Watchmen sets itself in an alternate timeline in the midst of the cold war, asking the question of what happens when those who are in power are not kept in check like the rest of the world, and how does impending disaster affect human nature.
Watchmen #1 – 12
Authors: Alan Moore
Artist/Letterer: Dave Gibbons
Colors: John Higgins
Publisher: DC Comics
What You Need to Know:
As a result of Superheroes appearing in the 1940’s, America’s history is altered to include the winning of the Vietnam war and the exclusion of the Watergate scandal. As a result, Richard Nixon continues to win the presidency and is still in office in 1985, when the book takes place. An accident turns a scientist, Jon Osterman, into Dr. Manhattan, who has the ability to produce and rearrange atoms. Dr. Manhattan is a driving force in the cold war, keeping Russia docile, and his abilities allow him to advance technology much further, taking New York City into the future.
The masked vigilantes were a hot topic of debate for many years before 1977 brought the United States the Keene act, a ban on all heroes. While this caused many to retire, a select few were used as government agents, including The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, and a few others decided not to follow the law at all, such as Rorschach. Two generations of heroes live in anonymity while the world goes on without them.
What You’ll Find Out:
The book opens with two detectives investigating a murder. A man has been thrown from his high rise apartment and splattered on the pavement below. The detectives write it off to a burglary gone wrong, however, a masked man by the name of Rorschach decides to investigate. He reveals the victim to be a masked vigilante, Edward Blake: The Comedian. Rorschach surmises a theory that someone is killing formerly masked vigilantes. He takes this theory to Daniel Dreiberg, formally Nite Owl, who tells him he is overreacting. Rorschach also takes this theory to Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias, a former costumed hero who retired and became a very successful businessman of his fame. Veidt again discredits Rorschach and sends him away. Rorschach brings his theory to Jon Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan, and Laurie Juspeczyk, formally Silk Spectre, but they again disregard any thought of this.
The funeral of Blake is held while the others use the time to reflect on who The Comedian was to them. It is revealed that back in the 40’s, Blake tried to rape Sally Juniper, the original Silk Spectre, and Laurie’s mother. This has caused Laurie to hate Blake, but Sally has no ill feelings towards him. Another flashback reveals his disdain for the idea of The Minutemen, the league of superheroes formed to stop crime, and for Adrian Veidt. Blake used his alter-ego to be a parody of human society itself, seeing the darker sides of it, and even getting lost in the identity at times.
Dr. Manhattan and Laurie fight over Jon’s lack of ability for human emotion or interactions. She decides to leave him and takes up with Dan Dreiberg. During an interview, Dr. Manhattan is assaulted with the accusations that he has given his former lovers, partners, and cohorts cancer, citing several cases of people dying from the disease. Distressed from all of this happening at once, Dr. Manhattan decides to remove himself from human society to builds a fortress for himself on Mars.
The next day, sensing the biggest threat out of the way, Russia invades Pakistan to send a message to the United States. While the public starts to sense nuclear war as imminent, Rorschach continues to investigate his theory. He believes that getting Dr. Manhattan away from earth was a continued part of this conspiracy. While investigating, he is framed for the murder of Edgar William Jacobi, a former masked villain, and captured by police. He is imprisoned and forced to undergo a psychological evaluation.
Dan and Laurie, seeing the news of tenement fires, decide to dust off their old costumes and help. Upon doing this, Dan decides the best thing they can do right now is bust Rorschach out of jail and help him on his investigation. Upon doing so, they become fugitives and make one quick return to Dan’s basement to stock up on weapons for their impending investigation. Dr. Manhattan intercepts them and takes Laurie with him to Mars to try to work things out.
On Mars, Laurie argues with Dr. Manhattan over his apathy for human existence. Dr. Manhattan sites that in the end, everything is meaningless in a vast universe. His ability to see the entirety of time allows him to see a larger picture in which mankind is only a sliver on the timeline. Upon several recollections of her past at the prodding of Dr. Manhattan, it becomes clear to Laurie that her biological father was actually The Comedian. Upon discovering this final cosmic joke, she breaks down and Dr. Manhattan tries to console her, finally realizing the miracle of life is so rare that even he can find meaning in it. He decides to help the United States and returns Laurie and himself to New York.
Meanwhile, Rorschach and Dan decide to find Adrian Veidt and request his help in the investigation of Blake’s death. Upon arriving at his office, they realize he has fled to his sanctuary in Antarctica. Files on his computer reveal that he is behind everything: Blake’s death, Rorschach’s capture, Manhattan’s exile, and even an assassination attempt on his own life. Dan and Rorschach decide they must go to Antarctica to discover to what ends Veidt has been doing this and stop him. Rorschach finishes his investigation journal with this new discovery and drops it in the mail.
Upon arriving at Veidt’s sanctuary, Rorschach and Dan corner Adrian and he confesses to orchestrating the entire plot. He further admits he has created an alien-like monster that he is releasing in New York as they speak. He believes this will help unify the world and cure it of all the issues he has viewed in society up until now. Dan and Rorschach vow to stop this plan, but Veidt reveals it has already taken place. The monster is released, dying instantly but taking millions of civilians with it.
