The untold truth of Watchmen

First published in single issues by DC Comics between 1986 and 1987, Watchmen changed superhero comics — and it continues to do so. In 2017, over 30 years after the release of the original series' first issue, DC Comics brought the characters of Watchmen into DC's prime universe in the 12-issue maxi-series Doomsday Clock, allowing characters like Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan to interact with DC regulars like Batman, Superman, and the Joker

More impressive is Watchmen's reach outside of comics. It's been adapted to film, video games, and a Watchmen-inspired television series at HBO. Its critical acclaim reaches far beyond comic book fandom. For example, Watchmen is the only graphic novel to find a home on Time's "All-Time 100 Novels" list; sharing space with such classics as The Great Gatsby1984, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Like most work that has reached similar levels of popularity, Watchmen's audience suffers its share of misinformation. Much of what is assumed about Watchmen and its making would be loudly shouted down by creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The inspirations for Watchmen, its creators' intentions, and the contributions each creator brought to the table are often misunderstood or overlooked. And just as each re-reading of the story can make you see something you never noticed before, there's plenty that went into the comics' making that most fans don't know. Here's the untold truth of Watchmen.

The untold truth of Dave Gibbons

It's a strange irony that in a medium as concerned with images as comic books, the writers tend to get most of the attention. Watchmen is no exception. As the comic's artist Dave Gibbons said when he spoke to Wired in 2008, "People unacquainted with graphic novels, including journalists, tend to think of Watchmen as a book by Alan Moore that happens to have some illustrations. And that does a disservice to the entire form."

Much of the imagery surrounding Watchmen was not only drawn by Gibbons, but designed and conceived by the artist. While being interviewed by Neil Gaiman in 1987, Gibbons said it was his idea for the cover of Watchmen #1 to be of the now iconic blood-smeared smiley face. It was Gibbons, with Moore's input, who designed the physical appearance of the characters. And perhaps most significantly, it was Gibbons who constructed Watchmen's world. Moore and Gibbons wanted to get across the idea that the world would have changed in significant ways because of the presence of superheroes, and Gibbons came up with many of the details. 

For example, it was Gibbons' idea that fast food restaurants would be replaced by Asian restaurants, because overseas wars would effect a massive migration of refugees from Asia to the U.S. The cars you see in the background of Watchmen are mostly electric — and the streets are littered with hydrant-liker chargers for them — because Dr. Manhattan's godlike powers included creating the kind of rare materials needed to make those electric cars work.  

The Mighty Crusaders

Most fans incorrectly believe that Alan Moore's first plan for Watchmen was meant for the heroes of Charlton Comics. Charlton's superhero properties were acquired by DC Comics in 1983 and Moore first pitched Watchmen to DC editor (and former Charlton editor) Dick Giordiano as including Charlton characters. According to Moore, Giordiano liked the story, but not the cast. Giordiano wanted DC to be able to go in different directions with their new properties. Instead, Moore created characters based on the Charlton crew. Charlton's Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, Captain Atom became Doctor Manhattan, The Question became Rorschach, et cetera.

However, in 2000's Comic Book Artist #9, Moore talked about how the initial Watchmen concept had nothing to do with DC or Charlton characters, but with Archie Comics characters. Though not Archie himself. Or even Jughead.

It was Archie's dormant super-team, the Mighty Crusaders, that Moore first envisioned when putting together the story that would become Watchmen, though his original idea was more expansive. Moore said it started with him thinking, "Wouldn't it be nice if I had an entire line, a universe, a continuity, a world full of super-heroes… whom I could then just treat in a different way?" With their sporadic appearances through the decades, the Mighty Crusaders occurred as natural candidates to Moore. Instead of the Comedian, it would be Archie's character the Shield whose murder would open the story. Alas, it wasn't meant to be, and perhaps it's for the best. If Moore and Gibbons had used the Crusaders, more contemporary opuses would remain unrealized.  

Precursors to Watchmen

Watchmen wasn't Alan Moore's first attempt at telling a different kind of superhero story. In the early '80s, he wrote Marvelman (later retitled Miracleman) about a superhero introduced in the '50s. Marvelman took the hero to much darker places than he was used to. Speaking to Comic Book Artist, Moore said that while DC Comics was impressed with Marvelman, he suspected it was why they kept him away from their marquee heroes, "for fear [they] might end up like Marvelman, with strong language and childbirth all over the place." 

