Watching The Rings
Moore’s Watchmen and
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Are Strikingly Similar Landmarks
When one talks of vital contributions to the art of comics, one cannot ignore Alan Moore. With a body of work as consistently terrific as his – he has more certifiable classics under his belt than any comic writer of the last 30 years – targeting any given tale as his “best” is an impossible task. But of Alan Moore’s contributions to comicdom, one truly stands as not just an undeniable landmark, but the undeniable landmark, putting its stamp on comic history forever: Watchmen, the powerful 12-issue collaboration with Dave Gibbons circa the Reagan-era 1980s.
Just how big a landmark is this now classic tale? Alan Moore’s Watchmen is to modern comics what J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is to modern fantasy. It’s that simple.
Both vitally important works of their time, these two seemingly different works may have more in common than is apparent at first glance. Hailed as two of the most influential works of their respective art forms and genres, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings changed the face of superheroes and fantasy, respectively. And they did so in remarkably similar ways.
Watchmen is well known even outside comic audiences and served as a turning point for superhero comics. It remains to this day one of the most influential comics of the last 30 years, reflected in almost every genre work that has followed. It’s difficult to read a modern superhero comic book that cannot trace at least something back to Watchmen.
Meanwhile, The Lord of the Rings stands as one of the most popular, best-selling novels ever. Tolkien’s epic took 12 years to create and, despite being steeped in ancient tradition and taking from stories hundreds of years old, stands as the first work of “modern fantasy.” To this day it remains arguably the single most influential work of genre literature since its release almost 50 years ago.
While the extent of their respective influence varies from creator to creator, it’s undeniable that both have left their mark on the world. Neither were truly “firsts” in the strictest sense – fantasy existed well before Tolkien, and Watchmen was not the first to tackle darker, more “realistic” superheroes – but both became defining creations. The post-Watchmen world of superhero comics is much different than the pre-Watchmen world. The same is true of The Lord of the Rings and fantasy.
But it’s far too easy to say “both of these works were influential” and leave it at that. How did each impact its field?
A Sweeping Influence
Following Watchmen’s release in 1986 and 1987, comics increasingly depicted a “darker” view of the once-noble world of superheroes. And it still does. Super humans have become fallible, and not merely in the sympathetic, “he’s just a regular guy” kind of way pioneered by the early Marvel creators. Today’s “heroes” are often ruthless, willing to hurt, maim and even kill to succeed.
Watchmen‘s heavy focus on the politics of superheroes has become standard, too, as is evident by hugely popular series like Civil War (soon to be a huge motion picture). Geo-political intrigue has become commonplace. Shady government organizations, power-laden entities with an Orwellian bent, and Machiavellian machinations are at this point superhero clichés.
You can thank Moore for that. Since Watchmen arrived on the scene, comics have not been the same.
The scope of Tolkien’s influence is even more sweeping than Watchmen’s. Following the release of The Lord of the Rings, the fantasy market became engorged with a never-ending series of Epic Trilogies (despite Tolkien’s tale not being a true trilogy) stuffed with elves, dwarves and Big Important Quests.
And it still is. Along with the prerequisite fantasy races, readers have been inundated with Dark Lords and Ancient Ruins, Good Lands under siege by Evil People, and Ancient Items of Great Power, so much so that these are now fantasy clichés only now being shattered by the likes of George R.R. Martin and his mega-hit A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones.
You can thank Tolkien for that. Since The Lord of the Rings arrived on the scene, fantasy literature has not been the same.
On the surface the nature of these influential styles may seem markedly different – anti-heroes, heroic quests, what’s the link? – but one must look closer. Both Watchmen and The Lord of the Rings were influential, sure, but then so were a great many works.
What makes these two so similar is that so many of their imitators got it wrong. In blunt terms, the knock-offs too often did not “get it.” The imitators missed what made both landmark works, swiping the clothes and ignoring the man wearing those clothes.
While Watchmen is full of dark politics and societal despair, none of this is what elevates it from a Good Story to a Great Piece Of Art. Imitators swipe the gritty tone and moral ambiguity of Watchmen, but they miss the complex web woven by Moore and Gibbons and the depth of the world put they together. It’s all so many shallow takes on “dark” heroes and “realistic” superheroes. They miss the point.
Neither is The Lord of the Rings’ great power derived from its dwarven tunnels, foul orcs and epic quests. What elevates Tolkien’s effort above that of his imitators is the rich depth of the world he created. Few other authors have approached the grand tapestry of history and language in Middle Earth. It is this tapestry that is the epic’s real power, not the toys copycats have taken from Tolkien’s sandbox.
