweet it ought to be unhealthy. By the way, they’re still going to get just as much English credit as you will. Consider that while you keep reading that Jane Austen novel your teacher assigned.
In case you’re confused, I’m not talking about that latest addition to this year’s pile of comic book adaptation blockbusters. With all the hype the film “Watchmen” got this March, some people are bound to forget that it was adapted from its original 1980’s graphic novel form. To sum up twenty years of nerd culture hysteria into a single sentence: “Watchmen” is the greatest thing ever. So for those of you who don’t know, “Watchmen” is kind of a big deal, but not just in comic book stores. It’s been called the single greatest graphic novel of all time; some people would even consider it literature. Some people, like James Torrence, will even teach it as literature.
Torrence has taught “Watchmen” here at BC in a variety of classes from Pop Culture to English 101. He’s among educators and intellectuals who have helped “Watchmen” achieve a 21st century rediscovery. TIME magazine in 2005 gave “Watchmen” a surprise appearance in its “ALL-TIME 100 Greatest English Novels” and the book has since re-emerged with a novelty cult status. As well as being adapted into the 2009 film, “Watchmen” is suddenly frequenting book store windows, coffee shops, and even alternative clothing stores like Urban Outfitters.
“’Watchmen’ is really what I call ‘meta-text’,” says Torrence “It’s a comic book that comments on comic books and it came at around the right time to do that.” “Watchmen” bomb-shelled readers in 1986 with its gritty, psychological portrayal of former superheroes, who are scattered into anonymity after they fall out of the public favor and are outlawed by the government. Unlike the stereotypically suave, righteous, and invincible superheroes of the Golden Age of American comics, the characters of Watchmen are exceedingly mortal and struggle to make the right decisions. “1986 was a few decades after the golden age of comic books in the US, and I think that the American reading public had started to realize the limitations of those superhero characters,” said Torrence.
“Watchmen” may have very well been the evolutionary stepping stone between pulp fiction and literature. Upon its release, not only did it garner significant praise from within the comic industry but it also gained critical acclaim from literary critics and intellectuals. Scott Bessho, head of the Genki/Japanese animation club sees a new role for the graphic novel. “’Watchmen’ and graphic novels in general should be taken more seriously as a form of literature. They’re also unique because they also combine different methods of storytelling,” he said.