Warning: This piece contains spoilers for Watchmen. If you haven’t read it, then leave this page.
Anyone who is a fan of graphic novels has probably read Watchmen. It’s one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever written. I’m not the first person to write a piece on this book, and I won’t be the last. Still, Watchmen deserves to be constantly talked about because of its importance and impact on the comic book industry. Whether Alan Moore intended to or not, this book sparked a new era of comic books and graphic novels. Dark, realistic stories with deep characters started to pop up after Watchmen was written. Around the same time, Frank Miller released The Dark Knight Returns. It’s one of the best Batman stories written and echoes the tone and themes of Watchmen. Not every comic is a dark tale of characters and humanity like Watchmen is. Most mainstream comics have gone back to their normal structure. Even the “darker” heroes in comics such as Daredevil have maintained a sense of fun in them. Some comics have taken heavily from Watchmen though. It opened the door for people to divulge into the world of politics while still maintaining a cohesive and believable plot. It’s funny honestly, because Watchmen is one of the most politically charged pieces in comic book history. Conservativism, liberalism, religion, monarchism, even anarchism is discussed in Watchmen. Watchmen blends these elements effortlessly. The story isn’t about politics, but politics is an important part of the story. Without it, certain key plot points and certain character moments don’t happen. Our society today argues about the need for politics in things such as movies or comics. It’s ironic because most consider Watchmen near perfect, but are clueless to its subtle political messages and themes. While these are important components of the story, today I want to focus on the other elements of this story that make it great. Mainly the character development and the plot. Both are masterful in this story. I’m going to touch on some of the themes of this story as well, but not directly. The two elements blend together quite well. One leads to another, which explains something you saw earlier which could lead to understanding why a character did or said something. It’s one of those books that you have to read multiple times before truly comprehending its meaning. Even then, there’s always more to learn. Before I get into the story, a bit of background on Watchmen.
The story was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It was released in 1986 and 1987 by DC Comics. Alan Moore is an enigmatic writer who has written a variety of different stories. V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Swamp Thing to be exact. He knows how to craft a good story and is one of the best writer’s comics has ever had. A story like Watchmen can only be written and executed by someone like Moore. He set the story in an alternate universe, so even though it was published by DC Comics, it wasn’t a part of DC Continuity at the time.
The most interesting thing about Watchmen is the in depth look we get at the superhero ideology. In this story, costumed heroes arrive in 1939, the first being a man named Hooded Justice. Comic books exist in this world too. Superman made his debut in 1938 and the world was obsessed with superheroes. No one in this world has powers though. One man does, but he doesn’t arrive for another twenty years. The original group of heroes back in the 40’s was called the Minutemen. These heroes were Hooded Justice, The Silk Spectre, Captain Metropolis, Nite Owl, Silhouette, Dollar Bill, Mothman, and the Comedian. The first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, writes an autobiography that readers read throughout the story. In this, Mason talks about what made him want to become a superhero. There is a bevy of stories, but the main reason can’t be pinpointed. He says it’s just something inside him that wanted to become a hero. He describes how everyone else in the group had their own reasons too. This story gives us insight that no superhero story before had. We learn through Mason’s book that everyone in the group had their issues, which is why they didn’t work out. Be it their selfishness, their obsession with fame, sexual perversions, whatever, we learn the complexities of being a hero through Mason. He almost makes them seem like everything but heroes. It’s an interesting perspective.
The Minutemen’s downfall came later in 1949 due to the absence of criminals to fight. In Watchmen, there aren’t many villains throughout the story. It’s not a conventional superhero tale. The Minutemen experienced deterioration within their ranks when Silhouette was kicked out of the group because of her lesbian relationship. She was murdered with her lover and the group began to spiral downward soon after. Dollar Bill was next. He died when his cape got caught in a door during a bank robbery. He was shot point blank. Silk Spectre quit soon after. This part of Watchmen is small, but it starts us down the path of examining the superhero mind. None of these people had powers, none were geniuses, billionaires, or aliens. Just normal people with a drive no other human could match. Their involvement in crime and politics though caused people to become nervous. Mason talks about how America started to change in the 60’s too. A new crop of heroes arrived along with the world’s most powerful hero. Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan, the second Nite Owl, the second Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, and an older Comedian. They are the main characters of Watchmen and continue the conversation of Moore’s superhero theme. The first I want to talk about is the Comedian.