In noting what the imitators of these seminal works have missed, we have put our finger on another link between them. The richness of the world each author created.
Creating New Worlds
The creation of the fictional worlds that give The Lord of the Rings and Watchmen their power is worth noting. Both are layered with material that does not directly serve the advancement of the story, yet which provides their respective narratives with a degree of believability rarely seen in works of fantastic fiction. Both include extensive non-story material the casual reader can easily skip, yet which rewards the devoted reader with a greater understanding of the characters, themes and nature of what they’re reading. And both accomplished this in remarkably similar ways.
The end of each issue of Moore’s Watchmen included text and “photo” pieces expanding on things shown in the main narrative. These character profiles, newspaper clippings, essays, historical documents and articles about the people, places and events of Watchmen made the world one a reader could sink into, revealing previously hidden layers beneath the narrative and enriching your understanding of the characters and events by creating an intricate backstory for the entire world.
We don’t need to read this extra material, but our view of the tale and our appreciation of this fictional world is broadened if we do.
Thirty years before Watchmen’s release, J.R.R. Tolkien did the same in The Lord of the Rings, to a much greater extent. The final book was amended with 100 pages of appendixes featuring detailed histories, family trees, timelines, essays, notes on language – a wealth of material easily skipped, yet which offered great insight into the world of Middle Earth, the events that shaped that world, and the characters who populate it. The depth of those appendixes was like nothing seen before.
Like Moore’s non-story appendixes, those willing to brave Rings’ background material found a richer and more rewarding experience greeting them.
This technically unneeded material may be why both stories have a depth rarely duplicated despite scores of imitations. Moore, Gibbons and Tolkien put as much care into crafting their settings as they did their stories, in turn strengthening the stories being told.
And lest any think tossing some hastily put together notes at the back of their tome is enough, well, it’s not. There is an inner consistency with this non-story material, subtle connections to the main narrative which only the truly dedicated can reproduce. If the Moore and Tolkien knockoffs feel emptier, somehow lighter, it’s because they are.
Extraneous notes are not all the two tales have in common. They share timeless themes hidden in seemingly simple narratives, setting them apart from stories that miss the heart of their power and giving them a moral complexity their imitators cannot muster.
Staking Out Similar Moral Ground
At a glance, it appears these two stories could not be further apart – Watchmen is populated with dark and loathsome heroes willing to do wrong to achieve good, while The Lord of the Rings is peopled by noble heroes unwilling to tamper with evil even if it brings good as a result.
But that’s too simple an interpretation.
In truth, both summaries are too simplistic because the moral question posed by each tale – is the use of evil to achieve good a just act? – encourages a reexamination of our views on right and wrong. Might makes right, the ends justify the means, the use of violence to stop violence; each reader has a different perspective on these issues. Neither Tolkien nor Moore provides us with easy answers to the questions they pose. They respect the reader’s intelligence enough to not spoon feed us the answer, leaving us only with the question.
In Watchmen, the darkest, most vicious character (Rorschach) may also be the tale’s most well-intentioned hero, driven by a strict, if perverse, sense of justice. In The Lord of the Rings, the tale’s ostensible hero (Frodo), guided by a strict sense of right, succumbs to temptation in the end. He fails. Frodo and Rorschach’s sense of justice are polar opposites – and both fail in their quests. That makes for powerful, influential storytelling.
More importantly, the image most have of each story – Tolkien is known for presenting the “good” in human nature, Moore the “bad” – fails under close scrutiny, a testament to the often overlooked depth each creator injected into their respective work.
Tolkien’s world is rife with horrible fathers bent on protecting their own legacy and power at all costs (Denethor), royal women so full of hopelessness they prefer to die than to see to their duties fulfilled (Eowyn), and noble leaders willing to betray the work of centuries for a taste of power (Saruman).
Moore’s is filled with characters who have dedicated their lives to seeing justice done (Rorschach, as misguided as he arguably is), who seek to use their great talents to better the entire world (Ozymandias, again, as misguided as he may be), and those willing to give up lives of comfort to do the right thing (Nite-Owl).
Good and evil? Neither presents as clear-cut an image of those traits as many would have you believe. In both tales, decisions made for good often lead to evil (Sam’s mistrust of Gollum prevents the creature’s impending redemption; Ozymandias seeks world peace and kills hundreds of thousands in the process) and those made in evil often lead to good (Frodo succumbing to the Ring’s temptation ultimately leads to its destruction; Comedian’s murder is the spark that sets Rorschach on his quest).
