Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
'Who watches the watchmen?'
Juvenal, Satires, VI, 347
Quoted as the epigraph of the Tower Commission Report1, 1987
Comic books - they're for kids, right? Wrong. Western audiences generally consider any tale told with pictures, and characters with speech balloons, to be aimed at children. (Oddly, the Japanese do not share this prejudice.) If there is one book which could most comprehensively shatter the received opinion that comics tell shallow stories aimed at children, it is surely Watchmen, by Alan Moore2 and Dave Gibbons.
In the mid-1980s, comics were in crisis. Readerships were falling as kids spent time playing games on their new home computers instead of reading X-Men, Spiderman, Batman or Superman comics. Then in a few short years the industry was transformed, in part by Frank Miller with the phenomenally successful The Dark Knight Returns, which reinvented Batman and arguably paved the way for Tim Burton's film, and later by others. 'Graphic novels' were aimed at a mature audience, who could appreciate layers of meaning and complex plots not usually a feature of weekly comic strips. One of the most ambitious, and successful, graphic novels of the time was Watchmen.
Watchmen is set in America in 'the present' (1985), in a parallel universe, where superhero comics never took off, but real costumed vigilantes started appearing in the 1930s and 1940s. A rich history is evoked, of ordinary people dressing up to fight crime, with all the consequences that would lead to. Speculation in the press about why they do it, a bank sponsoring their own 'superhero', who is tragically gunned down by the robbers he is chasing when his cape the bank insists he wear gets trapped in a revolving door, and the eventual public backlash against what are, after all, fallible humans. A loose association of vigilantes is formed, but is eventually disbanded when the government outlaws costumed crimefighters. Most go into retirement, but one continues working for the government as a freelance killer. The story proper opens with the death of this man, Edward Blake - 'The Comedian'.
Watchmen features a wide array of characters - the following are only the main players.
Edward Blake, aka The Comedian
Cynical, violent, an amoral rapist and killer, Blake enjoys the business for its own sake. He is instrumental in America's victory in the Vietnam War. The identity of his murderer is the first mystery the book presents.
Walter Joseph Kovacs, aka Rorshach
Bullied as a child and abused by his mother, a prostitute, and by her clients, Walter Kovacs is a recluse who keeps to himself. At night he pulls on his face - an ever-changing, always symmetrical pattern of black and white blotches which gives him his name - and stalks the streets of New York dealing his own brand of justice. He pays no attention to the law against vigilantes. Rorshach is arguably the most powerful of all the flawed characters in the book, his main fault and his downfall being that he sees the world like his face - there's only black and white. He keeps a journal, in which he records his impressions of life. There is more than a hint of Travis Bickle3 about his attitude to life.
The opening lines of Chapter One give a flavour of Rorshach's view of the world:
Rorshach's Journal. October 12th, 1985. Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown.
Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias
A self-made millionaire, Veidt retires from heroing when it is outlawed and goes public about his identity. He is the self-styled 'smartest man on earth', and his main flaw is hubris.
Hollis Mason, aka Nite Owl
The 'old' Nite Owl, Hollis Mason retired many years ago, and has written a book entitled 'Under the Hood', an exposé of the seedier side of the costumed hero lifestyle. Excerpts from this book are dotted throughout Watchmen, and it forms a fascinating background.
Daniel Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl
Dreiberg took over the mantle of 'Nite Owl' from Mason when Mason retired, and applied his skills as a technician to build many useful gadgets, including night vision goggles and a heavily armed airship. Due to the change in the law, Dreiberg is now also retired, although Rorshach keeps tabs on him...
Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Laurie Jupiter, aka The Silk Spectre
An unhappy woman, Laurie was raised to be a costumed heroine from an early age by her mother, Sally Jupiter, the original 'Silk Spectre'. She is understandably extremely bitter about this, and is even more angered by further revelations during the course of the story. She rejects the 'Jupiter' name her mother took up to hide her Polish origins. She is romantically involved with...
Jon Osterman, aka Doctor Manhattan
The only character who is anything other than an 'ordinary' human being, former physicist Jon Osterman is the victim of a terrible accident at a nuclear research facility, where his body is 'separated from its intrinsic field'. He returns from death after reconstructing a body for himself, able to control atomic structure by will alone, and is instantly recruited and used by the government as a propaganda tool. This effectively ends the cold war and has many other seismic effects on society. Osterman's story is in many ways the most complex, in that, following his accident, he has little perception of linear time, perceiving most of his entire (and, it is hinted, infinite) lifespan as a single moment.
Watchmen is not one story, but many, interwoven and many layered. The characters described above are merely the main players, the movers of the plot. There are many more - a comic book artist, a newspaper seller, a criminal psychologist, the publisher of a trashy sensationalist paper, to name a few - who seem at times to be merely window dressing but whose experiences build to the shocking climax.
That climax is what may attract a little new attention to Watchmen. A massive, premeditated attack on New York City kills thousands, and unites the world against a perceived common enemy. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001, Watchmen acquired a terrible new resonance its authors could never have foreseen.