Edward Blake is the Comedian. His murder started the events of Watchmen. Someone breaks into his home, beats him, and throws him from his apartment building. The Comedian is one of the most interesting characters ever created. He chose his name because of his outlook on life. As I stated earlier, he’s murdered in the beginning of the story, which causes Rorschach to investigate. At the beginning of the story, we learn about the main characters, but we also learn about the Comedian. His outlook on life is as carefree as one can get. He’s a vile, cruel man who does whatever his heart wants. Throughout his career, the Comedian worked as a government agent. His contacts in the government ran deep. He was seen as a hero due to his involvement in the Iranian hostage situation. He is no saint though. Two of his most despicable acts occurred at very different times in his life. Earlier, as a part of the Minutemen, he attempts to rape Sally Jupiter, the first Silk Spectre. Later, in Vietnam, he shoots and kills a local woman who tries to get him to stay after she reveals she’s pregnant. The Comedian was always telling people that everything didn’t matter. His philosophy is similar to that of the Joker’s. The only difference is that one of them decided to fight for America. This is a funny thing to me because The Comedian is a despicable person. Yes, his outlook and knowledge on life is unique and in some ways, genius, but he is a monster. Moore making this character the patriotic symbol of the group is a knock on the military and the way we idolize them. No matter what they’ve done overseas, as long as they’re doing it for the red, white, and blue, we don’t care.
My favorite part of Watchmen is during the funeral of Eddie Blake. We get more insight into the madness (and genius) of this character. All the main characters attend, except Laurie, the second Silk Spectre. During the funeral, we get flashbacks of Blake’s interactions with the main characters. Moore did this so we could learn about the character, but also learn about the weaknesses of the other characters. Each flashback involves a moment where the Comedian challenged their identity. In Nam, he shoots the woman. Doctor Manhattan is with him and could’ve stopped the bullet. But he didn’t. Manhattan tells The Comedian he shouldn’t have done that, but Blake doesn’t want to hear it. He reminds Manhattan that he didn’t stop it from happening. He tells Manhattan that he doesn’t care about humanity and never will. A harsh truth that maybe Manhattan didn’t realize just yet. During the war, he might have still felt a sense of pride and duty. But when the Comedian was about to kill an innocent woman carrying a child, he froze for some reason. The Comedian saw it clearly and said, “God help us all.”
The next interaction comes with Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt is Ozymandias. He’s called the smartest man in the world. Him and the rest of the heroes gathered with an older Captain Metropolis. They are called the Crimebusters. It was their first meeting. The Comedian laughed at the idea of them trying to form another group just to bust up criminals. Being a government informant, he knew about the horrors this country faced. To him, war and violence was only going to continue until the nukes started flying. Then, nothing else would matter at all. No group of costumed heroes could stop it. He challenges Ozymandias to conjure up a solution. He doesn’t have one at the time. The Comedian burns up the plans Metropolis had made and the group was over just like that. Ozymandias thought the world of himself then. Always has. The Comedian made him realize his intelligence didn’t matter. Something Ozymandias prides himself on.
