Watchmen is set in 1985, in an alternate history of the United States where costumed adventurers are real and the country is edging closer to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union; throughout the books, the Doomsday Clock is shown gradually ticking towards midnight. It tells the story of a group of past and present heroes and superheroes and the events surrounding the mysterious murder of one of their own. Watchmen depicts heroes as real people who must confront ethical and personal issues, who struggle with neuroses and failings, and who—with one notable exception—lack anything immediately recognizable as accepted super powers. Watchmen's deconstruction of the conventional superhero archetype, combined with its innovative adaptation of cinematic techniques and heavy use of symbolism, multi-layered dialogue, and metafiction, has influenced both comics and film.
Moore and Gibbons originally conceived of a story that would take "familiar old-fashioned superheroes into a completely new realm." Initially, Moore looked towards the defunct MLJ Comics line of superheroes for inspiration. "I'd just started thinking about using the MLJ characters—the Archie super-heroes—just because they weren't being published at that time, and for all I knew, they might've been up for grabs. The initial concept would've had the 1960s-'70s rather lame version of the Shield being found dead in the harbor, and then you'd probably have various other characters, including Jack Kirby's Private Strong, being drafted back in, and a murder mystery unfolding. I suppose I was just thinking, 'That'd be a good way to start a comic book: have a famous super-hero found dead.' As the mystery unraveled, we would be led deeper and deeper into the real heart of this super-hero's world, and shown a reality that was very different to the general public image of the super-hero."
The Charlton heroes were being slowly integrated into normal DC continuity, while Moore and Gibbons wanted to produce a serious storyline in which some of the characters would die, and their world be drastically altered by story's end, so ultimately using the Charlton heroes was not deemed feasible. Moore recalled not being "sure whether that would work, but when Dave and I got together and started just planning these things out, it all really snapped into place and worked fine." Giordano then suggested that Moore and Gibbons simply start from scratch and create their own characters. So while certain characters in Watchmen are loosely based upon the existing - primarily Charlton - characters (such as Dr. Manhattan, who was inspired by Captain Atom; Rorschach, who was based upon Steve Ditko's Mr. A and the Question; and Nite Owl, who was loosely based on the Blue Beetle as well as Batman), Moore decided to create characters that ultimately would only casually resemble their Charlton counterparts. After initial scepticism, he noted in 1987 that "I'm much happier now doing it with original characters."
Initially, Gibbons visualised the story in terms of "the Charlton characters," but as the characters evolved into their own entities, he created the visual look of the new cast. He recalls that Moore "came up with the names and a sort of character description, but not anything specific about how they would dress." Gibbons did not sit down and design the characters deliberately, but rather "did it at odd times... spen[ding] maybe two or three weeks just doing sketches." Specific details are, he says, "hazy," although Moore remembers his wondering whether DC would "let us get away with... just not putting any clothes on [Dr. Manhattan]," leading in part to that characters depiction. Gibbons stated that "many of our first ideas have made it through [to the finished project]... the whole look and design of the book with the clock going round and everything is our primal instinct with very little compromise."
Juvenal was credited with exposing the vice of Roman society through his satires, and in a similar fashion, Watchmen examines the trope of the costumed adventurer or superhero by examining the human flaws of its "hero" characters in lieu of the traditional comic book focus on its characters' strengths. In Watchmen, Moore shows a "grittier" side to the conceived notion of the superhero.
The graffiti "WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN" appears scrawled upon walls throughout New York City during the story (though the complete phrase is never seen; the sentence is always partially obscured or cut out of the panel, or in one case is unfinished by the graffiti artist). The graffiti occurs following the proposition of legislation which would outlaw masked vigilantes, depicting the change of public opinion towards the practice of vigilantism. This viewpoint is exemplified by the character of the second Nite Owl, who asks, during an anti-vigilantism riot, "Who are we protecting society from?'" The Comedian glibly replies, "From themselves."
According to E Strobel, the title refers not only to the group of superheroes depicted, but also to the media, government officials, and ultimately the author and reader. Strobel proposes the idea that the title is "a call to action on the part of Moore ... [and the] underlying message from Moore to his readers is that as citizens, they should also be watching the watchmen of their world".
The title also alludes to the original career of Dr. Manhattan, Jon Osterman — he studied to be a watchmaker like his father, until his father ordered him to study nuclear physics after the bombing of Hiroshima — and to the quote from Einstein that concludes Chapter IV, "The release of atom power has changed everything....If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."
