Big pictures

By M. HOWELL  |  March 4, 2009

And what characters! Rorschach, a violent, shadowy figure of apocalyptic right-wing beliefs wearing a filthy trenchcoat, fedora, and a mask that continually changes into different blot patterns. Adrian Veidt, a/k/a Ozymandias, is retired crimefighter turned wealthy industrialist who is reputedly the world's smartest man. Dr. Manhattan, an eerie blue figure who possesses nearly unlimited power. Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl, grown flabby while his arsenal of costumes and weapons gathers dust. Laurie Juspeczyk, who followed in her mother's footsteps as the crimefighter Silk Spectre and then retired to a cloistered life as Dr. Manhattan's mistress. And at the center of the mystery, Edward Morgan Blake, the Comedian.

Interview: Alan Moore. From the Phoenix archives. By M. Howell.

Review: Watchmen. By A. S. Hamrah.

Interview: Zack Snyder. By James Parker.

Although Watchmen's narrative takes place over only three weeks (between October 12 and November 2, 1985), it darts back and forth through time, from 1939 and the founding of the original costumed adventurers' organization, the Minutemen, through the riots of the mid '70s, to the perilous present. You see what might happen to comic-book dreams in the real world: the self-appointed-hero biz is decimate by rape, homosexuality, and death in the line of duty. When in the '60s a surviving member of the Minutemen tries to revive the group as the Crimebusters, he's ridiculed. Finally, federal law orders all costumed crimefighters to cease their activities – unless they're sanctioned by the government. The story opens with the Comedian, the one person who bridged the Minutemen and the Crimebusters, hitting the streets the hard way – thrown out his high-rise window. As the plot progresses, you're drawn into the hunt for his killer. Rorschach is trying to crack the case when D. Manhattan – the ultimate nuclear deterrent and America's not-so-secret weapon – is hounded into leaving Earth, leaving the Russians free to invade Afghanistan and set in motion a chain of events that could possibly end in Armageddon. The mysteries accumulate. What is the meaning of the Comedian's final tearful visit to an old enemy? And what is happening on that island?

On one level, Watchmen is a race against time. Each chapter begins with a clock face and ends with a larger one, with rivulets of blood dripping farther downward as the Doomsday Clock moves inexorably towards midnight. Moore and Gibbons play with time throughout the story, shifting back and forth from 1939 to 1966 to 1985 without ever letting you forget that the Clock is still ticking. The other primary visual motif is the blood-stained smily face. It's the first image you see, though it'll probably be a few panels before you realize that it's the Comedian's badge, stained with his blood. As a symbol of both happiness and pain, it recurs repeatedly: when Laurie wipes steam from a window; on a fateful jack-o-lantern; as the plug socket of a shattered spark hydrant; in a crater on Mars.

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Related: Interview: Zack Snyder of Watchmen, Review: Watchmen, Interview: Alan Moore, author of Watchmen, More more >
  Topics: Flashbacks , Richard Nixon, Alan Moore, Alan Moore,  More more >
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  •   BIG PICTURES  |  March 04, 2009
    Watchmen is that too rare work of popular entertainment, one that succeeds on many levels and that rewards your attention to every level it employs.
  •   INTERVIEW: ALAN MOORE, AUTHOR OF WATCHMEN  |  March 05, 2009
    The winner of several "Best Comics Writer" awards on both sides of the Atlantic, he's best known in America as the author of the DC Comics series Swamp Thing and, of course, Watchmen.

 See all articles by: M. HOWELL