The last interaction comes with Dan, the second Nite Owl. They are patrolling the streets during a riot slightly before the Keene Act, which banned superheroes. The people have become restless because of the actions of superheroes. The Comedian is extremely aggressive in handling the civilians. He challenges Nite Owl’s sense of duty. Nite Owl is extremely uncomfortable with raining down tear gas and rubber bullets on people. The Comedian asks him why he’s gotten soft. He tells Nite Owl that they are protecting the people from themselves. Nite Owl can hardly process it. His country is destroying itself in front of its eyes. This isn’t the America he grew to love. He asks the Comedian, “What happened to the American dream?” The Comedian answers back with one of the most legendary lines in comic book history, “It came true. You’re looking at it.” It isn’t revealed what drove the Comedian to act the way he acts. He serves more as theme piece then anything in this story. His character though helps drive home the point of futility when it comes to superheroes as a group. Is there any meaning to what he’s saying? Obviously, it doesn’t truly matter because superheroes don’t exist. But this idea is fascinating because it deconstructs the idea of superhero teams. What do they accomplish? Are they needed? Do superheroes truly fight a necessary fight? These questions have been explored and then some by comic book stories after Watchmen. The Comedian as a character mocks the superhero ideology. His body heart lies with America. Once again, there are a million messages within this character, but if you ask him, it doesn’t matter anyway. It’s all one big joke.
The next character I want to discuss is inspired from one of my favorite superheroes of all time. Captain Atom was the inspiration for Jon Osterman, codenamed Doctor Manhattan. Atom is a hero though. Manhattan is not. His character is a tragic one. His evolution from human to god-like being is an unforgettable experience. Moore does a perfect job showing us his journey and making us feel sorry for him. While at the same time, he makes the character so distant, it’s almost comical. Jon Osterman wanted to be a Watchmaker. His father pushed him into science though. After years of schooling, he worked his way up to a nice job as a full-time scientist. He’s accidentally trapped in a machine though that appears to rip his body apart. He reforms however, as a glowing, blue figure. Completely unrecognizable. I mentioned earlier he also has powers. His powers are so vast I could write another piece on what they are and why they’re so incredible. In short, he can manipulate atoms however he wants. Turn a bear into dust? Sure. Turn a tank into snow? Why not. His powers are only limited by his imagination. He can also teleport anywhere instantly, can create a clone of himself, and doesn’t need to sleep or drink. Shortly after the Comedian’s funeral, Manhattan has a scheduled television appearance. During it though, he’s accused of giving his former girlfriend and associates cancer. The pressure of the reporters is too much. He realizes his disconnect from humanity and leaves Earth. He makes a new home for himself on Mars. That’s the interesting thing about his character. His lack of humanity. Why does Captain Atom maintain his, but Manhattan didn’t? Both experience traumatic accidents that completely altered their appearance. Both gained god-like abilities. Why is Manhattan such a recluse from the rest of us? My theory is that he was never one to begin with. When we’re learning about his past, we learn that Jon wanted to be a watchmaker. His father called that nonsense since WWII was going on. His father threw out the cogs Jon was working on and forced him into being a scientist. Even when Jon first got his powers he was pressured into becoming the United States’ weapon of mass destruction. Because of him, the US won the Vietnam war. He was a puppet and continued to be one until he left Mars. When Jon finally decided to stand up for himself, it was too late. Any chance he could have of regaining his humanity dwindled to almost nothing. He has moments towards the end of the book, but overall, his brain doesn’t operate the same. Captain Atom on the other hand has almost the same level of powers Manhattan has. Both can travel the time stream whenever they choose. Manhattan can see the future. But Captain Atom will die before he lets himself lose his humanity. Sure, he sees the world in neutrinos and radio waves just like Manhattan, but he refused to be a puppet. Without the United States Army, who knows if Jon would have lost touch with his fellow man. He was flawed even without their help, but they didn’t provide much help at all. Another character whose development is instrumental to understanding the prevailing theme of heroism. Jon Osterman was hardly a man when his accident happened. Fate chose one of the weakest willed individuals to possess godly powers. Throughout the book, the more he stood up for himself, the less of a human he became. The Comedian saw the big picture, but Manhattan is a part of the bigger picture.
