Watchmen #1: At Midnight, All The Agents…
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins

Watchmen presents dark material but with underlying currents of hope which writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons bring out from time to time. It melds a number of genres — noir, superheroes and science fiction — to create a unique, memorable world.

Moore knew he had his work cut out for him; originally he wanted to use the preexisting characters from Charlton Comics, but his editor told him to make new ones to tell the same story. He got free reign to craft this world in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. DC Comics had erased its multiple comics continuities as part of that event, and now wanted to make a mark by rebooting old works and adding new ones. This was how Neil Gaiman found free reign to turn the Silver Age Sandman into a violent metaphysical being; how John Byrne could reimagine Wonder Woman as a beacon of hope in the middle of terrible war. For his part, Frank Miller brought a grim and gritty Batman that found a reason to keep fighting despite his failing body and fallen allies. Things were changing – this was the Modern Age of Comics.

With this first issue we get our intro to a story which made readers question what they thought they knew about heroics. In Watchmen, the superheroes operate as mundane vigilante “masks” in a post-Vietnam world that doesn’t want them. The government hires the ones that want to keep the mask, and forces the others to take a civil life. A few exceptions hide from the law and pursue vigilante work. We know we’re in for a ride.

Issue one has a straightforward beginning: a government hitman called the Comedian has been murdered, but gave his attacker quite a struggle beforehand. We at first assume that the genre at play in this first issue is a noir homage as we watch a masked man in a trenchcoat investigate the murder scene, and picks up a clue. However this isn’t a hero – this is a violent vigilante called Rorschach, who we discover plays judge, jury and executioner to criminals. This time he’s got a bigger concern than petty crooks, we learn: he’s worried that the arrival of a new serial killer who specifically only goes after “masks” may put his former friends and allies called “The Minutemen” in danger.

Rorschach can be incredibly accurate in his paranoia at times, but watching him here we see that he ultimately ends up missing the mark – like the John Godfrey Saxe poem about six blind men feeling an elephant’s ears, tail and trunk. In the poem, the men each grasp a different part of the elephant, and based on their findings describe it as being different things: like a tree, or like a brush or like a fan. As his investigation proceeds in this issue, Rorschach at times repeatedly tries to grab for a piece of his elephant – the problem is that he lacks the cynicism (or at least the cynicism about his friends) to get the whole of the situation. He gets certain parts right, but misses the whole due to lacking the full context, and these errors prove grave and fatal.

The reason for this is very simple: by the story’s conclusion, we learn that it was his former ally Adrian Veidt (previously the hero called “Ozymandias”) who killed the Comedian personally. Rorschach misses the mark about Veidt’s plot and the stained legacy the Minutemen have. His mask-killer theory is wrong – but he’s right that a conspiracy is going on. As we can see here though, Veidt covered his tracks well; due to being perceived as being a golden boy hero and a benevolent CEO, no one suspects his treachery. The error comes in Rorschach trusting his friends in the Minutemen and not realising how they have moved on: Dr. Manhattan has transcended consciousness, Laurie and Dan gave up the heroics years ago, and Veidt orchestrated the plot and is not to be believed.

Manhattan no longer indulges in what he considers petty arguments between humankind; tachyon particles have stripped his ability to feel control or compassion, and he surrenders to this inevitability. He’s lost the ability to care what happens, and by the time he does, Veidt’s plot is underway. No other character takes this theory seriously, either. Nite-Owl takes the worries with a grain of salt, Adrian Veidt dismisses the notion (obviously, in hindsight), and Doctor Manhattan teleports Rorschach for upsetting his paramour during his questioning. Veidt doesn’t believe the theory because he knows better, but everyone else simply assumes Rorschach is paranoid – and so in time, Veidt’s schemes uproot all the Minutemen.

Rorschach’s assumptions repeatedly undermine his process: he is right that a former enemy is involved, but wrong in identifying the enemy. This spills out throughout the issue, but most clearly with his conversation with Laurie, who was formerly the superhero Silk Spectre II. Pressing her on the topic as part of his hunt, he’s right in identifying that the Comedian had a complicated history with both Silk Spectres, but is rude regarding the circumstances, which spoils his investigation. Specifically he doesn’t make a good impression by belittling her mother’s rape, and so she discounts the rest of what he says. 

Laurie is interesting in what we get of her this early on in the series. We get a little of her story here, and her attitude towards her life as a superhero. Clearly she was forced to become the second Silk Spectre to please her mother and, as she puts it, she was a teen who didn’t have the presence of mind to refuse. If there is a mask killer, it has nothing to do with her or her relationship with Dr. Manhattan, who can dissolve people with a mere gesture.

Of course Laurie is wrong in her assessment of her role here. With the Comedian dead, she expect ghosts to stay buried… they don’t. Her mother’s trauma becomes hers, as she learns more about the Silk Spectre as a sex icon who never gets respect. Laurie spends much of this issue in righteous denial that her mother’s pain led to something good — her — and would rather wallow in anger at this moment in time. In time she has to reconcile her legacy, what she inherited from her father, to make her destiny.

While most of the Minutemen mean well, their good intentions cannot override complacency. Jon and Rorschach used to be good friends before Rorschach became a murderous vigilante, but Jon enjoys his forced retirement. They all at this point believe the Minutemen are dead, and no longer serve a purpose. In a conversation Dan has early on with the first Nite-Owl Hollis Mason, Hollis points out that when the superheroes emerged, people had no reason to become villains. If you wanted to commit crimes successfully, you wouldn’t draw attention with a goofy costume and shtick – especially when Rorschach would drop you down an elevator shaft as a result. Being more lenient in personality – and having known Rorschach when he used to be reasonable, rational and friendly, Dan ultimately found no reason to continue as a superhero because no threat emerged that made him want to break the law.

We know Rorschach isn’t paranoid, and while his mask-killer theory is wrong, his worry that his friends will get hurt certainly isn’t. He uncovers part of a plot that will discredit the team and endanger them. It’s a pity that he ends up being completely wrong about what the plot actually is.

Priya Sridhar is a critic and author whose work has been seen at websites including Book Riot. For more of her work, head across to her website here, or find her on Twitter here!

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