Watchmen (graphic novel) – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

[The book is in twelve chapters. I decided to read four at a time, then write about those before moving on to the next four. I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

29 April 2016
Chapters 1-4
I’ve read this before, and remember it both as a satire on the American superhero comic-book phenomenon and a (fairly serious) take on the political instability of the 1980s. I also remember Moore’s love of story-telling games, sometimes pushing the medium of the nine-panel comic to its limits. Often he steps out of those limits: the last few pages of each of the original 32-page issues are presented as non-fiction prose accounts written by people associated with the characters. Or he has Dave Gibbons embed a different comic-book within this one, the Tales of the Black Freighter, apparently a darkly allegorical pirate story. So far it has only appeared in Chapter 3, and through it we get Gothic echoes of the main story, or a wry commentary on things going on in it. The idea of heading towards some kind of Doomsday is central in both stories.

It isn’t the only narrative game being played. Chapter 4, which I’ve just finished reading, is particularly elegantly done. Dr Manhattan, Moore’s version of Superman, has decided he’s had enough of life on Earth. For now, and perhaps forever, he’s moved to Mars, and his thoughts over 20-odd pages fill in details of his back-story. I’d remembered from my first reading the laboratory accident, with the silhouetted skeleton of Dr Manhattan’s former self being torn to atoms in a panel covering two thirds of a page. And I’d remembered the impossible reconstruction of himself that his surviving consciousness is somehow able to bring about over the next days and weeks. I see it as Moore’s most affectionate homage to the genre, the unrepeatable atomic accident leading to a magical transformation. We don’t have to believe any of it.

Basically, the Doctor has reinvented himself as God – by 1985, this idea was well-trodden in relation to the original Superman – and has a God-like concept of time. Somehow he sees it all, not just the current instant, and in Chapter 4 this helps him live through moments of his past. The historical present tense, for once, seems literally apt and not just a narrative convention. Apparently disconnected memories arising from a snapshot taken before the accident are shown alongside the Doctor adapting to his new Martian environment.

The photograph, nearly 30 years old, is of himself when he was still Jonathan Osterman, PhD. He is with the woman who is not yet his girlfriend, but who he will later go to bed with and, later still, marry. We see all this – but, from earlier chapters, we are like Dr Manhattan in one respect: we know how the marriage will end, and the part she will play, just before his self-exile, in undermining his status as the solution to all the woes of mankind. He isn’t only God. He’s also atomic power, with all the unwelcome baggage it brings with it. She (a lifetime smoker) is dying of cancer. Other deaths through cancer of people near to him have allowed a tabloid newspaper to suggest that the good Doctor is carcinogenic. I’ll come back to the part played by media presentation of Moore’s oddball band of superheroes. It’s a big theme in the book.

But I was still on Chapter 4. By now we’re used to the (visual and thematic) chimes and echoes both Moore and Gibbons set up, all the time. So this chapter is ‘Watchmaker’, a title that runs beneath images not only of the young Jonathan learning his father’s watchmaking skills, but of the majestic universe above the Martian horizon. (I never said it was subtle.) Back in 1945, where the watchmaker image comes from, the bomb on Hiroshima has just been dropped. Jonathan’s father is appalled and tells his son, now aged fifteen – how does it go? – ‘This changes everything! … Shall my son follow me into this obsolete trade? A panel that shows him tipping out of the window the cogs and springs of the watch the boy was making is followed by one depicting a meteor shower on Mars, arriving right on cue. Some are landing harmlessly on a structure we don’t yet recognise, because this is ‘one hundred and fifteen minutes into the future.’ But before the end of the chapter we will see that this Superman has created, by the power of his will alone, his own Fortress of Solitude. It helps to have a basic grounding in the DC Comics of the past.

This is just the start. We have his developing interest in science and, not too long after, sex. Following his magic accident, his colleagues get glimpses of his emerging physiology – nervous system, skeleton-muscular form – before he emerges like a naked, bald, light-blue Christ. (Hair clearly wasn’t a priority for him as he re-composed himself, as there’s nothing to hide the schematic diagram of his genitalia either. Gibbons is usually very careful how he poses him, so that we don’t see the smooth outlines of these too often for comfort.) We get his career as America’s new weapon alongside the running joke of his superhero’s costume. We’ve been accustomed to his softly glowing blue nakedness since Chapter 1, but we see how, at first, he was clothed head-to-toe in black. Then it’s just a tunic then, by the time he’s winning the Vietnam War for his country, short shorts somehow in the form of a letter ‘M’. At last, following a panel when we see the back of a thong, he gets rid of it altogether.