SILK SPECTRE/NITE OWL
These two are together because of their relationship in the story. Laurie is the daughter of the first Silk Spectre. Her life hasn’t been a complicated one, just an empty one. Since her birth, her mother was training her to become the next great hero. Whether Laurie wanted it or not didn’t matter. She dates Doctor Manhattan for a while and that’s where she’s first introduced in the story. Nite Owl is retired. He’s a shell of himself and not doing much these days except talking with the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason about the good ole’ days. Their relationship begins to blossom when Manhattan and Laurie have one too many fights. They have their final one before he goes on television and this opens the door for Dan. Their developments are by far the most boring out of all of these characters, but they mean the same, if not more. As I mentioned earlier, Dan is a shell of himself for most of the story. He’s just a normal guy who lives a normal life. At some point while reading you might wonder, “This guy was a superhero?”
Dave Gibbons does a fantastic job illustrating Nite Owl. His worried expressions are always present. He truly looks terrified 90 % of the time. Throughout the story, he continues to say how glad he is he gave up the superhero business. He’s a Batman type of hero with gadgets and a circular shaped plane. You can tell that something is off with him from the moment you meet his character. Once again, ties back into that superhero drive Hollis Mason wrote about in his book. Yes, Dan admired the first Nite Owl, he even admired birds and mythology as a child. But none of that could or should have led him to a life pummeling criminals. Something else did. For better or worse, he needs to be Nite Owl so he can feel alive. The story is the reigniting of that passion. Laurie isn’t looking for that same passion, she just wants a man. Dan provides that and more, and I enjoy their story together.
Laurie’s growth comes later when she realizes her father is the Comedian. And no, not because of rape, but because her mother had a relationship with him. It’s a big moment for her and takes her a long time to come to terms with it, but it’s one of the best parts of the story. Both consider themselves leftovers. They aren’t wrong. In all the craziness this story, and this world offers, it makes sense that the only way these two normal, good people, made it through was with each other.
Probably the most popular character from Watchmen. Walter Kovacs is a street vigilante. Fear is his game. He wears dress pants, a coat, a hat and a mask with shifting ink on it. He’s who this story starts out with. Throughout the story, he keeps a journal. In the journal, he writes detailed notes of everything he’s found in regards to the Comedian’s murder. Rorschach is vicious. He will do anything to acquire the information he needs. His development comes when he’s set up and thrown in jail. While in jail, he meets an arrogant psychologist whose job it is to find out what makes Rorschach tick. What makes him the way that he is. There are key moments in his life that define him, but I am a believer in a theory that has been thrown around for years. He’s gay. He wouldn’t be the first gay character in Watchmen. The Silhouette was as well. People believe Ozymandias is too. Another character who is hinted at being gay is Hooded Justice. In the past, when the Comedian attempts to rape Silk Spectre, Hooded Justice saves her and begins to mercilessly beat the Comedian. The Comedian then makes a comment to Justice about how beating up men gets him hot. Hooded Justice makes a face and stops beating him up. Also, there was a statement by Hollis Mason in his book about the weird relationship between Hooded Justice and Silk Spectre. Everything points to him being gay.
There is some evidence about Rorschach, but I realized it when we got a look at his history. The psychologist is out of ideas in regards to figuring out Rorschach. He thinks it’s one thing, but Rorschach proves a tough nut to crack. One day, Rorschach finally tells him about his life, and we see it as well. What leads me to think Rorschach is gay is his demeanor as a child. Is Walter Kovacs the first child ever to be silent around people? No, not at all, but while reading this again, I thought of the movie Moonlight. Rorschach walks in on his mom when he’s little, having sex with a man. He just stands there in the doorway and watches. The man notices and freaks out. The mom tells the man that her son is backwards. Rorschach continues to stand there. The mom then beats him and yells at him for being an idiot. An almost identical scene happens in Moonlight. The film follows Chiron, a young black boy who must come to grips with who he is. We see his life in three phases, starting with childhood. The neighborhood calls him Little. A scene in that movie happens where his mom has company over and the man tries to talk to Little. Little just stands there, with the same look Rorschach had on his face.