Symmetry is a frequent structural theme in Watchmen, especially between each half of the twelve chapters. The most overarching example is the balance between the plot-driven chapters and the character studies. Chapters 2, 4, and 6 each focus on one of the six primary characters, and then 7, 9, and 11 on the remaining three. Chapter 2 elaborates on the life of the Comedian, the mystery surrounding his death, and his descent into nihilism, whereas Chapter 11 explains that his death resulted from another character's commitment to saving the world. Chapters 4 and 9 both reflect on past events from the surface of Mars, and culminate in opposite attitudes toward determinism. Furthermore, by Chapter 6, all of the heroes seem inactive, but some begin returning to public activity in Chapter 7. Most famously, the first and last panels of the entire novel feature the "blood over the eye of the smiley face" motif, more plainly than its variously oblique appearances throughout the book.
Watchmen also contains many fictional primary documents, which are appended to the end of every chapter (except the final one), and are represented as being a part of the Watchmen universe's media. Biographies of retired costumed adventurers, such as the retrospective Under the Hood by the retired first Nite Owl, are used to help the reader understand the chronology of events, and also the changes in public opinion and representation of costumed adventurers through the decades. These documents are also used to reveal personal details of the costumed adventurers' private lives, such as Rorschach's arrest record and psychiatric report. Other documents used in this way include military reports and newspaper and magazine articles. Moore described the reasoning for these documents in the following manner.
"Originally we thought, 'OK, we've got 28 pages of comic strip in here and what are we going to do with the rest of them?' We thought 'letters page. But there's no letters coming until issue #3, so what shall we do to fill the first three issues? Shall we do something self-congratulatory that tells all the readers how wonderful and clever we all are for thinking up all that?' And we thought, 'No, because that should be obvious, shouldn't it?' So we thought we'd do something that tied in with the story and threw this Under the Hood stuff in because it was mentioned in the book. By the time we got around to issue #3, #4, and so on, we thought that the book looked nice without a letters page. It looks less like a comic book, so we stuck with it."
Watchmen's structure has been analyzed by many reviewers, with The Friday Review calling Watchmen "a complex, multi-layered narrative, populated with well-realized characters and set against a background that is simultaneously believable and unfamiliar."
First person perspective is also used, albeit less frequently. Flashbacks are employed to help facilitate the reader's understanding of events occurring in the present, but also as a means of chronicling the differences in history between the Watchmen universe and our own. Thus, Dr. Manhattan's flashback to the Vietnam War highlights how both his and the Comedian's existence altered their world's history in comparison to our own.
"Watchmen Observations" notes that Watchmen uses a three-by-three panel structure and that there is little variation in this format. When panels are combined or divided to create larger or smaller panels while retaining the grid structure, the effect is to "reduce the scope for authorial voice—the reader has fewer clues how he/she should react to each scene; also, they heighten the feeling of realism and distance the novel from standard action comics."
Moore credits Gibbons with coming up with many of the signature symbols in Watchmen, including the iconic smiley face, which was "derived from behavioral psychology tests. They tried to find the simplest abstraction that would make a baby smile." Contrary to popular opinion, Gibbons contends that Rorschach's subtle body language and not his Rorschach test-inspired mask are the real indications of his mood.
Gibbons, who had no formal art training, notes among his inspirations Norman Rockwell, who was sometimes described as an illustrator with an idealized portraiture style, and Jack Kirby. The art, while deriving inspiration from various predecessors including Will Eisner and Wally Wood (also named by Gibbons as major influences), is at once original in its execution and can be seen as a precursor to later realistic comic book artists such as Alex Ross.
Moore particularly praised Higgins, saying
"Something that's really good about John as a colorist concerns issue #6. It's the Rorschach story, and it's really depressing... The cover is a Rorschach blot, a card from the psychology tests just lying on a table, a pretty simple cover. John colored the cover and colored it really warm and cheerful, and it looks really nice. And Dave was saying, 'Look, this is a bit of a bleak issue. Why have you colored it warm and cheerful?' And [John] said, 'Well, that's my plan. It starts off really warm and cheerful, so you color them that way, and on page five we make it a bit darker, and on page seven darker still, and it's like the lights are going down the entire issue, so when you get to the end it's really dark and really bleak.' Emotionally, John is using the colors to really take the readers down, which is really clever. That's the kind of thinking that we're trying to do with the art and the story, and it's really nice that John is trying to put the same thing through with the coloring."
Watchmen is set in an alternate reality that closely mirrors the contemporary world of the 1980s. The primary difference is the existence of masked-vigilantes. Their presence in this history has altered the outcomes of real-world events such as the Vietnam War and presidency of Richard Nixon. Although the cast of Watchmen are commonly called superheroes, the only character in the principal cast who possesses superhuman powers is Doctor Manhattan (although Ozymandias is said to possess "peak human" abilities and in one case exceeds them by catching a bullet). In the comic, they refer to themselves as "costumed adventurers", "costumed heroes" or—less frequently—"masked vigilantes."