Dr. Manhattan and Laurie return to earth to find the devastation. Laurie is promptly upset by the carnage and requests Dr. Manhattan take them somewhere else. Sensing the tachyons that Adrian used to teleport the monster, he brings them to the Antarctic sanctuary. Both Dr. Manhattan and Laurie make an attempt to kill Adrian, both of which fail. On a wall of news screens, stories flood in about treaties and truce coming in from all over. The world has agreed to stop fighting in the wake of what they believe to be a much bigger threat. The heroes decide that this is what the world needs and the truth shall not be revealed. Rorschach disagrees, believing that the means did not justify the ends, and is killed by Dr. Manhattan in an effort to hide the truth.
Dr. Manhattan decides to head to another galaxy to create life, letting life on earth play out as it will. Laurie and Dan go into hiding together dedicating themselves to taking up new secret identities and becoming vigilantes again. The world is at peace with the belief there is a new threat to fight and Russia and the US have become allies. This new revelation causes a newspaper, New Frontiersman, to throw out a two section piece on Russia and required to fill space. As the book closes, the man reaches into the “crank” pile, pulling out Rorschach’s investigation journal.
What Just Happened?
It’s clear to see why Watchmen is one of the most influential comics in the industry. At the time of its creation, it elevated what was considered to be a medium created for children into the ranks of the literary greats. The book has a strong focus on the structure using recurring imagery and themes, well-developed characters with multiple viewpoints, strong parallels in its storytelling, and brilliant use of layout and function throughout the book.
Moore created Watchmen as a response to “The Reagans and the Thatchers” of the world, putting the viewpoint on powerful people and how they are managed. Using the term “Who Watches the Watchmen,” Moore decided to craft this story in a realistic and gritty 1980’s setting, which has endured many imitations over the years. Dropping our heroes into a realistic world, Moore attempts to devise what heroes would really do in situations that could be world-altering, as well as parody the superhero genre itself.
The characters well-developed viewpoints are nothing short of masterful. While each character views the world differently, there is no right or wrong answer presented. Moore does not regard any character as superior, but only presents the information necessary and lets the reader decide on where they fall in the debate. This ties in with the shades of morally gray many of the characters take during the course of the story, with Rorschach being the exception. Rorschach’s viewpoint is often cited as being too black and white, and it ultimately leads to his death.
Another aspect of the superhero genre explored in Watchmen is each character’s reasoning for getting into vigilantism. While many had a strong sense of right or wrong, some did it for fame and fortune, others because of parental expectation, and there are strong implications a few did it in order to fetishize themselves. The idea that the costuming is used as a sexual release is constantly repeated throughout the book, though no character admits to this being their sole reason. However several scenes are tied to the costumes being a form of impotence for the character of Dan Dreiberg.
The parallel storytelling in the fictional comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, foreshadows Adrian and the other heroes eventual dilemma as they are forced to reconcile their belief that what has been done is wrong, but the outcome has been for the betterment of the world. The constant downward spiral and fear of the main character in Tales of the Black Freighter reflect in the scenes surrounding the newsman and boy that the story is often captioned over. It leaves the reader to ask if the ends justify the means, but once again Moore leaves no clear “right” answer.
Nuclear warfare is often the talk of many of the characters in Watchmen, but especially of the more civilian minor characters. Reflecting the political climate during the cold war, many of these characters make clear choices based on the sense of impending doom. The constant threat of total annihilation, represented by the Doomsday clock, looms throughout the book and is ultimately fulfilled by Adrian’s plan.
It is hard to ignore the impact that the book had on the industry. Watchmen pulled comics into a new age, many citing it as the book in which “comics grew up.” Having been released originally in 1986, such dark themes were new to the medium. Upon its arrival and completion, hundreds of books have tried to imitate the realism that Watchmen presented. Today’s comics would not be what they are without Watchmen paving the way for a more mature reader, and a more mature medium.
In terms of its structure, it is clear that everything in Watchmen was deliberately chosen. The covers are a way of inviting the reader into the story and are used as the first panel. Moore and Gibbon’s repeated use of the nine-panel grid gives them control of pacing, and when alternative layouts are used in key moments of exploration they become more prominent from the rest of the book. Gibbons attention to detail is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Each panel is packed with detail to a point of disbelief. News headlines, signs and background imagery builds a world that is truly believable.
Each issue, save the last, ends with more world building opportunities. Excerpts from books, articles, letters and the like fill out the history and world of the Watchmen mythos. Character’s point of view is developed, reflected and mirrored in these parts of the story all written by Moore. This attention to detail helps plunge the reader into the fictional world and immerses them in a culture not too dissimilar from their own.
While many attempted to reflect the new precedent that Watchmen set, most have fallen short. Usually taking Watchmen at its surface, and only reflecting the gritty world it takes place in, few have managed to push themselves in the realm of literary greatness using the depth of symbolism, character development, and recurring themes that bring Watchmen to the top of the pack. It’s hard to say there has been much like it in the last 30 years.
Final Thoughts: While overall very dark and gritty, Watchmen is a love letter to the medium of comics. The plot itself is inconsequential to the form the book takes, and the leaps forward for the medium that it produced. Now hitting 30 years old, the book still feels more advanced in its treatment of characters and themes than a lot of things that hit the shelf today. It was clearly far ahead of its time, as no one else seems to have caught up to the pure literary prowess it entails.