The Watchmen – A Plot Guide
Watchmen is often described as a multi-layered story and has been described in places as hard to read. Some of this is true, but the Watchmen is in many ways a very straight, enjoyable read where all the action happens at the edges. We tell you how to read between the lines, and get as much out of the Watchmen plot as you can…
But Watchmen is a very rewarding graphic novel to read and so we’ll give you a simple reader’s guide to getting the most out of it (And if you want to find out more about the skill of comic-reading, read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which isn’t a comic but is very interesting). This Watchmen plot and structure guide won’t answer all your questions, because a reader’s guide never can, and will be a pretty much subjective view, so you can go and find different interpretations in the book, should you wish. And you should, as that’s half the fun of reading.
Watchmen, as you will probably be more than aware by now, was first published in 1985 and was one of a handful of works of art that can truly be called ground-breaking, at least for mainstream, or as mainstream as a niche like comic books can get. It took this whole crazy idea of grown men (and it is, as is pointed out in Watchmen, mainly men) to dress up in silly costumes, to fight crime.
So, about those layers, what are they? And are they really necessary? After all a good story doesn’t have to be complex, does it? Well, no, but after a good few decades of comic stories that were as two-dimensional as the drawings, the challenge of cramming as many layers as possible into a comic was one that couldn’t be missed. And Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were the perfect creators to do that.
The story itself is quite simple. A costumed hero is murdered, but the police investigating the crime have no idea of his past, or at least just a few suspicions. Costumed heroes were outlawed in the 70s, slipping easily into retirement, except for Ozymandias, Doctor Manhattan and our first narrator, Rorschach, who refuses to stop.
The story opens with extracts from Rorschach’s journal, which will give us a good indication of his mental state and also become the most important work ever written. Rorschach is a character who finds symbolism in a dog’s carcass (and we discover how this mirrors his character’s origin later). His opening speech riffs on the Taxi Driver and shows Rorschach’s contempt for modern society. The conspiracy theory that Rorschach postulates could be easily the product of this.
Rorchach’s journal continues to run throughout the novel, giving his insight of his colleagues, who he thinks of as quitters, liberals and possibly homosexual. Each of which is a weakness, morally or otherwise and worthy of further investigation. Given that this is our introduction to the story and the characters, one could easily believe that this is the view that we should hold of each character. Rorschach’s true identity, once revealed, makes you look back to see how often he turns up under the radar. Yet his appearances are important, as they answer the question of how Rorschach knew as much as we, the reader, did of events at which he hadn’t seemed present. Also, although he would assert that this is his mask, his billboarded statement, that the end is nigh, gives us a much clearer insight into his character that his ink-blotched mask.
The first three supplements to each chapter, from Hollis Mason’s biography, fill in the gaps to much of the story. The supplements explain why the costumed heroes first appeared and some idea of the motive behind their actions. From Hollis Mason’s history we see, and therefore are able to speculate about, how his colleague trained. Further supplements supply background information that reflects on their appropriate chapters. The discussion of Doctor Manhattan as a deterrent is fleshed out and scrapbook extracts give us more information on the background of Sally Jupiter, Adrian Veidt and Rorschach. The article by Dan Dreiberg is the most interesting, as it’s the only real insight we get into his character. He has no origin story, no out of costume flashback… He is simply a good man trying to do his best.
The first chapter is rather linear. The second introduces another of the novel’s narrative techniques, the flashback. Previously all this showed was Eddie Blake’s murder, but now we have a chapter which appears to show just how loathsome and ill-named the Comedian really is. The brutal rape of Sally Jupiter, being a much more important plot point than it first appears, the gunning down of the pregnant woman and his disparaging views on the Seventies attempt at the superheroes’ team-up all serve to show how the world might be better off without the Comedian. And we also see the first true hints at a big conspiracy… Something so bad it makes even the Comedian cry.
The flashback is used to show the fractured and relative nature of time, something that is central to Doctor Manhattan, and is partially reflected in the book’s title. This is used to an extreme when we read of Doctor Manhattan’s origin on his self-imposed exile to Mars. Whilst we see the fractured time line, and read it in a paradoxically linear manner, we are constantly reminded that to Doctor Manhattan this is happening to him simultaneously. This adds much to his actions. He already knows what will happen, yet he knows he has to react in certain ways to each moment. Whether he does this to fit in with humanity, or because he understands fate must be obeyed is never truly explained.
The fractured timeline also helps reinforce the repeated imagery and motives in the book. The shape of the splash of blood on the smiley badge, the most iconic symbol of the novel, which appears almost insignificantly at later points, most especially in chapter 11. But the smiley face also reveals itself in little visual hints, the way Dan passing Laurie a cup of coffee mimics the way Jane passes Jon the cold lager. Dan’s dream of the nuclear holocaust reflecting the graffiti figures on the walls.
The most obvious use of this is with The Tale of the Black Freighter. In a world where super-heroes are real, why would they be in comics? As a result, pirate comics are the hit. And horror pirate comics at that. The story – folded into the main narrative – is one of a man who does untold, gruesome things to save his family and friends. However, unlike Ozymandias’ plan, this is not successful, as he discovers that he is the horror from which he was trying to save his family. That this is partly the inspiration of Ozymandias’ plan is reflected both in the fact that he kidnaps the author to contribute to his ‘alien’ monstrosity and by his confession at the end of the book that he dreams of the Black Freighter.
To ensure you understand the metaphor, images from the comic within the comic are juxtaposed with those in the main narrative. As the unnamed sailor bites into a seagull, Dan takes a bite from his Gunga Diner chicken. The dirty sail on the mast is a primitive version of Rorschach’s mask.
The comic also serves to introduce two more narrators: Bernard the news-stand guy and Bernie the kid who’s reading the Black Freighter. They serve as the Everyman, giving us the point of view from, literally, the man on the street. Unbeknownst to them, they are witness to almost all the main players. And it’s little more than happenstance that they are situated right outside ground zero, becoming the most recognisable and emotive victims of the novel’s climax.
Naturally there’s more to the novel than this. Each of the major character’s plot lines are cleverly mapped out to entwine and react against each other. The plot can, and does, hinge on the smallest of character’s actions. The number of what-ifs are incredible. What if the Comedian hadn’t looked out of his window at that precise moment and seen the monster? His murder would not be needed, Rorschach would not have investigated the murder and Veidt would not have been discovered.
What if the Comedian hadn’t raped Sally? Then, even if he still became Laurie’s father, it would not have been enough to convince Doctor Manhattan to see the true miracle of human birth and return to save humanity.
Ultimately the plot is always going to happen. There is nothing that will stop Ozymandias from carrying out his plan. New York will still be ‘invaded’ by an ‘alien’ life form, regardless of what actions our heroes took before this. Yet even knowing this does not make the story redundant. It still feels necessary for the investigation to happen. Not least because without it, Watchmen would be a short and rather less interesting read. But also because it shows every aspect of the super hero, and the fact that their small-time thinking will always be futile against the big picture.
Can one person’s actions really change the world? The novel will answer both yes and no. Is Ozymandias’ work something we should look upon and despair? After all, nothing can prove he was behind it. He saved the world, united humanity and nothing can change that.
Except, of course, for Rorschach’s Journal…
- Buy Watchmen on Amazon
- Buy Watchmen on Amazon
Alan Moore – writer of The Watchmen