As previously stated, the cast of Watchmen was initially based upon old MLJ Comics and then Charlton Comics characters. The Comedian (Edward Blake) is based on Peacemaker. Doctor Manhattan (Jon Osterman) is derived from Captain Atom, while the first and second Nite Owls (Hollis Mason and Dan Dreiberg) are based upon Blue Beetle (and to a degree, Batman). Thunderbolt serves as the inspiration for Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), while the Question and Mr. A do the same for Rorschach (Walter Kovacs), along with elements of real-world psychopath Son of Sam, whose notes Moore had in mind when formulating "the way that Rorschach thinks and talks." Finally, the first and second Silk Spectres (Sally Jupiter and Laurie Juspeczyk) are roughly analogous to Nightshade, but only in that they are female. Moore has stated that the Silk Spectres are more directly inspired by elements of Black Canary and Phantom Lady.
Rorschach does investigate, however, and discovers that Blake was also a costumed hero: The Comedian, one of only two costumed adventurers who accepted government patronage under the Keene Act, which otherwise forbade costumed adventuring from 1977 onward (hence Rorschach's status as a vigilante). Believing that Blake's murder is part of a greater plot to eliminate "masks," as Rorschach calls them, he warns others: Jon Osterman, also known as Dr. Manhattan (the other government-sponsored hero and "the linchpin of America's strategic superiority"); Dr. Manhattan's lover, Laurie Jane Juspeczyk (the second Silk Spectre); Daniel Dreiberg (the second Nite Owl and Rorschach's former partner); and Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias, reputedly the smartest man in the world, who retired in 1975 and built a successful commercial empire).
Within the fictional context of the story, the United States and the Soviet Union have been edging toward a nuclear showdown since the 1959 nuclear accident that transformed Osterman into the super-powered Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan had disrupted the mutually assured destruction doctrine by possessing the power to neutralize most of the Russian nukes in mid-air. With this trump card in hand, America has enjoyed a distinct strategic advantage, allowing it to defeat the Soviet Union in a series of proxy wars, including victory in Vietnam. Richard Nixon used this success and, unmarred by Watergate (in a flashback, the Comedian alludes to having assassinated Woodward and Bernstein), encouraged a repeal of the 22nd Amendment, removing Presidential term limits allowing him to serve an unprecedented fifth term in office during the events of the novel.
Dr. Manhattan's existence has accelerated the nuclear arms race and dramatically increased global tension. In seeming anticipation of global war, American society has assumed a general sense of fatalism about the future. Signs of this in daily life range from "Mmeltdowns" candy to graffiti inspired by the Hiroshima bombing to the designation of many buildings in New York as fallout shelters.
As Rorschach continues his investigation, he is framed, captured by the police, jailed and subjected to psychiatric examination. Meanwhile, Adrian Veidt is attacked by a gunman in a public assassination attempt that he survives.
Dr. Manhattan, though supremely powerful, suffers from a decreasing ability to relate to normal humans. He accidentally upsets his lover, Laurie, and she leaves him, seeking solace in the company of Dan Dreiberg. Soon afterwards, evidence comes to light that a number of those who were once close to him, including his former girlfriend Janey Slater, have come down with terminal cancer. Manhattan feels that he poses a threat to others, and he exiles himself to Mars, in a chapter that reveals that he experiences time in a non-linear fashion. His break with the U.S. government prompts Soviet opportunism in the form of an invasion of Afghanistan (a delayed version of the real-life event), greatly aggravating the global crisis and prompting Nixon to consider nuclear reprisals.
These events are colored by commentary from a bevy of secondary characters, such as a teenage reader of the Tales of the Black Freighter comic-within-a-comic, the newsstand vendor from whom he purchases said comics, the psychiatrist evaluating Rorschach, the police officers from the first chapter and others.
Dreiberg, who believes his attraction to Laurie is unrequited, offers her room and board. They foster in one another a desire to re-explore their former lives as masked adventurers; while patrolling New York in Dreiberg's air ship they rescue the residents of a tenement building that has caught fire. In the aftermath of their heroism, their affection is revealed, at least momentarily, to be mutual.
Dreiberg's belief in Rorschach's theory about an unidentified assassin who attacks former costumed adventurers leads him to insist that he and Juspeczyk break Rorschach out of Sing Sing Penitentiary. Unfortunately, the news that formerly retired adventurers have gone rogue leads to the hate crime killing of Dreiberg's mentor, the still-retired first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason.
