Watchmen is a good, and even a great, comic. But the best ever written? Hardly—and it's not even Alan Moore's best work, either. Here are my picks for Moore stories slightly more deserving of the praise that's heaped on Watchmen.
Much of what Moore does in Watchmen he did first and better with this series. This reimagining of Marvelman, the UK's homegrown Captain Marvel knockoff, is the grandaddy of all "what-would-it-be-really-be-like" superhero stories. Few comics stories so fully embody the concept of superheroes as mythology: the title character is, quite literally, a god; his chief villain, former sidekick Kid Miracleman, is far more demonic than the word "villain" implies. Little surprise, then, that Neil Gaiman's follow-up run (incidentally his best work ever, too) treats Moore's 16 issues as scripture on which to build an exegesis. Add to all that career-best art from the likes of John Totleben, Alan Davis, and Garry Leach, and you've got my pick for the best comic of all time.
Moore's meticulously-imagined recreation of Victorian London is far more than a Jack the Ripper story. Using the 1888 murders as a backdrop, the story explores the nature of mysticism, insanity, and evil. Nothing in this story is out of place, and at times—such as when the killer seems to travel through time after one of the murders—the reader gets a glimpse of bizarre transcendence, too.
This is the one that really started it all, launching not only Alan Moore's career in American comics but also singlehandedly creating the entire idea of mainstream mature-readers comics. Moore had an inspired way of wrapping up the loose ends of the previous writer's plot threads: he killed the title character in his first issue, and in this, his second, he quite literally rebuilds him from the ground up. Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Warren Ellis—in other words, the last 20 years of comics—owe everything to the model Moore created here. And all that in 23 pages! (DC has made "The Anatomy Lesson" available for free here. Be arned that the coloring is wonky; Swampie is yellow instead of green-and-brown. Maybe they mistook him for the Floronic Man?)
If I have one complaint about Watchmen, it's this: it doesn't live up to the promise of this, its single best chapter and possibly the best single issue of a comic ever created. The rhythm of Dr. Manhattan's melancholy origin story is simply perfect, and in his time-detached reminiscences we get a glimpse inside the mind of a god. Here is a part that's greater than its sum.
Runners-up (or "about as good as Watchmen"):
Promethea: Like Watchmen, the series is a bit too long for its story. But Moore's exploration of his own religious/magical ideas is fascinating, and the art is simply gorgeous.
Top Ten: Alan Moore has a darned good sense of humor, and this superhero-cop mashup is his funniest.
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?: This "last Superman story" is a great meditation on the nature and meaning of an icon.
A Small Killing: You'd be forgiven for never having heard of it. This collaboration with Oscar Zarate is a character study of an advertising executive who begins to question the path his life has taken. Short and sweet (or should that be "sour"?)
*Some would say "Marvelman," the title under which the series began in the UK. But later—particularly in the Neil Gaiman issues—the term "Miracle" becomes an important part of the setting. If and when the series is ever reprinted or completed, I for one hope they stick with "Miracleman" as the title.
Oh, and also, I really wish they would stop calling Zack Snyder a "visionary director."