Alan Moore and David Gibbon's Watchmen is, justifiably, a landmark in the comic-book universe, a carefully-planned attempt to analyze and deconstruct the standard superhero universe while, at the same time, staying true to some of its most powerful tropes. Watchmen was also made into a movie, which in my view managed to stick fairly close to the original miniseries/graphic novel, but of necessity had to cut out some rather important elements (discussed below). If you don't want spoilers galore, don't read any farther!
The setting of Watchmen is a version of our world, with a change that began in the late 1930s with the emergence of costumed adventurers, and is exemplified in the present of the comic by the fact that Richard Nixon is still President, apparently having managed to un-do the amendment that limits Presidents to serving two terms.
The main story begins with the murder of a man named Edward Blake, which sets costumed vigilante Rorschach on a path of investigation when he realizes that Blake was once known as The Comedian, one of the two government-sanctioned heroes who were allowed to continue to operate after the enactment of the "Keene Act" which forbade any costumed vigilantism. Rorschach quickly comes to a belief that there is someone or something out there trying to dispose of the remaining heroes – even the retired ones – and that something truly monstrous is afoot.
In his investigations, Rorschach contacts former members of his super-team, the Watchmen: Nite Owl (Daniel Drieberg), Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk), and Doctor Manhattan (Jon Osterman). At first none of them believe Rorschach's tenuous deductions – Rorschach is the most mentally unbalanced of the group and, indeed, is in some ways very little different from the criminals he hunts – but gradually the pattern becomes more clear, and the others, especially Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, begin to believe there is something to Rorschach's obsessive rants.
But though they are veterans of the dark world of villains and vigilantism, even they cannot imagine what the truth behind this shadowy threat truly is.
Watchmen is a complex story, with two (apparently) independent threads: the main story and its associated flashbacks, dealing with the mysterious plot that led to Blake's murder, and a parallel horror story, Tales of the Black Freighter, which seems to be nothing more than a rather typical horror comic of the "Eerie Comics" type; the story read by one of the minor characters within the Watchmen series deals with a man shipwrecked but desperate to make his way home to warn his hometown of the approach of the dread pirate vessel, the Black Freighter; the man – a sea captain himself – undertakes progressively more desperate and horrific methods to make his way home, including sailing away from the island on a raft made of his former shipmates corpses, eventually descending to murder and almost killing his own wife thinking she is a pirate from the Freighter; finally he comes to the realization that the Freighter has come, not for his town, but for him, as he has now become the exact sort of red-handed monster the Black Freighter seeks for crew.
Unfortunately for the movie adaptation, this secondary plotline had to be removed (although a version of it was created for DVD release).
I'm not usually one to pick up on symbolism, so I was rather startled when I did in reading Watchmen. Perhaps this was partially due to my rational author's evaluation that there was no way that Moore and Gibbon spent all that space on this grotesque Twilight-Zone-eque comic-within-a-comic if it didn't have something to do with the plot. At first I thought it was just referring to the degeneration of the world situation; as Watchmen progresses, we see snippets of news broadcasts and political events that indicate the world is coming closer and closer to a third World War.
But it's much more than that.
Watchmen bounces between past and present regularly, and this is to a great extent because one of the characters – the only true superhuman being, Doctor Manhattan – exists in a realm of quantum time, where he perceives timelike curves as easily as spacelike curves. He thus can envision – in fact, is forced to envision – objects and people as existing simultaneously along their entire history. Past and future and present have ceased to have their traditional meanings for Jon Osterman; he has conversations in which he already knows the answers, but finds himself also bound by time in that he has no choice but to follow the conversation, or action, to the end he has already seen.
In some ways, Doctor Manhattan is one of the most tragic figures of all. He knows what mistakes people will make, he sees the consequences of short-sighted actions, he can recognize when and how crimes will be committed… but once he has done so, he is powerless to change them. An atrocity perceived, even in the future, is an atrocity made certain. At the same time, he is nigh-omnipotent, able to rearrange matter and energy at the slightest whim to the most complex structure he might desire. He is a god bound within time, locked by his own perception and the physics he otherwise flouts to an unwavering and immutable course of destiny.
It is little wonder, then, that Jan Osterman drifts ever farther from humanity – now almost his polar opposite, unable to perceive more than the slightest aspect of the truth that surrounds them yet able to act on whim and will without the crushing foreknowledge of their success or failure. Yet his choosing to re-acquire contact with humanity, even in the smallest degree, is essential for the plot to move forward, and he knows this – and risks the life of Silk Spectre, once his lover, to discover if that contact can ever be reacquired.
The climactic revelation that it is not some shadowy enemy, but one of their own – the handsome, dashing, wealthy, courageous, superlative Ozymandias – behind the murderous machinations terrifies the other once-heroes, intimidates even the usually-stolid Rorschach with the scale and depth of Ozymandias' manipulations. Ozymandias has conceived a grand plan to, literally, save the world from itself: convince the world that it is under immediate threat of invasion from an alien source (in the movie, Dr. Manhattan himself is made into the threat).
Ultimately, the remaining Watchmen – Nite Owl and Rorschach – attempt to confront Ozymandias at his Antarctic base; Ozymandias demonstrates that he remains superior to both of them in combat, and then after revealing the extent of his plan, gives one of the most chilling and trope-breaking lines of all time, when Nite Owl declares they'll find some way to stop him: "Dan, I'm not a Republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my master-stroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago."
It seems that even Doctor Manhattan is powerless against Ozymandias' plan – he appears to be dispersed in a final trap based on the experiment that originally created him, while Silk Spectre almost manages to shoot him down – but Veidt, somewhat to his own surprise, manages to literally catch the bullet.
Manhattan is not so easily destroyed, and remanifests, almost killing Ozymandias… before the others come to the grudging realization that it appears that Adrian Veidt's plan has worked – the false alien attack has defused the increasing tensions and the USA and USSR are now seriously discussing a unified course of action.
It was Ozymandias' name that finally made me realize how Tales of the Black Freighter linked to the main plot. As Veidt mentions, Ozymandias is just a different name for the Egyptian Pharaoh known more familiarly as Ramses II, but more importantly for the short poem by Shelley, speaking of a great and broken statue in a desert; the poem ends thusly:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ozymandias, then, is the Sea-Captain, on a desperate quest to save that which he values, driven by such desperation that he betrays every principle that he held dear on a quest that is, ultimately, doomed to failure. Yes, it seems that Ozymandias' plan has worked, but there is ultimately no way that it will survive; his fake-alien creature cannot be hidden away, and analysis by both sides will eventually show it is, itself, an earthly genetic construct. His secrecy was broken by a few independent vigilantes; it is laughable to think that once the suspicions of the major governments are awakened he will be able to escape their scrutiny, and both sides will likely accuse the other of planning this murderous charade.
Doctor Manhattan himself points this out, very laconically, to Ozymandias, when the latter asks if he did the right thing in the end: "Nothing ever ends".
Watchmen isn't the sort of story I'd usually read, or read very often, but it was a brilliant work of its time. It did, unfortunately, have rather the opposite effect intended by its creators; they had hoped to rekindle a new and diverse, brighter future in the comics universe, but instead the gritty, antiheroic imagery in Watchmen – along with the other contemporary graphic-novel sensation, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight (re-imagining Batman), ushered in what became the "Iron Age" of comics, where grim-and-gritty ruled supreme.
I don't really appreciate – in the sense of approving – that aspect of its influence. But as a work on its own, Watchmen remains a powerful and fascinating read, well worth the hour or three it takes to read. Highly recommended.