Dr. Manhattan briefly returns to Earth to bring Laurie to Mars, as a discussion between them (which he has foreseen) is scheduled to take place at this time. In this conversation, she begs him to return to Earth and save humanity, an effort in which she is successful. This discussion has a profound effect upon Laurie, who realizes that the Comedian, whom she hated for attempting to rape her mother, was later her mother's consensual lover and, in fact, Laurie's biological father.
Meanwhile, the reunited duo of Rorschach and Nite Owl prowl the New York underworld, searching for hints on who commissioned the hit on Veidt. The trail leads to none other than Veidt himself, who has been orchestrating events all along. The company that commissioned the hit, owned by Veidt, also employed every associate of Dr. Manhattan's who had developed cancer.
Rorschach and Nite Owl travel to Veidt's Antarctic fortress, Karnak, to confront him. In a lengthy monologue, Adrian explains his early worship of Alexander the Great, which later turned to admiration of Rameses II (whose Greek name was Ozymandias); his realization that the current arms race and disregard for the environment would lead to cataclysm by the 1990s; his belief that someone must save the world, and that only he could do so; and finally, that the crux of his plan is to teleport a genetically-engineered telepathic monstrosity into New York City, a process that will kill the monster and cause it to emit a massive psychic shockwave that will kill half the city and drive many of the survivors insane. Adrian believes that America and the Soviet Union, perceiving an extraterrestrial threat, will abandon their arms race, and unite in defense of their planet.
Veidt also reveals that The Comedian was killed because he happened to stumble upon the island where the creature was being bred. The murderer is revealed to be Veidt himself. Finally, he establishes that he is not prey to one major weakness of arch-villains: the tendency to ramble about their plans before they are executed. At the end of his explanation he reveals that the monster has already been teleported as intended. At 11:25 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the monster arrives in New York, creating a cataclysmic shockwave that kills millions, including most of the secondary characters.
Laurie and Dr. Manhattan arrive in the devastated city and then teleport to Karnak, where Veidt watches the news and exults as his plan comes to fruition. Only these five former costumed adventurers know the truth of the matter, as Veidt has killed everyone else who knew anything incriminating about the project. Dan, Laurie and Jon agree to keep silent, sickened by the deaths of millions of New Yorkers but willing to countenance it for the sake of averting nuclear holocaust. Only Rorschach, who does not believe that the ends justify the means, refuses to comply; he prepares to return to America. Jon attempts to dissuade him, but Rorschach makes it clear that he will not compromise and demands that, if Jon wishes to stop him, Jon must kill him too. Jon vaporizes Rorschach, then returns to Veidt's fortress.
After mentioning that he has sent Rorschach "somewhere where it is doubtful he will encounter others", Dr. Manhattan talks briefly to Veidt. He plans to leave Earth for the time being, explaining his motivation with the remark that "I'm leaving this galaxy for one less complicated." (Musing about his newfound respect for life, he hints that "perhaps I'll create some.") Betraying his guilt and doubt, Veidt apparently seeks closure from Dr. Manhattan: "I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end." Dr. Manhattan, standing within Veidt's mechanical model of the solar system, smiles and replies: "In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends." He then disappears, leaving the entire orrery framed by a residue appearing distinctly similar to an atomic mushroom cloud.
As an epilogue, a brief glimpse of life in the aftermath of the "attack" shows the growing unity in the world, particularly between the United States and the Soviet Union. There is also a movement to permit the open registration of costumed adventurers. A newspaper headline says "RR may run in '88", at first suggesting Ronald Reagan may challenge for the Presidency, though a page later stating that Robert Redford will be running. Laurie and Dan, who have new identities (as many believe them to be among those killed in the "attack"), visit Sally Jupiter one last time. Laurie reveals her knowledge of The Comedian as her father, and mother and daughter make amends for their years of animosity. After Dan and Laurie leave, Sally takes her picture of the Minutemen, and tearfully kisses the image of The Comedian.
The epilogue is also ambiguous about the long-term success of Veidt's plan to lead the world to utopia. Prior to the confrontation, Rorschach had mailed his journal detailing his investigation and suspicion of Veidt to The New Frontiersman, a far right-wing magazine he frequently read. The final page of the series shows a New Frontiersman editor contemplating which item from the "crank file" (to which Rorschach's unread journal had been consigned) to use as filler for the upcoming issue. The final line of the story is that of the editor's superior, indifferent as to which piece from the crank file is selected, tells his subordinate—who has been established as not particularly bright—"I leave it entirely in your hands" with the subordinate's hand over Rorschach's journal.
