On my first reading of Watchmen, I expected the text pieces in the back of each issue would all be excerpted chapters from Hollis Mason’s autobiography Under the Hood, as each of the first three chapters included these excerpts. I found it interesting – delving into Mason’s psyche to see what prompted him to become a costumed adventurer humanized him in a way that could not be fully realized in the main comic. And, by way of Mason’s inside knowledge, I also got to know the other members of his “spandex set.” Of course, once I read chapter four, it was evident Moore planned on utilizing a variety of “resources” from the world of Watchmen to fully flesh out these characters.
Much of the text in Under the Hood only tangentially relates to the main narrative, as it mostly deals with Hollis Mason’s personal history. But Moore also peppers these excerpts with little details that flesh out the world of Watchmen, providing insights into this alternate reality not as easily conveyed through the comic narrative. The biggest hurdle comic books have as a storytelling medium is the lack of space within the format. Moore’s use of prose at the end of each chapter was an elegant solution to this disadvantage.
One interesting detail gleaned from Mason’s autobiography was the fact that comic books began in exactly the same manner as they did in our “real world.” Hollis Mason, during his time as a beat cop, discovered Action Comics #1 and the Superman story therein, when he saw the kids on his beat reading it. Mason asked one boy if he could read his copy – ostensibly to forge bonds with those he was sworn to protect – and was immediately captivated by the costumed hero from Krypton. Like the pulps he’d enjoyed when younger, this new adventurer spurred Mason’s imagination and inspired his own later costumed exploits.
It was no coincidence that in the world of Watchmen, “real superheroes” came to the fore in 1939, just as their four-color analogues in our world were exploding in the public mindset. But with real superheroes like Hooded Justice and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, the allure of superhero comics quickly faded. With the real thing who needed a second-rate, static version printed on cheap newsprint? This was the first of many differences between the world of Watchmen and our own, a difference that also accounted for the popularity of pirate comics in this alternate reality.
Moore knows his comics history, which probably explains why he chose to have superheroes arrive in the world of Watchmen at the same time as their rise as comic book characters in our own world – along with the obvious narrative uses an older generation of heroes could provide his story. Similar to this costumed adventurer fad in the 1939 of Watchmen, the era of this golden age of heroes spanned roughly the same decade that the golden age of superhero comic books did in our own. The popularity of costumed adventurers burned hotly during the early part of the 1940s, but with the successful conclusion of World War II, that popularity waned. In 1949, the Minute Men disbanded and things became quiet on the costumed adventurer front, coinciding roughly with the decline of the golden age of superhero comics. But the Silver Age was just around the corner, as, in the back-matter for Chapter IV, Dr. Manhattan was introduced to an unsuspecting world in March, 1960 (which falls somewhere in between the birth of the Silver Age of superhero comics – with 1956’s Showcase #4 introducing the new Flash – and that of the Marvel Age of comics – in late 1961 with the publication of Fantastic Four #1).
Perhaps the most interesting detail in the back-matter for these first four chapters can be found at the end of Chapter III (in Chapter V of Under the Hood), when Hollis discussed Hooded Justice and his exit from adventuring. Hooded Justice was the first superhero, and when the Minute Men disbanded, he was the one who disappeared like a wisp of smoke. Even his fellow adventurers did not know his true identity. But the New Frontiersman wrote an article linking the disappearance of circus strong man Rolf Müller with that of Hooded Justice – both figures vanished shortly after the hearings before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). This was followed, three months later, by the discovery of a decomposed body that washed ashore near Boston and was believed to be Müller.
This might seem like some innocuous, titillating conjecture, but when the connections are made with scenes from Chapter II, page 7 and Chapter XI, page 18, the truth falls into place. The first scene takes place just after the Comedian’s rape of Silk Spectre. Hooded Justice comes in on them and physically beats the Comedian, who threatens Hooded Justice, telling him “…I got your number, see? And one of these days, the joke’s gonna be on you.” In the latter scene, Ozymandias is recounting his formative years as a costumed adventurer. Early on, he decided to research his masked predecessors and investigated the disappearance of Hooded Justice. This investigation led him to the government operative responsible for the initial investigation after the HUAC hearings, one Edward Blake, the Comedian. Blake reported he was unable to find Hooded Justice and the case was closed. Ozymandias contemplates the possibility that Blake may have found Hooded Justice and killed him, reporting his failure so that it would not be pursued further. Add this to the speculation that Hooded Justice was Rolf Müller, and we realize that Ozymandias’s conjecture is correct.
I know there are some who refuse to read the text pieces at the end of each chapter of Watchmen. That is certainly their right, and the main story can be enjoyed without them. But those who don’t include the back-matter as part of their reading are missing out on a lot of details that enrich and expand the main narrative in so many ways. Moore infused this book with seemingly insignificant pieces of information that, when formed into a whole – like the bits regarding Hooded Justice’s exit from adventuring and the subsequent discovery of the decomposed body of Rolf Müller – provide a fuller, richer, and more satisfying experience. That, above almost everything else, is what sets Watchmen apart from so many other comic stories.