Watchmen at Thirty, pt. 1: At Midnight, All the Agents...

"Quis costodiet ipsos custodes?" 

"In its clinical artistry and its cold dissection of self-serving US foreign policy decisions in the guise of an alternate history of super-humans and masked crime fighters, Watchmen was a Pop Art extinction-level event, a dinosaur killer and wrecker of worlds. By the time it was over - and its reverberations still resound - the equation was stark for superhero stories: Evolve or Die."
- Grant Morrison, Supergods 

Watchmen #1 came out in September of 1986, which puts us a few months prior to the thirty year anniversary of the "extinction level event" referenced above. On one side of it: comic book storytelling as it had evolved from its earliest days to where it was when Alan Moore (and other Class of '86 alums like Frank (Dark Knight) Miller and Art (Maus) Spiegelman) joined the party. On the other: how it's been ever since, largely as a result of said alumni. I thought to commemorate the occasion it'd be fun to take a leisurely once-per-month stroll through its apocalyptic gardens and see how they've aged.

Morrison's remarks - that Watchmen is less "benevolent harbinger of a better age" and more "killer comet from the skies" - are an interesting take on things. We'll give it a good shake over the course of the next twelve posts, along with some other takes on it all. He is by no means, though, the only person to remark upon how comprehensively the mini-series finished what Moore (and Frank Miller and others) had started: the complete transformation of how superhero stories were regarded, told, and consumed by readers.


Rorschach, a crime-fighting vigilante still operating in violation of the Keene Act, which outlawed all masked superhero types except those working for Uncle Sam, investigates the murder of Edward Blake, aka The Comedian. 

The Comedian, a government operative primarily active in South America ("knocking over Marxist republics") is so called because he believes the world is a sadistic joke that only he understands. 

He was a veteran of the WW2-era first supergroup, the Minuteman, as well as the second-generation supergroup the Crimebusters.
Rorschach, also briefly a Crimebuster, wonders if someone might be killing off his ex-colleagues and goes round to warn them.

His former colleagues range from skeptical to disbelieving to get-the-hell-out-of-here-you-smelly-psycho. First up, the closest person Rorschach ever had to a friend, Daniel Dreiberg, the former Nite Owl:

A rack focus in comics? Brilliant. Also: "Human bean juice" has never stopped being gallows-humor-funny to me.

Next up is Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, the smartest man in the world. ("Came here to warn you so you don't end up smartest man in the morgue.")

Last on Rorschach's list are Doctor Manhattan and Laurie Juspeczyk, the former Silk Spectre, who "share quarters at the Rockefeller Military Research Center."

This went completely over my head at the time.
Much is alluded to in this section that will only make sense with subsequent revelations, so we'll table further discussion of Doc Manhattan's or Laurie's backstory until the issues where it's sketched out.

Rorschach's visit upsets Laurie, and she needs to get some air. She calls up Dan Dreiberg.

"The Indestructible Man" smiles enigmatically.



Although it's as well-written a piece of dystopian fatalism as has ever appeared in comic book form, the real attraction of Watchmen is its design, which is probably equal parts Alan Moore's meticulous, telephone-book-sized scripting and Dave Gibbons' documentary-eye nine-panel precision. We'll have plenty of opportunities to dig in on the subject, but for today let's stick with something that has become so over-used in cinema that we may forget that only thirty years ago it only existed in comics. Again from Morrison's Supergods:

"In 1986, the steady, constant-focus reverse zoom that opened Watchmen (a 'camera' move that became possible on-screen only with the advent of computer-manipulated images) - from a microscopically detailed, thematically-charged close-up on a single object to a scene-setting overview - was a technical effect only comics could achieve.

"The themes of the entire work were contained in (its) iconic first cover: the childlike cartoon smile of innocence bloodied by real life and experience was a sour glyph that distilled Moore's whole approach to comic-book fantasy."

The eternal contretemps of Moore and Morrison ("He would compel the comic-book medium to grow up even if he had to elegantly violate its every precept in front of a cheering crowd of perverts and punks") intrudes on the zoom-out discussion a little, but I like this observation very much. It's an effect that serves the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of the work itself: augmenting the micro to illuminate greater themes of the macro. 

By the time film technology caught up to what was possible to achieve in comics, the idea of the technique bringing out dimensions of the narrative largely turned in to slow-motion tracking bullet shots and the like. This also applies to many of the Moore/Gibbons imitators that flourished in Watchmen's wake. It also led to an unintentional side effect of the Zack Snyder film:

"While the filmmakers failed to capture the essence of Moore's writing, they duplicated Gibbons' artwork with an almost supernatural fidelity that was made possible by the development of CGI to a degree where it could render an infinite depth of field in which every tiny holographic shard of background detail was visible in crystal clarity in high definition."

This slow zoom-out ends the first issue as well, making it perfectly symmetrical. 

I love that "The Comedian is Dead" line so much as a topper for this exchange.

I leave you with some inspirational remarks from Watchmen's resident The End is Nigh Guy in a section I call:

Always leave 'em laughing, Mr. R. How is it that in 2016 there are thousands of shady-Kermit memes but no Rorschach ones

Let's change this, America.


Hope to see you then.
Most screencaps from Watchmen: The Motion Picture Comic (2008), directed by Jake Strider Hughes with voices by Tom Stechschulte. It leaves some things out of the original mini-series, most notably the Tales from the Black Freighter comic that runs throughout (made into its own separate motion picture comic) and the text-appendices from Under the Hood. I will circle back to these in a coda post. 


  1. Hmmm, intriguing start.

    Can't wait till next month for the following post.

    In terms of the effects of how "Watchman" has changed or shifted the landscape, well, I have some thoughts on that. However, based on my own observations, I wonder if the fans (comic creators may be another matter) are really paying attention.

    However I think I'll chair this until a more appropriate post.

    Looking forward to what's next!


    1. Glad to hear it, Chris! Fire away with any remarks or observations you've got. I'll definitely be delving into the game-changing aspects of the series as we go along.

  2. Good read! I'm looking forward to the rest. It'll be interesting to see what other devices Moore and Gibbons used in the subsequent issues after bookending this one with the slow zoom-out.

    Issue #1 of Watchmen is one of my favorite single issues in the history of comics. I'm gonna go reread it now.

    1. Mine, too. As unfathomable as it is to me now, I read Watchmen #1, Dark Knight Returns 1-4 all in the same week, and only a few months after landing in North Smithfield. (Cut to mind-blown gif)

  3. I was totally oblivious to "Watchmen" at the time it came out, and actually didn't catch up to it until late in the nineties. By that time, though, I'd not read comics in a long time, so all the changes in the industry that happened (including the ones spurred on by Moore, Miller, etc.) were completely lost on me. When I decided to get back into comics, though, two of the first titles I picked up were (via a canny recommendation) "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen." Which meant that, by pure happenstance, they had exactly the impact on me that they were intended to have! You've got to love it when something works out like that.

    "Human bean juice" is indeed a particularly fine pun.

    I love that "zoom-out" that opens the issue. As much as I love shots like that in movies when they are well-done, I think that if I'm speaking objectively, I have to say that the technique works even better when done well in comics. And if it has ever been done better than it is done in "Watchmen," I'm not aware of it.

    "Hanging With Mr. Rorschach" -- genius! This makes me think of a news story I saw yesterday:


    If Rorschach's musings could be put to use in that manner, it'd be even better.

    1. Someone should make a list of all the times that shot has been used successfully in a movie and then determine whether or not the director was a Watchmen fan first.

      That's a funny story and an even funnier idea to swap Hannibal Lecter for Rorschach.