The comic is read by a teenage boy while he sits beside a newsstand, whose proprietor contemplates the latest headlines and discusses them with his customers. This juxtaposition of text and images from the story within a story and its framing sequence uses the former to act as a parallel commentary to the latter—which is the plot of Watchmen itself. Specifically, Moore has said that the story of The Black Freighter ends up describing "the story of Adrian Veidt" (who admits, in his final scene, to having a recurring nightmare resembling a prominent image from The Black Freighter). In addition, the comic can also be seen to relate "'to Rorschach and his capture; it relates to the self-marooning of Dr. Manhattan on Mars; it can be used as a counterpoint to all these different parts of the story." Moore also intended the opening panel in Chapter III to reinforce the reader's identification with the radioactive warning trefoil; Moore thought that the close-up of the trefoil in the first panel looked like a "stylized picture of a black ship." The trefoil then came to represent "a black ship against a yellow sky."
In 1987, Bhob Stewart wrote about The Black Freighter in The Comics Journal #116, noting that in Moore's Watchmen universe, real-world comics publisher EC Comics "continued to do science fiction and horror titles after 1955." In the Watchmen universe, Moore theorised, the Fredric Wertham-led attacks on comics were quashed by a "government, anxious to avoid any contamination of the image of the agents working for them, c[oming] down solidly in favor of comics as wholesome, all-American entertainment." With super-heroes existing, and existing as "objects of fear, loathing, and scorn, the main super-heroes quickly fell out of popularity in comic books, as we suggest. Mainly, genres like horror, science fiction, and piracy, particularly piracy, became prominent--with EC riding the crest of the wave." Watchmen refers to the genuine EC title Piracy, and the fictional Buccaneers.
The real-life artist Joe Orlando is credited in Watchmen as a major contributor to Tales of the Black Freighter, (drawing the back-up "Blackbeard" pages in Watchmen #5) because Moore felt that, in the Watchmen universe, "if pirates were popular, if EC was popular, then it did sound conceivable that Julie Schwartz might have tried to lure Joe Orlando over to do a pirate book for DC, and Tales of the Black Freighter might very well have been the book."
Although the tone of Watchmen is broadly realistic, the setting is an alternate version of America in 1985, which Moore noted gave the creators "a little bit more leeway, particularly with the art, because it is a parallel world." This allowed Gibbons to change "some bits about the American landscape, like electric cars, slightly different buildings, everyone's wearing double-breasted suits, there's little spark hydrants for recharging your cars instead of fire hydrants," which said Moore, "perhaps gives the American readership a chance in some ways to see their own culture as an outsider world." Gibbons noted that this was
"a really liberating thing... because I don't have to get a load of reference books out and get bogged down in reference. I can give it the feeling of America without having to draw a certain model of car, or a certain building or a certain place. I draw the Chrysler building, the sort of art deco thing, and by putting that in it just gives it that tie into reality to make it convincing.Gibbons felt that "Alan is more concerned with the social implications of [the presence of super-heroes] and I've gotten involved in the technical implications. You've got electric cars and airships because of the technological breakthrough."
Asked in 1986 about trying to rationalize 'super-heroic realism' "without the fascist overtones," Moore stated that Watchmen was deliberately different to the 'realistic' take of Squadron Supreme and Dark Knight Returns, eschewing the storyline of "the super-heroes tak[ing] over," in favor of showing how the characters are "not in control of their world." Instead
"Our intention was to show how super-heroes could deform the world just by being there, not that they'd have to take it over, just their presence there would make the difference."
The sheen of realism is underscored by the attention to detail that is threaded throughout the story. Moore and Gibbons endeavored to create a logically and structurally sound microcosm, which was noted from the beginning. Writing in 1987, Bhob Stewart noted that Dr. Manhattan's cuff-links in issue #3 float alongside him as he dresses, vanish alongside him, and even follow him as he teleports to the television studio. Moore is particularly proud of the moment when the Silk Spectre is given an oxygen bubble by Manhattan when the two of them are on Mars, and, attempting to smoke, "tries twice to light the cigarette [but] the lighter won't work because there's no oxygen." Moore says that these quietly realistic asides, which are typically "not referred to in the dialogue at all," are included "to give it a depth of reality... [although] it's incredibly difficult to work all that detail in."
A final theme that is addressed throughout the novel is human morality, particularly in the contrast between absolutism, consequentialism and moral relativism, and each of the masked adventurers seems to have a different take on how to behave in this regard. At the extreme end of absolutism is Rorschach. Rorschach is the pinnacle of this philosophy; he believes that all criminals should be punished for their crimes and often treats radically different types of criminal in very similar ways (for example, he executes both a serial rapist and a common mugger). He denies the impact of culture and context on his actions (a repeated mantra of his which appears several times during the book is "Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise."). As Ozymandias puts it: "I believe he's a man of great integrity, but he seems to view the world in very black and white, Manichean terms."
