Study Guide

Watchmen What's Up With the Epigraph?

By Alan Moore

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What's Up With the Epigraph?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?) – Juvenal, Satires, VI, 347, Quoted as the epigraph of the Tower Commission Report, 1987

Consider Alan Moore a punny, punny man. He must keep a dictionary of references in his beard, because Watchmen is full of them. First off, Chapter I gets its title from “All Along the Watchtower,” the Bob Dylan song that Jimi Hendrix made famous. Moore isn’t just being clever here, though, he’s setting us up for a more meaningful read. Check out the song’s lyrics and see if you don’t agree with us.

Then you have all the repeated watch faces, the most notable being the Doomsday Clock that keeps ticking towards midnight. On IV.28.6 there’s a quote by Einstein about watchmakers, which is the same profession Jon (Dr. Manhattan) sets out to learn from his father, until one day, America drops the A-bomb on Hiroshima and everything changes.

Arguably, Veidt transforms the world the most, and it is he who quotes lines from the speech JFK would have given had he not been assassinated in 1963 (XI.18.9). Here they are: “We in this country, in this generation, are by destiny, rather than choice, the watchmen on the walls of world freedom.”

But what about the epigraph, you ask? Well, just like here, last, but far from least, the epigraph appears at the end: Who Watches the Watchmen? That very line appears throughout the book in graffiti gracing the walls of New York. It’s a tough question. If superheroes (and/or the government) exist to protect us and keep evildoers at bay, how do we know for sure they’re following the same rules themselves?

We’ll let that simmer for a while. Moving on, the epigraph’s original source is the Roman poet Juvenal, who was anything but juvenile. The title Satires is appropriate, too. Juvenal’s work calls out society but isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, kind of like Watchmen. As far as the Tower Commission Report, that has to do with a scandal during the Reagan years called the Iran-Contra.

All in all, this epigraph is typical Moore: ancient yet modern, clear and political yet murky and obscure. He’s asking big questions in Watchmen and, by choosing an epigraph that references not only the time period he’s specifically writing in and about (the 20th century) but also invokes ancient Rome, he just might be arguing that these questions have less to do with specific moments in time and more to do with human nature.

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