I then wondered about why she called him “backwards.” Up until that point, Rorschach has proven to be nothing but resourceful and intelligent. He’s a bit weird, but we all are. There’s nothing in the graphic novel to indicate he’s retarded. In Moonlight, Little’s mother knew he was gay at that young of an age. I’m assuming Rorschach’s mother knew as well. He hated himself for it. It’s probably part of the reason he has a love for conservativism. Little was the same way in Moonlight. Sometimes, people who are different will become a part of the community that hates them the most. Rorschach became a political conservative, Little became a drug dealer. When Rorschach got older, he worked for a garment industry. A dress with the shifting ink was supposed to be picked up, but never did. The lady who was supposed to pick up the dress was raped and murdered. The alley she was killed in had apartments surrounding it. Multiple people heard or saw the assault. No one called the cops. Rorschach said that he took the dress for himself and made himself a face. A face that he could bear to look at in the mirror. This is a weird thing to say because throughout his childhood, Walter Kovacs was known as a smart, nice boy. He shouldn’t hate himself unless there was a part of him society hated too. Moonlight is a great film because it touches on homosexuality in the black community. It’s an identification that the black community still struggles with today. Rorschach was born in 1940. This was a horrible time to grow up gay in America. This, paired with his vigilante form of justice, makes Rorschach one of the most interesting characters in Watchmen.
There’s one last indicator. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre break Rorschach out of jail. Silk Spectre is taken by Doctor Manhattan to Mars, so it just leaves Rorschach and Nite Owl. Throughout the story, it’s said that the two of them used to be a team back in the day. Rorschach talks about how he misses teaming up with his best friend. Their chemistry is great when we finally see them together. Nite Owl is the only person in the Watchmen universe who likes Rorschach. The only one that knows he’s not crazy. There’s a moment where Nite Owl mentions that Rorschach has a weird way of interacting with people, but mainly because he doesn’t know any better. Rorschach became what he became because he didn’t have a father figure in his life. If there was ANY type of man in his life, he would have imitated that man’s life, just like Chiron did in Moonlight. The only man who gave a damn about Chiron was a local drug dealer named Juan. When Chiron gets older, he becomes a spitting image of Juan, because he knows that people, especially men, find that type of man acceptable. Rorschach wasn’t shown that by anyone. The only man he somewhat idolized was his absent father. He was forced to live his life in shame until he finds his mask. Rorschach and Nite Owl get in a small argument on the ship. Nite Owl apologizes to Rorschach and they shake hands for a second. That second turns into a couple of minutes, and Nite Owl makes a face and the moment is weird for both men. I love this character because of these subtle indicators. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong, but Rorschach being gay makes the most sense. The last character I want to talk about is Ozymandias. People think he’s gay as well, but that’s the last thing I’m going to talk about with him. He’s one of the greatest comic book villains ever created.
OZYMANDIAS/ THE PLOT
The world’s smartest man. Adrian Veidt is Ozymandias. Throughout this story, he’s under the radar, while at the same time being the face of superheroes worldwide. Adrian is a billionaire who has profited off his hero identity, Ozymandias. He’s also the one who drives the plot of this story. He’s the main villain. Adrian kills the Comedian in the beginning of the story. The reason he does this is because the Comedian uncovered Veidt’s sinister plan to destroy half of New York in a single blast. The plan, which was started by Veidt more than 10 years ago, caused the Comedian to go into a shock. He goes to his former enemy’s home in a drunken stupor. When the man who can see it all doesn’t have an answer, the end is truly near. That’s why to me, the Comedian’s death means so much at the beginning. Veidt then goes to the home of the Comedian and kills him. He also organizes the exile of Doctor Manhattan to Mars, sets up Rorshach to be framed, and orchestrates a fake assassination attempt on his own life where his assistant is killed.
