Study Guide

Watchmen Themes

  • Time

    Some might say this theme’s a cheater, that the subject of every novel ever written since the dawn of time is, well, time. To those people, we say, “hmm, that’s a large blanket statement you’re sitting on.” Watchmen begins at humanity’s eleventh hour, with the Doomsday Clock literally ticking down to midnight.

    Its characters are all past their primes, and some of them live more in the past than the present. Either way, there are more clocks in this book than you can shake a stick at. Check out the “Symbols” section for more.

    One of the many weird things about regular superhero comics is that characters don’t age like we do. Shouldn’t Batman be 100 by now? Watchmen takes that idea and runs with it. Okay, time’s up. Not really, we just wanted to write that.

    Questions About Time

    1. So Watchmen isn’t about watches, or is it? Who do you consider the Watchmaker in Chapter IV’s title? Jon Osterman, his father, or Alan Moore?
    2. Which character least wants to turn back the clock? Which character most wants to? Why?
    3. Yeah, this book has as many chapters as there are hours on an analog clock (twelve). We’re thinking you noticed, too. Does this affect the story?
    4. Why does Adrian Veidt pick “Nostalgia” and “Millennium” as brand names for his company’s perfume line?

    Chew on This

    From the front cover on (with its blood-stained smiley in the eleven o’clock position), the characters’ greatest challenge is to find happiness at humanity’s 11th hour.

    At its core, Watchmen is about nostalgia vs. the millennium, as in how folks deal with the past and/or prepare for the future.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Remember that time everybody got sick of plot twists? Nope, neither do we. Whether it’s in a book or on the big screen, we crave those jaw-dropping moments when a character we thought was good turns out to be evil, or vice versa.

    Without lies and deceit, writers can’t keep their heroes (and readers) in the dark for long. Likewise, deception plays a huge role in Watchmen. Think about Adrian Veidt’s scheme; it’s the greatest lie ever told. And what about the secret Sally keeps from her daughter, Laurie? It’s on a smaller scale yet still packs an emotional wallop. Maybe that’s what fiction is best at. Or is it? How can you trust us to tell the truth about lies? Hmm, let’s all twirl our evil moustaches and move along.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Newspapers play a huge role in Watchmen; in what ways do the Nova Express and New Frontiersman lie and deceive?
    2. Which plays out worse for our heroes, the lies they tell themselves or the lies they tell others?
    3. Why do so many of the Minutemen have secrets they keep hidden, either politically or personally?
    4. A sad French writer by the name of Camus once said (sort of): Fiction is the lie we use to tell the truth. If so, what truth is Alan Moore getting at?

    Chew on This

    Watchmen’s illustrations contain more twists than the words on the page. Did you notice that Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis might still be alive in 1985? James Gifford did (I.25.4).

    Without the tweener sections between every chapter, the world of Watchmen would seem unbelievable and cliché.

  • Patriotism

    We are not Cold War kids. We don’t do duck and cover drills to prepare us for nuclear war. We don’t keep gas masks hidden in the basement. Okay, maybe at Shmoop we do, but we’re just weird like that.

    The point is, for forty years patriotism in America was easy to define. It was West vs. East, Democracy (and Capitalism) vs. Communism. Stars and Stripes vs. Hammer and Sickle. Rocky vs. Drago.

    And yet in 1985, a decade and a half before 9/11, Alan Moore invents a villain (Veidt) who destroys New York City, not in order to create terror, but to stop it. Does that make him an American hero, or one of the sickest mass murderers of all time? In some ways, Watchmen’s patriotism is even more complicated than our own today.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. In Watchmen, how is patriotism different from a national religion?
    2. What has more effect on popular opinion, President Nixon’s government, or newspapers like Nova Express and the New Frontiersman?
    3. How does the rampant advertising in Dave Gibbons’ artwork (Veidt’s perfume, action figures, self-help programs, etc.) connect to patriotism? What are some differences between the American and Soviet ways of life?
    4. Is the opposite of a patriot an anarchist? If so, what are some of the forces for anarchy in Watchmen?

    Chew on This

    The formula for patriotism is half fear, half pride; it’s natural to fear the other and take pride in the familiar. Throughout Watchmen, Rorschach is governed by fear and hate, while Veidt is bottled up with pride and arrogance.

    Patriotism is a worthy cause when there’s an enemy or boogieman worth fighting. That’s why Moore sets Watchmen during the Cold War.

  • Identity

    If our flaws make us human, then the “heroes” of Watchmen are as human as it gets. In some ways, the whole book is a meditation on identity. As for us, we may not be superheroes with fancy costumes, but we do have secret selves.

    Let’s remember that identity is also communal. It’s more than just the personality of an individual; it’s how that person is perceived by others, how he or she fits into the larger group.

    And while the Minutemen and Crimebusters aren’t families in the usual sense, can’t normal family reunions sometimes be weird and uncomfortable, too? We’re looking at you Uncle Thurston.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why do superheroes have alter egos? Would their stories be more or less interesting/relatable without them?
    2. Children often resemble their parents, both physically and through their personalities. How is Laurie Jupiter (un)like her mother Sally? What about her biological father, Edward Blake?
    3. How does colorist John Higgins use color (duh) to bring characters to life, and to distinguish them from each other?

    Chew on This

    Every hero in Watchmen, from the first Minuteman to the last Crimebuster, suffers from one or more identity disorders.

    Alan Moore’s trick: the way characters treat their names lets us know what’s most important about them.

  • Rules and Order

    The first rule of Shmoop Club—do not talk about Shmoop Club. The second rule of Shmoop Club is— oh no, the police.

    Like the TV show that’s been around longer than Watchmen, America loves its Law and Order. So much so that we have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners.

