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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.