Study Guide

Watchmen Setting

By Alan Moore

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New York City and Much, Much More

Place = Time (But Don’t Tell Anyone)

Cities change over time. Some grow and become ultramegalopolises, or whatever the word is. Others shrink until they’re practically ghost towns. Your great-great-great-grandpappy’s NYC was a horse and buggy affair. And in Watchmen’s alt-1985, there are electric taxicabs and airships hovering overhead.

So we’ve got a year (1985), but we can be more specific than that. The front story begins on October 12th with Rorschach’s Journal, and ends on Christmas Day. So, fall in New York, a beautiful time of year thanks to all the leaves changing color. Just perfect for teleporting a dead, giant, psychic squid into downtown and killing three million people. Yeesh, this is awkward.

Time-wise, we spend as much or more of it in the past, in characters’ memories of 1940 (Minutemen era) and 1966 (Crimebusters period), as well as other years before and after. The farthest back we go is 1916, the year Hollis Mason is born. If all this seems as confusing as quantum physics, that’s okay, because as Dr. Manhattan knows, time is relative. You could spend ten hours reading Watchmen, or ten years, it’s up to you. And now it’s relatively time to move on. We’ve handled the when, so let’s head to the where.

The Biggest Apple

This is the place where almost everything happens. Whether the space is public (the newsstand, Gunga Diner, Rafael’s, Madison Square Garden) or private (think of all the apartments we go to: Edward Blake’s, Hollis Mason’s, Dan Dreiberg’s, Moloch’s, Jon Osterman’s childhood one), Moore has chosen Manhattan (with a little dash of Brooklyn) as the epicenter to his story.

New York is still the capital of the Western world, as it was in 1986 when the English Moore finished writing Watchmen. For the same reasons it becomes Ground Zero during 9/11, NYC represents modern America. And it’s no stretch to say that for the last 70 years, America has been the most powerful country in the world. With that power, comes conflict. And where there’s conflict, the most dramatic stories are found.

Plus, New York wears more hats than most cities. It’s the great melting pot, the home of Wall Street, Ellis Island, and is the City that Never Sleeps. Sort of like if you read too much Watchmen in one day, you’ll turn into the student who never sleeps, thanks to all the nightmares. Hey, we’re just speaking from experience.

Going Up or Going Down?

Let’s stack things up:
Mars (Heaven)
New York (Earth)
Karnak (Hell)

By now you understand Alan Moore leaves little to chance. Really, he’s the kind of writer who puts the author in authority. It could help to think of Watchmen as a world Alan Moore has created, not in the biblical seven days, but in twelve chapters at his own pace.

For Moore, the real universe is a messy, chaotic place, but not Watchmen. New York is where the human characters live, breathe, and die (except Rorschach who gets whacked in Karnak). Even Sing-Sing, an actual prison—the one where Rorschach gets sent—is just upriver from the City.

If we head down to Hades we end up at Karnak, Adrian Veidt’s Antarctic retreat. He’s the bad guy, and he lives among twisted, devilish creatures (Bubastis? The Giant Squid?). You can’t get more south than Antarctica, right? This theory has holes, you may be thinking. Isn’t Hell supposed to be red, whereas the South Pole is white? Good point, which we’ll counter with a quick jaunt to Mars.

Dr. Manhattan zooms up to the Red Planet to get some alone time. If there’s a God figure in this book, it’s him. Eventually, he teleports Laurie up to convince him to save mankind. Like Heaven, Mars is high-altitude and out of reach for regular folks. In terms of color, Heaven and Hell are perfectly reversed. As you probably know, Mars is iron-rust red. But while important events do sometimes happen in Karnak and on Mars, New York is where the real action is. It’s no Garden of Eden, but it’s all we’ve got.

Extra! Extra! Read All About It

There are a couple more locales that don’t quite fit elsewhere. Remember Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic within the comic? In it, we have the marooned sailor on his island, his corpse raft, and en route to Davidstown. All of that exists for a reason, as it plays off the main story.

Returning to Heaven-Earth-Hell for a moment, there’s one last location that sounds a lot like Limbo: the Nepenthe Gardens Rest Resort, where Sally Jupiter lives. Set off in carefree, sunny Southern California, far away from the action, Nepenthe is another pun from el maestro Alan Moore. Nepenthe comes from Ancient Greek, meaning the drug of forgetfulness. For Sally, her past is like a narcotic. She lives inside her memories. And now we’ve gone full circle.

See? Time can be a place.

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