At the other extreme in moral relativism is The Comedian. While The Comedian's own moral code is cast into severe doubt throughout the novel (Doctor Manhattan describes him as "deliberately amoral," whereas Rorschach merely questions his "moral lapses"), he seems to be almost nihilistic at times. However, his tendencies are clearly demonstrated at the first meeting of the Crimebusters in 1966, when he explains why attempting to destroy organized crime rings is of no consequence: "inside thirty years the nukes are gonna be flyin' like maybugs..."'
However, at the finale of the novel, Ozymandias's views on morality are firmly established, and seem to be justified by their outcomes: despite requiring the murder of three million New Yorkers and a hundred or so talented artists and scientists from around the globe, the deception of the entire world, and many other highly questionable acts, he has convinced most of the other main characters to accept the outcome of his actions. The parallel between his actions and the conclusion of the Black Freighter story serves to weaken this interpretation. In addition, the ambiguous ending, wherein the New Frontiersman may or may not publish Rorschach's journal revealing the conspiracy, leaves the reader wondering whether or not Ozymandias has actually accomplished his goal or merely postponed an inevitable Armageddon, a point reinforced by Dr. Manhattan's enigmatic comments made before his departure. In the end, Moore leaves the morality of the characters open to reader interpretation.
What I'd like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating. Like in Watchmen, all that subliminal shit we were getting into the backgrounds. You are trapped in the running time of a film – you go in, you sit down, they've got two hours and you're dragged through at their pace. With a comic you can stare at the page for as long as you want and check back to see if this line of dialogue really does echo something four pages earlier, whether this picture is really the same as that one, and wonder if there is some connection there."
Moore named William S. Burroughs as one of his "main influences" during the conception of Watchmen and admired Burroughs' use of "repeated symbols that would become laden with meaning" in Burroughs' only comic strip, The Unspeakable Mr. Hart, which appeared in the British underground magazine Cyclops. Talking specifically about the many layers, Moore stressed that "Watchmen was designed to be read four or five times," with some links and allusions only becoming apparent to the reader after several read-throughs. Not every intertextual link was planned by Moore, who remarked that "there's stuff in there Dave had put in that even I only noticed on the sixth or seventh read," while other "things... turned up in there by accident." However, he stresses that
"what we were trying to do was to create something which has a structure that is multi-faceted enough and has enough layers to it so that each subsequent issue redefines bits of the ones that have come before. So that you can check back to when you saw it earlier, see the little bits that are going on, find out more. So that it does reward multiple readings. So that it has got a greater density."
"It was Dave's idea… we wanted to do something radical, but it was Dave who said we should have real close ups, make them so tight, just one tiny detail… and not have anything human on any of them at all. That was perfect."
Gibbons noted in 1986 that, after drawing the first cover he "thought, 'Perhaps we could have the smiley face on the cover,' and drawing it and immediately having a really good idea of where the series was going, another six cover designs popped into my head." Gibbons recalls that it was Moore's idea to "take it a bit further and make each cover the first panel of the story," calling it "a crossover. The cover of the Watchmen is in the real world and looks quite real, but it's starting to turn into a comic book, a portal to another dimension." In addition to making the cover the first panel of each issue, Gibbons also used the trope of the blood-stained smiley face in most of his compositions.
Most of the individual 12 issues include the basic elements of the human face - e.g. issue #2's statue and issue #4's photograph - or a circle (suggesting the round badge and/or an eye) - e.g issue #9's 'Nostalgia' bottle, and issue #10's sonar screen. These covers also include elements that obliquely dissect parts of the image in a manner suggesting the blood spatter - e.g. smoke dissects the "eye" of the fallout shelter logo on issue #3, and also erases the Comedian from the photograph seen on the cover of issue #8. The sonar sweep on the cover of issue #10 dissects one of two yellow jet trails (the eyes) complementing the white reflection (mouth) as a stylised blood spatter, while the otherwise snow-blank cover for issue #11 highlights a fractal-esque image of melted snow on the window of Veidt's Antarctic vivarium in the shape of the blood-stain. The final issue eschews the specific bloodstain image in favour of evoking the yellow smiley face in the form of the yellow clockface in New York, the single bloodstain replaced by heavy bloodshed in the wake of the story's denouement.