Ozymandias is obsessed with Alexander the Great. He’s one of my favorite figures in history because of what he accomplished in such a short period. Veidt though, took his obsession to new heights. Both of his parents were dead before his 18th birthday. Veidt decided to trace Alexander’s life throughout Europe. He wanted to measure his success against that of Alexander’s. Anything else would be consider a failure to him. He said it himself, he didn’t want to conquer men, he wanted to conquer the evils of men. He saw the inevitable nuclear war between the United States and Russia as a threat to humanity. Our past, present, and definitely our future, nothing would matter if the nukes started flying. Ozymandias set out to end war. The Comedian helped him realize the futility of superhero groups and stopping robbers or gangs. In the next ten years, he built his financial empire and stayed at almost 100 % approval in the eyes of the public. Something the rest of the heroes couldn’t pull of before the Keene Act. His plan involved creating an alien monster and teleporting it to New York city. In the monster, would be a brain filled with details of alien life and an alien world. There was a writer who was missing from the beginning of the book. Veidt took the writer and artist to make the monster. He then transported the beast to New York, the resulting shock would kill more than half of New York. Nite Owl and Rorschach found out about the plot and confronted Veidt, but it was too late. By the time they found out about his plan, Veidt had killed everyone who was involved. The innocent artists and writers on his island, his assistants, everyone. The images in the graphic novel of the dead people are brutal. Throughout the book, we get introduced to the people of New York City. Most notably, Bernard the newsstand owner. There’s a black kid named Bernard too. He’s reading a comic book during the story. The two of them don’t talk much at all, but when the flash from Veidt’s monster hits the city, they embrace each other as tight as they can. Veidt didn’t care. He’ll tell you differently, and maybe you believe it, but he’s as evil as they get.
That’s the power of a good villain. Their dreams sometimes make sense. But their methods are usually madness. Veidt claims that he has felt the burden of every death during his time on Earth. All he’s wanted was to unite the world like Alexander. He fooled the world with his good looks and his charm. His dialogue throughout this reminded me of Doctor Doom and Lex Luthor. All three of them see themselves above humanity. They think they have to save it. That’s what makes them villains. Ozymandias has thought like this since day one. Being a superhero was the only way he thought his dream could come true. When the Comedian opened his eyes however, he realized how important he was to society. He realized being a superhero meant nothing compared to being the savior of humanity. To him, three million people are worth the billions he saved from nuclear war. I call that insanity. Others might call it something different. But he’s by far one of the most arrogant, conceited men who have ever graced the pages of a comic book. He’s also one of the smartest. Watchmen isn’t a story where the villain loses (or is necessarily wrong.) Ozymandias’ plan ends the talks for nuclear war. One of the most iconic pages of Watchmen is him looking at his screen of news channels, crying and yelling, “I did it!” Not only did Moore deconstruct the idea of the hero, he also deconstructed the idea of the villain.
I know I didn’t talk about everything Watchmen covers, but I mainly wanted to focus on the main characters and their development throughout the story. Watchmen started the modern comic book genre. It’s look at the superhero mentality and humanity was unprecedented. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. And for the record, I’m not a fan of Zack Snyder’s film adaption. It has some awesome, amazing parts. But some scenes were out of place, and I didn’t like the costume design on Nite Owl or Ozymandias. It tried to be completely faithful to the graphic novel, but it missed on the themes of the story. Visually, like everything Snyder does, it was fantastic. But I think Snyder has shown us time and time again, he doesn’t truly understand these characters, he just likes seeing them in action. There are a lot of reasons why this is heralded as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. To me, the character development combined with the smoothness of the plot make this a masterpiece. The themes are sensational as well. It brought up a famous question that many remember and repeat to this day. Who Watches the Watchmen?
I hope you enjoyed this piece. I enjoyed reliving Watchmen again. Remember to follow me on Twitter @Hero_Review so you can get updates on future reviews as well as my thoughts on current comic book news. Until next time!