    But who makes the laws? The government. And what exactly is the government? Some would say it’s whoever has a monopoly on violence. We’re not talking Uncle Moneybags here; this is no kid’s game. In Watchmen’s universe, it’s illegal to even be a masked hero, and has been ever since the Keene Act of 1977.

    Still, for characters like Rorschach and Nite Owl, the choice is clear. They must break the rules in order to preserve order. It’s a thankless job, but as far as they’re concerned, the powers that be aren’t doing such a hot job.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Between the Comedian, Rorschach, Veidt, and the Night Owl, whose take on justice most resembles your own?
    2.  If Watchmen took place today instead of alt-1985, how might things look different, in terms of crime and punishment?
    3. There are supervillains in the world (Osama bin Laden, Charles Taylor, etc.), but no agreed-upon superheroes. What does that say about the true nature of law enforcement?
    4. This question is a choose-your-own-adventure: Let’s say you’ve decided to fight crime outside the law. Like Rorschach, you have no superpowers. You design a costume and pick a name for yourself. When Doug Roth from Nova Express asks you why you do it, what do you tell him?

    Chew on This

    Moore is a cynic when it comes to politics and government (five terms of President Nixon?), but he doesn’t glorify anarchy either.

    Watchmen becomes truly scary when it points out America’s own fascist tendencies.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    How are we supposed to explain freedom and confinement in less than 150 words? Oh man, that’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it? Jeez, it’s getting hot in here. We’re already 30 words in, and haven’t said anything yet. We’re starting to hyperventilate now. Trapped like rats. Trapped like rats in a cage.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we could show Watchmen who’s boss, and head out to the park to toss the book around like a Frisbee? It’s too nice out to stay cooped up with Alan Moore.

    No way, not when Adrian Veidt has trapped the whole world in a lie, not when Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk have to change their names (and hairdos) just to live in peace. One of the questions Watchmen asks us is whether that peace, on a personal and global level, is worth the ultimate price, the price of giving up our freedom.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Freedom vs. Security: the Ultimate Smackdown. In Watchmen,which wins in the end?
    2. We’re going old school with this one, way back to the 17th Century, when John Milton said something like the mind is its own place, and it can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.
    3. Go inside the characters’ minds. What imprisons them? What liberates them?
    4. How can the rest of us be truly free when there are innocent people like Rorschach locked away for crimes they didn’t commit? 
    5. Let’s bring it back to the Identity Theme for a sec, to the relationship between parents and kids. How are folks in Watchmen freed up by their families, and how are they trapped by them?

    Chew on This

    Watchmen works so well as a comic because the medium frees it up to do things that other forms can’t (TV, Movies, Novels).

    Each superhero in Watchmen is freer within the confinement of their superhero costume and identity than they are as regular civilians.

  • Transformation

    With apologies to director Michael Bay, there are no super-transforming-robot-cars in the pages of Watchmen. No Optimist-Grimes or MegaTurds. Clearly, we haven’t seen a certain trilogy that shall not be named.

    With Alan Moore, characters transform in ways that are internal rather than external, psychological rather than physical. Of course there are key exceptions, most notably Dr. Jon Osterman -> Dr. Manhattan. Still, think of the story world as a huge popcorn maker and the people in it as lil’ kernels (that’s also our MC name, in case you were wondering). The story world exerts heat and pressure, and kernel-people start to pop, transforming in surprising ways.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. In his lifelong quest to become Alexander the Even Greater, Adrian Veidt is obsessed with transformation. Does he somehow miss the point?
    2. Why is Rorschach punished with death for his unwillingness/inability to change?
    3. Think about makeover shows, American Idol or America’s Next Top Model or some other show like these. We love to see the lump of coal turn into a diamond, the ugly duckling become a swan. But is it always so glamorous? What about Sally Jupiter’s career?
    4. Originally, the twelve chapters in Watchmen were released as individual comic books over a two-year period. Now, they appear together in one fat volume. How does that change the reading experience?

    Chew on This

    By going meta and including a comic inside his comic (Tales from the Black Freighter), Alan Moore has transformed Watchmen into an entirely new art form.

    You can’t put lipstick on a pig. Watchmen includes a bunch of social commentary, but it’s still just men and women running around in masks and tights.

  • Technology and Modernization

    Can’t you just google the answer and save us the effort? What, no can do? Fine, we’ll do this the old-fashioned way, on a typewriter. Still too new-school? How about clay tablets? Egads, you’re picky. Let’s cut to the chase. Cave painting, that’s as far back as we can go.

    Sure, Watchmen’s all about big ideas and saving mankind from itself and the end of the world, but it’s also meant to be fun. Embrace the nerdcore and jump aboard Archie, the Nite Owl’s airship. Never been to Mars before? Well, come along with Dr. Manhattan. The weather is beautiful this time of year. There, beauty, we said it. Shouldn’t technology do more than just make our lives more efficient? At Shmoop, we sure hope so.

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. Veidt is a technical genius, and Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl 2.0) is no slouch either. But where’s the female character who moonlights as a super-hacker or a physics prodigy? Watchmen gets a lot of credit for its gender equality. Maybe a little too much credit? How can a girl break into this boy’s club?
    2. Our minds were blown here at Shmoop HQ when we learned that humanity creates more data every two days than it did from the dawn of time up until 2003. What does this mean for people’s ability to understand the world? Does the final chapter of Watchmen offer any clues?
    3. What are some of the differences between the real New York City and Alan Moore’s version? How does Dave Gibbons bring these sci-fi touches to life?

    Chew on This

    For a story with radical ideas about power and technology, Watchmen’s ambiguous ending reads like a copout.

    Modern life is always unstable; for things to change, the old way has to fall.