"tried to find the simplest abstraction that would make a baby smile. Eventually they got it down to a circle, two dots and a little arc. In some ways that's a symbol of complete innocence. Putting a blood splash over the eye changes its meaning… it made a pretty good image for a first issue cover."It appears literally and clearly - the cover image directly refers to the opening interior image of the blood-stained badge worn by the now-deceased character the Comedian - within the story in a number of situations and forms. Bookending the series, and complementing the initial image of the Comedian's blood-stained badge, the story closes with the blood-stained smiley recreated as a ketchup spatter on a smiley face t-shirt worn by the junior assistant Seymour at the New Frontiersman offices. The Comedian's bloodied badge is also recreated in flashback form, when during his time serving in Vietnam the reader sees the visual double-allusion of face being cut by a Vietnamese woman, his blood then landing on his badge in the iconic pattern. The position of the initial bloodstain echoes the position of the minute hand on the doomsday clock at the start of the story: twelve minutes to midnight.
Peppered throughout the story, various everyday objects combine to form both the smiley face and the blood-stain in whole or in part. Many are noted by Doug Atkinson's "Annotated Watchmen" notes and guide to the series. These include a smiley face formed in a photograph of Jon Osterman and Janey Slater taken at the carnival (formed by a balloon and its cord), one created by a tower and part of a roller coaster and the famous Galle crater on Mars, where Dr. Manhattan's vehicle crumbles. It is echoed by Rorschach, burning a bully's eye with a cigarette and in dust wiped from the eye of the Owlship at the start of chapter 7. Bloodstains recreate the image on a poster of Buddha, on a UK three-prong electrical plug and on Niteowl's overcoat. The electric power outlets near the central newsstand and the nuclear fallout sign behind it feature recurrent allusions, and the closing teleportation is foreshadowed with the image seen on the New York streets, and again on the power outlet after its arrival, this time in blood.
Hollis Mason carves a Jack O'Lantern into a smiley face, and his hair falls across his own face echoing the image just prior to his death. In Tales of the Black Freighter, the hero wounds a shark in its eye, and the Owlship is struck by fruit during the riots, which acts as the blood to the Owlship's "face." Although most evocations of the central image were purposefully created, others were coincidental. In 1988, Moore mentioned in particular the coincidence of
"the little plugs on the spark hydrants, if you turn them upside down, you discover a little smiley face. Watchmen was a stream of weird shit and coincidence from beginning to end. Bizarre things kept hitting us in the face and they were perfect for us. Like looking through NASA photos of Mars and finding a smiley face up there."
Moore specifically stated in 1986 that he was writing Watchmen to be "not anti-Americanism, [but] anti-Reaganism," specifically believing that "at the moment a certain part of Reagan's America isn't scared. They think they're invulnerable."
The position of the minute hand at the series-start point (12 minutes to midnight) symbolically corresponds to the position of the series' iconic blood-stained smiley face, and culminates with a cover (issue #12) on which the yellow clock's "face" is bloodstained as the hands stand at midnight.
Issue five's title is a reference to Blake's poem \"The Tyger\" (c. 1794) which includes the lines: \"Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night, / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry? (In the context of this quote, it is notable that Adrian Veidt keeps as a pet a lynx named Bubastis, whose 'fearful symmetry' was framed by means of genetic engineering.)
Kitty Genovese, whose story is told by Rorschach, was a real person. Interestingly, in another Alan Moore work, V for Vendetta, Stanley Milgram's infamous conformity experiments are referred to explicitly, which are considered by many psychologists to be a major influence on Darley and Latane's later experiments concerning the bystander effect (which were inspired by the behavior of Kitty Genovese's neighbors witnessing her rape and murder).
Veidt's ultimate plan is reminiscent of December 4, 1985 remarks by Ronald Reagan about the consequences of a hypothetical \"threat to this world from some other species, from another planet\":
"I couldn't help but -- one point in our discussions privately with General Secretary Gorbachev -- when you stop to think that we're all God's children, wherever we may live in the world, I couldn't help but say to him, just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from some other species, from another planet, outside in the universe. We'd forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries, and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this Earth together. Well, I don't suppose we can wait for some alien race to come down and threaten us, but I think that between us we can bring about that realization."
Nova Express, Adrian Veidt's magazine which accuses Dr. Manhattan of causing cancer, is the title of a novel by William Burroughs. Burroughs' "cut-up technique" (in which he would write a few paragraphs, cut it up and rearrange it, giving it a dream-like quality) is mentioned by Veidt when watching multiple TV screens. Near the end of the book a poster can be spotted for an Andrei Tarkovsky double feature. The films are Nostalghia and The Sacrifice. Nostalghia shares its name and sentiment with a fragrance made by and mindest held by Adrian Veidt; The Sacrifice is the story of a man who sacrifices his sanity to prevent a nuclear war, and therefore evokes the fragile mental state of the none-the-less heroic Rorschach, as well as the twisted logic of Veidt's master plan.
Towards the story's final issues, specific reference is made to "The Architects of Fear," an episode of the Outer Limits television series. One review of Watchmen alleges that part of the plot is "lifted, more or less outright" from this episode, while Moore has stated that once the synchronous or unconscious link was pointed out to him, he wrote the specific reference into the later issue's script.
