Sunday, January 1, 2012

Chapter I - thematic overview

At Midnight, All the Agents . . .

First, a caveat:

In his introduction for the re-issue of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Neil Gaiman wrote, “. . . you can no more read the same book again than you can step into the same river.” Which is true. When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager it had a very different meaning than when I read it in my early thirties. I had matured, my understanding of the world had grown, and I had broadened my experiences during the interim fifteen or so years. It was a far different book than the one I remembered, because my perspective had evolved.

Which is to say, there are many themes one can pluck from Watchmen and its individual chapters. It all depends upon your point of view. As an introduction to each chapter, I have chosen to discuss a specific theme or visual motif found within that chapter, as a way to look at the chapter in toto and to get you, the reader, into a proper mindset for what follows. I chose to focus on a single theme with each chapter in order to keep you, and me, from getting bogged down under the weight of my own words, and to make each of these chapters a bit less cumbersome. I would also encourage you to dig a little deeper into your own reading of this book and see what other theme and motifs you discover. I hope you enjoy.

A note on Spoilers:

 I am going to assume that if you’re reading this, you have already read Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. With that in mind, please note that spoilers abound in what follows. In fact, arguably the two biggest mysteries in Watchmen (the identity of Edward Blake’s killer and the identity of Rorschach) are given away in the annotations for panels 5 & 3, respectively, of page 1. So, please be forewarned: these annotations are meant to enhance one’s reading experience of Watchmen and it would be doing yourself a disservice to continue from here without having read the source material first.

Thematic Overview:

As Watchmen opens, it has been eight years since passage of the Keene Act, a law that outlawed masked vigilantes. In the 1985 of this story only three heroes are still active – Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian both work for the U.S. government while Rorschach continues his fight against injustice in his own inimitable manner. Despite this, these heroes – even those who have retired – loom large over this world’s landscape. They drive public policy and scientific advancements from the shadows, shaping this world in ways that could not be imagined by the “common man.”

Throughout this first issue, Dave Gibbons accentuates the sense of these heroes towering above the landscape, and the people, through his visuals. In fact, we experience this in the opening scene. As the camera pulls up and away from the blood-splattered smiley face button, we ultimately reach the scene of the crime. At an almost vertiginous height, we meet the detectives in charge of the case as they peer out from the window of Eddie Blake’s apartment – the pool of blood on the sidewalk now little more than a spot of red.

Lofty heights are also utilized when introducing most of the other main characters – Rorschach, Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias), Dr. Manhattan and Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II). We first see Rorschach as he approaches Blake’s apartment building (our vantage point is from beneath Rorschach, giving us a sense of the skyline above him), and watch him scale the side of the building to enter Blake’s apartment. Veidt is introduced in the penthouse of his corporate tower, a skyscraper that appears to overlook the entirety of New York City. Dr. Manhattan, who can modify his body in any manner, is introduced to us – along with Laurie – as a giant at least as tall as seven full-grown men. We, the readers, are meant to feel insignificant in relation to these characters through their depictions in these introductory scenes. It is worth noting that the only member of the Watchmen not introduced in this manner is Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl, who is also the most grounded of these heroes.

The use of this visual motif throughout the initial chapter is interesting and says a lot about the characters as well as the setting of this book. By dint of the book’s title alone, we know the Watchmen are the main protagonists, despite the fact that most of them are no longer active agents. But still, they hang over this world like a dark cloud, affecting the status quo – particularly Dr. Manhattan – so dramatically that the average person might feel obsolete. The general populace is scared of these vigilantes, which is why the government disbanded the Watchmen and outlawed masked vigilantes.

This use of vertiginous imagery also helps us understand the psychological make-up of the heroes as well. Blake and Veidt are characters who are motivated by the moral superiority the feel the hold over everyone else. Veidt’s unmatched intelligence and physical prowess, in his mind, feeds his belief that he should be the final arbiter of mankind’s path. While the Comedian (Blake) always harbored disdain for the rest of the heroes, who, in his mind, didn’t understand the big picture. He laughed at their attempts to curb crime by attacking the symptoms – drug pushers, prostitutes, petty criminals, supervillains” – when he knew that nothing would change unless they were willing to attack the source – those corrupt individuals with political or economic power. And Dr. Manhattan’s detachment from the rest of humanity is visualized brilliantly in his opening scene – his nearly fifty-foot-tall blue frame not only exhibits his unbelievable powers, but also punctuates his emotional distance from what it means to be a human being.

There are many other instances of this visual motif throughout the issue and the rest of the series. It is one of the things that comics can do so well, offering subtle visual cues that can enhance the mood or themes of a story. This was one of the stated aims of Moore & Gibbons with Watchmen – to expand what was possible within the medium and to focus on the unique aspects of storytelling in comics without losing the basic premise, tell a good story. It is this ambition, coupled with their respective talent, that spurs me to return to Watchmen year after year, only to discover something new with each reading that I hadn’t experienced before.


  1. It just so happens that I have been sorting my comics this morning and re-bagging my original Watchmen issues in Mylites (they do look rather nice in them).

    As you say it is impossible to approach this comic as we first did, but it is interesting to recall what it was like to get hold of that first issue in 1986.

    The coming of Watchmen had been trailed in other DC comics and various trade magazines. Those famous single panel adverts were intriguing, and that combined with chat in the comic store meant we knew that something different was coming.

    And then there is that first issue itself. Which looked different from any other comic before it. I wonder at what stage did DC realise what Moore, Gibbons and Higgins were going to deliver and decide to go "all out" on the design and format of the comic.

    I'm looking forward to re-reading Watchmen along with your posts.

  2. Eamonn,

    I really look forward to your thoughts on the book. Unlike you, I had no idea about Watchmen (no comic shop at the time and I didn't read any books that had the ads in them that I remember). I discovered while poring through the Mile High catalog searching for anything written by Moore.

    But when I finally got the last two issues I needed, 10 and 12, it hit me with an impact that has stayed with me since then.

    Thanks for commenting.