Another example was, ironically, not a superhero title. Moore took over DC's horror title Swamp Thing — a horror comic whose story existed in the prime DC universe. Moore handled this by including the Justice League in a story while treating the heroes almost like dark, unseen gods. He opened Swamp Thing #24 with, "There is a house above the world, where the over-people gather. There is a man with wings like a bird… there is a man who moves so fast that his life is an endless gallery of statues."

While Moore told Comic Book Artist his work on Marvelman was more of a precursor to Watchmen than Swamp Thing, in 2002 he told Engine Comics that the horror comic did help him build one tool he needed for Watchmen. He compared trying to figure out the thoughts and concerns of the "mass vegetable consciousness" of Swamp Thing to the challenge of stepping into the shoes of Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan, a character with godlike powers who exists simultaneously in multiple points of time and space.

Ditko vs. Moore

Steve Ditko and Alan Moore are not two men you would ever have expected to find at the same dinner parties. The late Ditko was an unapologetic believer in Objectivism, the philosophy developed by Ayn Rand that's often associated with right-wing politics and has inspired numerous contemporary politicians on the right. Moore, on the other hand, described himself as a left-leaning anarchist in 2000's Comic Book Artist #9. Regardless, Moore has expressed a lot of admiration toward the late Ditko. As a result, though he had nothing to do with its creation, Ditko is responsible for more than one might think about what makes Watchmen so memorable.  

Rorschach was based on a superhero created by Ditko: Charlton Comics' the Question. Ditko would later create the hero Mr. A in the fanzine witzend #3, who was a more blatant champion of Ditko's objectivist views. Moore's Rorschach was something of a fusion of these two heroes — with his faceless look and clothes resembling the Question's, and his black-and-white moral compass mirroring that of Mr. A. 

Considering this, there is an interesting detail about Rorschach that is never explicitly stated in Watchmen, but seems obvious: Rorschach — the man who defines good men as those "who believed in a day's work for a day's pay" — was on welfare. He has his own apartment but he doesn't have a job. His black-and-white moral code wouldn't allow for him to steal — even from the criminals — so public assistance is the only way he could have survived. You can only swipe beans from Nite Owl's kitchen so many times.  

They aren't fascists

Watchmen was one of a number of superhero comic book series published in the mid-'80s that are often associated with one another because they're said to explore the notion of superheroes as fascist figures. Examples include Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Marvel's Squadron Supreme, in which superheroes with good intentions nevertheless turn the U.S. into a totalitarian state. With brutal scenes in Watchmen of the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan killing Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, Rorschach torturing victims for information, or the Minutemen using their abilities and technology to break up protests, it's easy to see why readers make the association with fascism. But in a 1987 interview, Alan Moore said his Watchmen characters weren't fascists.

"Rorschach's not a fascist; he's a nutcase," Moore said. "The Comedian's not a fascist; he's a psychopath. Dr. Manhattan's not a fascist; he's a space cadet. They're not fascists. They're not in control of their world."

Arguably, Moore's stated intentions were much more damning toward superheroes than any series before or since. Moore said he and Gibbons weren't trying to reveal a fascist leaning in superheroes, but rather "to show how superheroes could deform the world just by being there, not that they'd have to take it over, just their presence there would make the difference." As an example, he compared the origin story of Dr. Manhattan to the invention of the atomic bomb. "[T]he atom bomb doesn't take over the world," Moore said, "but by being there it changes everything."

Fearful Symmetry

When talking about what is unique about Watchmen, the darker subject matter and the violence are the focus for most. What's too often forgotten are the visual innovations it brought to comic books. For example, there were the covers. There were no fight scenes and no heroes posing. The covers included a Rorschach drawing, a torn black-and-white photo, and a spinning perfume bottle. Each cover was part of the first panel of each issue. In a 1987 interview, Dave Gibbons said, "The cover of the Watchmen is in the real world and looks quite real, but it's starting to turn into a comic book, a portal to another dimension." 