Watchmen received praise from those working within the comic book industry, as well as external reviewers, for its avant-garde portrayal of the traditional superhero. Watchmen, alongside Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Art Spiegelman's Maus, became known as a novel which allowed the comic book to be recognized as "great art," rather than a lowbrow or unsophisticated genre. Time magazine, which noted that the series was "by common assent the best of breed [sic]" of the new wave of comics published at the time, praised Watchmen as "a superlative feat of imagination, combining sci-fi, political satire, knowing evocations of comics past and bold reworkings of current graphic formats into a dystopian mystery story. Don Markstein of Toonopedia wrote that, "What The Maltese Falcon did for detective stories and Shane did for Westerns, Watchmen did for superheroes. It transcended its origins in what was previously considered a lowbrow form of fiction."
The status of Watchmen as a seminal book in the comic book field was recently boosted when acclaimed comic book author Stan Lee, responsible for co-creating, with artist Jack Kirby, the majority of Marvel Comics' most successful characters, called it his "all-time favorite comic book outside of Marvel." A review by Revolution SF goes on to say that Watchmen is "one of the most important stories in comic book history..." In 2005, Time placed Watchmen on its list of the 100 Greatest English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present, stating that it was "told with ruthless psychological realism, in fugal, overlapping plotlines and gorgeous, cinematic panels rich with repeating motifs...a heart-pounding, heartbreaking read and a watershed in the evolution of a young medium." Watchmen was the only graphic novel to be listed. It was also listed in Entertainment Weekly's 1000th issue as one of the best 50 novels printed in the last 25 years (#13).
There has also been criticism of Watchmen. Tom Shone questioned the complexity of Watchmen, as well as Gibbons's involvement in it, and criticized both the long-term influence of the work and Alan Moore generally, asking "did the comic book have to 'grow up'?." Moore himself acknowledged that the plot closely resembles an Outer Limits episode called "The Architects of Fear." According to him, while writing issue #10, he came across a guide to cult television that featured this episode and was surprised by its similarity to his already planned ending. A belated nod to "The Architects of Fear" is thus made near the end of Watchmen. He also accepted responsibility for the proliferation of "dark" comic stories, featuring classic characters, that followed Watchmen, most notably in his introduction to the trade paperback collection of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, which two comics are often cited as ushering in the so-called "Dark Age" of Comics. In his review of the Absolute Edition of the collection, Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times wrote that the dark legacy of Watchmen, "one that Moore almost certainly never intended, whose DNA is encoded in the increasingly black inks and bleak storylines that have become the essential elements of the contemporary superhero comic book," is "a domain he has largely ceded to writers and artists who share his fascination with brutality but not his interest in its consequences, his eagerness to tear down old boundaries but not his drive to find new ones.
On October 5, 2005, DC released Absolute Watchmen (ISBN 1-4012-0713-8), an oversized, slipcased hardcover edition of Watchmen in DC's 'Absolute Edition' series, to celebrate its upcoming 20th anniversary. The larger-than-regular slipcased volume made widely available the bonus material from the Graphitti edition, and featured restored and recolored art by John Higgins at Wildstorm FX, under the direction of Dave Gibbons. A regular hardcover edition (ISBN 1-401219-26-8) is to be released November 4, 2008, and will be the first 'normal' hardcover edition, following the Graphitti and Absolute slipcased tomes and a 1987 Book Club edition. Recently, the first issue has been released on iTunes, though instead of a static image contained inside a panel, it is a fully animated episode with voiceovers.
DC announced in August 2008 that, in response to demand resulting from the Watchmen film's teaser trailer, the company has printed more than a one million copies of the trade collection during 2008 - an unprecedented number for a trade paperback collection.
In addition to the badge set, DC also produced a Watchmen "Smiley" logo watch. In 1988 DC Comics released the Watchmen Portfolio, a slip cased set of 24 high quality prints comprising six French covers, six promotional posters and the twelve original covers. Each print is 25 cm by 38 cm.
Warner Bros. confirmed in June 2006 that Zack Snyder would direct a film adaptation of Watchmen, which is set for release on March 6, 2009. The cast includes Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Previously, directors including Paul Greengrass, Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, and screenwriter David Hayter have been attached to the project over the years.
While Moore believes that David Hayter's screenplay was "as close as I could imagine anyone getting to Watchmen," he asserted he did not intend to see the film if it were made. Due to his disapproval of the film version of V for Vendetta, Moore "refuses to have his name attached to any of the films... based on his books" However, Gibbons has stated he feels Snyder can make a good film and is supporting him.