As readers, we can question the moral wisdom of events throughout each work, but our own sense of what is right and wrong provides the only real answer to many of each tale’s questions we are offered.
Walking A Twisting Path
Parallels between the two works lie in their twisting narratives, too. Both stories jump forward and backward in time, relaying events out of sequence to build tension and reveal important information to the reader in a more effective fashion than a standard narrative would.
In Watchmen, for instance, we meet Dr. Manhattan midway through the first chapter. He is an aloof character, a mystery to us. Moore hides key aspects of what makes Dr. Manhattan who he is until chapter four, when his full-blown origin is told, moving from the present day to the past and back to the present day again. That information then revealed, Moore proceeds to all but hide the character away again until the latter chapters of the book. When he finally returns, we have a greater understanding of who and what he is, adding further depth to his later appearances.
Moore essentially shows us a vast power exists in the world of Watchmen, then proceeds to take that power out of play, leaving readers hanging by a thread until later in the work.
This sequencing is important. If Moore tips his hand on Dr. Manhattan too early, the lofty potency of his early appearances, which help set the tone for the world of Watchmen, is lost. Too late and the humanity still burning beneath the surface of the character is wasted and the tension of waiting for his return spoiled. It’s a delicate balance; one nudge and much of the power is sapped from the character.
Another writer may have spaced the Dr. Manhattan story evenly throughout the work, or told his tale sequentially, but not Moore. By offering us large chunks at just the right time, Moore builds a mounting sense of urgency into his narrative.
Tolkien does much the same in his legendary work. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien splits his narrative at the opening of The Two Towers, interleaving the chapters concerning Merry and Pippin, and Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf, switching back and forth at key points in order to reveal or hide key information from the reader.
He takes that to an even greater extreme by making Frodo, Sam and Smeagol’s leg of the quest a separate half of the book of its own, segregated from the adventures of the other members of the Fellowship. The Two Towers is in essence two separate but related books (and is in fact divided as such).
By doing this, Tolkien manages to create a mounting tension that lasts for hundreds of pages, showing us how war is overtaking Middle Earth before bringing us back to the core quest of Frodo, and later abandoning that quest again to show the war in earnest in the pages of The Return of the King, leaving the reader to wonder how the quest that drives the entire narrative forward is faring until the latter portion of the epic.
Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has commented that splitting the narrative the way Tolkien did was the work of an amateur — and that it was an inspired choice that created a stronger narrative as a result. At the end of The Two Towers we know what Frodo and Sam are walking into, but Tolkien clips their story arc just when it seems their quest is about to fail, returning us again to the war of the Ring – a war we readers now suspect may be in vain because of what has unfolded with Frodo and Sam. And by the end of that narrative, the readers are again left in the dark at a crucial moment, the war appearing lost at the gates of Mordor before returning to see how Frodo and Sam are faring.
So Tolkien holds his cards not once, but twice; once at the end of The Two Towers, then again at the end of the first half of The Return of the King. He twice shows us what is at stake, then takes a narrative out of play, leaving readers hanging by a thread until later in the work. In each instance his timing is flawless; if timed any differently the delicate tension could have been broken.
Another writer may have interwoven the Fellowship and Frodo/Sam chapters evenly throughout the work, telling the tale sequentially. Not Tolkien. Much like Moore does with his winding Watchmen narrative, by offering us large chunks at just the right time, Tolkien injects a building sense of urgency into his narrative.
There are other parallels between these two works, links in their twisting narratives and deceptively complex storytelling techniques, similarities in the murkiness stirring beneath the surface of seemingly black and white characters, and in the synchronicity each author built into his narrative (not to mention the way in which side tales such as Tales from the Black Freighter and Tolkien’s deeper mythology each comment on their respective story’s main narrative).
But that, maybe, is a discussion for another time. In the end there is only this: Alan Moore’s Watchmen and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are landmarks in their respective genres, and for surprisingly similar reasons.
And unlike many so-called “landmarks” that fade to obscurity with time, the depth injected into these tales and the complexity of both their telling and messages ensures each will continue to resonate for generations to come.
For that, we readers are a lucky bunch.
For more of my writing on The Lord of the Rings, pick up a copy of Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture. Also, this piece originally appeared almost 10 years ago on the now defunct website dvdinmypants.com. It appears here in a slightly modified and updated form.