A perfect example of Watchmen's visual cutting edge was its fifth issue, titled "Fearful Symmetry." Each page and panel of Watchmen #5 was designed to act as a mirror to its opposite. For example, the first panel of the first page centers on the reflection of a skull-and-crossbones sign in a sidewalk puddle. The last panel of the last page features the same reflection. The second panel on the first page focuses on Rorschach's foot about to step in a puddle. On its opposite, Rorschach's feet are dragged through a puddle. Likewise, the scenes of each page mirror their opposites. In the center panel of page 10, Dan Dreiberg looks longingly at Julie, who is gazing out a window. In the center panel of page 19, Dreiberg looks at Julie from behind while Julie sits in front of a mirror. It continues to the very middle of the comic, pages 14 and 15, featuring the supposed assassination attempt (we later learn it was staged) on Ozymandias. 

Saturday Morning Watchmen

The day before the release of Zack Snyder's film adaptation of Watchmen, British animator Harry Partridge gave the world a very different "interpretation" of the classic graphic novel. 

Jokingly claiming he had ripped it from an old VHS tape, Partridge posted Saturday Morning Watchmen. Styled like an animated intro from an '80s cartoon, the video features such memorable bits as Rorschach lovingly petting the same pair of dogs he slaughtered in the comic, Ozymandias saving the Comedian from the fatal fall that opens Watchmen, and the whole gang enjoying a lighthearted pizza party. Ozymandias' exotic feline Bubastis isn't forgotten — he's actually the first to speak in the intro, sounding a lot like Snarf from the '80s Thundercats cartoon. It's worth a watch, if for no other reason than the catchy theme song that happily tells you about all the different quirks and powers. Schooling you on Doctor Manhattan, the song proclaims, "Jon can give you cancer/And he'll turn into a car!"

The only downside is that after watching the intro, you really want to watch a full episode. Considering the live-action film's approval rating among critics, a lot of people might have preferred Partridge's version over Snyder's. 

The scripts

In the introduction to Watchmen: The Annotated Edition, editor Leslie S. Klinger writes that Alan Moore's scriptwriting was already legendary in the comics industry by the time work on Watchmen began. Klinger quotes artist Stephen Bissette — who worked extensively with Moore on Saga of the Swamp Thing — who said Moore's scripts were "long, narrative letters." Klinger points out that the 12 issues of Watchmen amounts to 340 pages of comics, while Moore's script for Watchmen was over three times as long: 1,042 pages.

Looking at the excerpt of the script for Watchmen #1 printed in 2005's Absolute Watchmen, it's easy to see how Moore produced so many pages. His description of the comic's very first panel — which shows blood running into a gutter and The Comedian's iconic smiley face button — takes up the entire first page of the script. He writes conversationally, starting the description with "I'm psyched up. I've got blood up to my elbows, veins in my teeth and my helmet and kneepads securely fastened. Let's get out there and make some trouble!" Moore goes into more detail than you could ever imagine anyone needing to describe blood running into a gutter, including spending quite a bit of time worrying about whether artist Dave Gibbons should include a discarded candy wrapper in the panel. Ultimately, Moore gives Gibbons the final word on the wrapper, but not until he outlines exactly what Gibbons needs to consider when deciding.

The Question of Rorschach

It isn't a secret that the psychotic Rorschach was based on the former Charlton Comics hero known as the Question. But what you may not know is that Rorschach and his predecessor had a chance to meet one another. Kind of. 

In The Question #17, Vic Sage (a.k.a. The Question) finds himself leaning toward more brutal tactics, lamenting the opportunities he's given his enemies because he supposedly hasn't dealt with them harshly enough. While in pursuit of a fugitive, Sage takes a plane to Seattle and picks up a copy of Watchmen at the terminal newsstand to read on the flight. He doesn't like Rorschach's bigotry, but he's impressed with his more violent skills. He falls asleep on the flight and dreams of the death of a private eye he knew — except in the dream, Sage is Rorschach instead of the Question.

When he lands and starts working on his case, he finds himself asking, "What would Rorschach do?" When a crook takes him out with a gun-butt to the head, Sage utters Rorschach's signature "Hurm." Toward the end of the comic, he regrets trying to emulate the more ultraviolent hero. When he's cornered by the crooks and they ask if he has any last words, Sage responds, "Yeah. Rorschach sucks."