It's a sad truth of geekdom: Comic books are way too short.

You hit the comic book store and leave with a hot fresh stack of new comics. You pay two or three dollars apiece for these things, for the latest issue of "X-Men" or "Batman" or whatever, and you sit down in ye olde living room and you dig eagerly into the top of your big new pile...and then about ten minutes and twenty-something pages later, you're done. Sure, you can go back and read the issue again, but that fresh kick you get from the initial satisfaction of your geek fix just isn't there. Besides, it's only another ten minutes before you're done again, and it's on to the next issue in your pile of new comics. An hour or two later, tops, you're done.

That's why I buy trade paperback collections these days. Sometimes I miss the collector mentality of buying individual issues; it's been years since I picked up new comics on an excited Wednesday afternoon, or pawed through a back issue box. But for the most part, I'm happy I can drop twenty smackers on a big stack of bound comics that will last me a few hours, and that is sturdy enough to last on a bookshelf without the aid of polybagging and boarding.

There's been only one time when I haven't been disappointed by the length of a comic book. It's the only comic I can remember reading and feeling fully satisfied afterward...even though I was dying to read the next issue. It's a comic book so dense and so packed with story, character and meaning that you can read it over and over and constantly pick up new nuances. It was twelve issues individually, but they're really more like chapters, and compiled together, the series truly earns the name "graphic novel."

The series is "Watchmen," and it changed comics forever.

I'm not a comics historian, but "Watchmen" seems like the first time that the full promise of comics as an art form was fulfilled. There were plenty of great comics before 1986, and plenty more after 1987 when "Watchmen" concluded. None of them took the full measure of what could be done using sequential art, as the comics medium is known. There's an alchemy unique to comics, one that takes the images of film and the words of prose and combines them in a wholly individual way of storytelling. In "Watchmen," writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons exploited the individuality of comics to tell their tale in a way no other medium could. In the process, they did what definitely no other comic had ever done: They brought layers of meaning and true depth to comics.

Ironically enough, "Watchmen" uses the archetype most commonly associated with comics, the superhero, as chief fodder for its story. As the tale opens, the Comedian has just been murdered under mysterious circumstances, putting other former heroes on alert that there may be a "mask killer" on the loose. His death slowly brings together his adventurer colleagues: Nite Owl, Doctor Manhattan, Ozymandias, Silk Spectre, and the insane Rorschach, who's also still active, but is a wanted vigilante who long ago slipped over the edge.

The story takes place in an alternate-universe New York City, in a world where none of DC Comics' usual heroes (Superman, Batman and the like) exist. Though superheroes have been outlawed for almost ten years, the Comedian has been allowed to remain active as an agent of the U.S. Government, as has Doctor Manhattan, whose complete control over matter has made him a crucial weapon in the Cold War against Russia. In the America of "Watchmen," Nixon never did leave the White House--in fact, he's managed to remain President since the sixties thanks to a congressional repeal of the two-term limit. It's a funhouse mirror distortion of the true state of affairs circa 1986, when the threat of nuclear war did hang over our planet and the Cold War was still in full swing.

Yet this isn't a political story, although politics course through it. Nor is it a superhero story, although there are plenty of costumed crimefighters as both main characters and supporting players. It's a story about people, exceptional and exceptionally odd people thrust into central roles in the future of our planet. Events weave together, pieces fall into place, and tension slowly builds over the twelve chapters, until one final massive plot twist takes this world into uncharted territory.

(The ending won't be revealed here by me, but you should know it's been the subject of much discussion and controversey in the years since the initial release of "Watchmen." Does the surprise ending take away from what's otherwise a very grounded and intense tale? Or does it add the final perfect note on a flawless symphony of storytelling? Read it and decide for yourself.)

A laundry list of the ingenious devices utilized to full effect by Moore and Gibbons throughout "Watchmen" deserves a website of its own, and not the meager confines of this humble screed. One particular device, however, stands out as wholly unique to comics and as a true innovation, and it's Moore and Gibbons' use of parallel storytelling. Throughout "Watchmen," it's often the case that two or even three different moments in the story are being played out at the same time, contrasting and colliding with one another. It's similar to a device that you may see in film, where action on a number of fronts is cut together for dramatic effect. The christening scene in "The Godfather" is the most powerful example that comes quickly to mind.

Unlike its use in film, the parallel storytelling in "Watchmen" presents two or three different simultaneous events on the same page. It's a more seamless flow between the different situations, and it forces them together with a greater immediacy than any film cut could allow, because your eyes remain aware of all the panels you're seeing, even if you're focusing on only one. It's hard to explain without a visual aid, but pick up "Watchmen" in your local bookstore the next time you're browsing, and examples will spring out at you on page after page.

Through their parallel storytelling, Moore and Gibbons also make some pretty stunning use of allegory, pushing these divergent elements together with an eye always toward meaning. At times, it's ironic, as when an awkward first sexual encounter between two of the main characters is placed up against an acrobatic feat on television, the broadcast offering sardonic commentary on the lovers' inability to gel. Other times it's an underlining of the man storyline, as when a dark story from the fictional "Tales of the Black Freighter" comic book series plays alongside encounters in the "real" world of "Watchmen." In each case, it goes a long way toward establishing those layers of meaning that push "Watchmen" head and shoulders beyond its contemporaries in comics, and practically anything that's come out since.

I could go on and on about everything that makes "Watchmen" so brilliant, from Gibbons' fine detail work in character expressions to Moore's endless gift for turning a phrase in dialogue and description. We could delve deeply into the short epilogues that follow each chapter, where faux books and articles illuminate the "Watchmen" universe beyond the material in the story and offer tantalizing hints as to what is yet to come. We could explore the parallels between the heroes of "Watchmen" and the heroes we know from DC and Marvel comics, or the more direct connections with heroes from the Charlton Comics universe, which was purchased by DC in the eighties. (Their heroes included Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and the Question, all of whom were absorbed into the DC universe, among others. Moore's original intention was to utilize these obscure heroes, until DC decided they wanted them for use in their universe instead.)

I could go on, but space and time don't permit. What I'll simply say is that, as usual, the joys of "Watchmen" are better experienced for yourself than read about on this site, so you're hereby urged to click on the handy-dandy Amazon.Com link below and buy yourself a copy of this seminal, exceptional comic book series. You'll see pretty quickly how comics were changed forever by the depth and meaning in this unapproachable yarn.

Matt Springer has been writing professionally about genre entertainment for the past five years and has worked full-time for such publications as the Official Buffy the Vampire Slayer Magazine, Cinescape, and Total Movie. He co-edits the genre criticism website Entertainment Geekly (http://www.entertainment-geekly.com). His first novel, Unconventional, is the tale of three geeks who spend a life-altering weekend at a convention; buy it online at South Side Press (http://www.southsidepress.net). He's currently working to become a sitcom writer.