He’s been co-opted into a newly formed (or re-formed) band of non-super superheroes. It’s this universe’s version of the Justice League of America, but his awesome powers always make him different. When masked vigilantism is made illegal because it’s causing as many problems as it solves – a storyline later lifted in the wonderfully satirical The Incredibles – only he and one other agent are retained for government work. And, in this alternative 1985, the Russians are becoming increasingly unhappy about what he is capable of doing. In the prose essay that ends Chapter 4 we read how he hasn’t ended the threat of all-out war with the USSR, but increased it almost to breaking-point. ‘We are all of us living in the shadow of Manhattan.’

But I need to backtrack. The first few pages of Chapter 1 are as tricksy in their games-playing as Chapter 4, and through them we begin to piece together some details of the masked crime-fighters in Moore’s alternative reality. Rorschach, the most grotesquely masked of all, has arrived at the scene of a murder. Through him – in fact, through Gibbons’ luridly drawn panels – we re-live the death of that other agent I mentioned, the one who still does his secretive work for the government. We know nothing of this yet, of course, but slowly we learn. Rorschach is an outlaw, although he speaks as though he’s still some kind of representative of the law he blithely ignores. He wonders who has killed ‘the Comedian’, who seems to be Moore’s satirical take on Rambo (1982). He finds people we come to know as the retired members of the ‘Watchmen’, both to warn them that somebody might be out to get them and to sniff out whether any of them might be behind the Comedian’s death. So, yes, it’s a whodunit as well.

The ‘Watchmen’, aka the Crimebusters, had been a 1960s re-boot of the ‘Minutemen’ formed a generation earlier (literally, in the case of a woman who had been in the first band of heroes and her daughter in the second). Rorschach first goes to see the man who had been Nite Owl, a clunky version of Batman, and he seems nice enough. Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, the famously clever and now super-rich brains behind the group, seems to be everything that Rorschach hates. Rorschach is the scruffy underbelly of the problematic society that Oz has made his money from, in his big, self-congratulatory office high in an expensive skyscraper…. Then we meet Dr Manhattan, his superpowers and his wife. She is the daughter I was talking about, and is a replacement for his first wife – the one who goes to the tabloids in Chapter 3 to make life difficult for her love-rat ex. (What we don’t meet yet are the Doctor’s designer genitals, although he appears naked in 24 separate panels. This is another game, mocking what was acceptable to show in the mid-80s. Gibbons will reveal all when it suits his purpose.)

Next comes the Comedian’s funeral, mainly in Chapter 2, attended by everybody. Gibbons often plays with visual echoes, so a face shown in memory – this chapter is all about flashbacks – is presented next to the same face, unmasked and only slightly older, under the drizzle in the sort of cemetery you always get in comics. The story moves on, both here and in the prose account written by the man who was the first incarnation of Nite Owl. In these three extracts Moore is able to make explicit twin themes: both the high-mindedness and the absurdity of the project. The former Nite Owl is an ex-cop, but his moral sense, he tells us, derives from the unforgiving, almost fundamentalist Christianity of his grandfather. God is never far away in this book. In this universe the vogue for masked hero comic books had been short-lived, but in the late 1930s a real-life masked vigilante revives the idea. He, and others, resurrect the idea of the costumed hero… and Moore imagines what it would be like if such characters existed in reality and not just comic-books. There is media interest, dirty jokes, self-doubt about the idea of a grown man wearing his underpants on the outside….

Of course, we know as well as Moore does that this universe is just another alongside the DC and Marvel universes. So what’s he really doing? Is that throwaway line of mine regarding God in fact at the centre of a genuine philosophical exploration? Does Moore really want to hold up for examination the whole question of what is the right thing to do in a complex moral world? Or – and I’m just as ready to believe this – is Moore just playing another game? Sometimes I think that however serious some of the questions in this book might appear, we should be careful. Everything about it can be perceived as tongue in cheek, and there are constant reminders by the author that we really shouldn’t be taking any of it seriously. Maybe I’ll come back to that when I’ve read some more.

Anyway. Rorschach, definitely outside any moral code you’d care to think of, pays an unwelcome surprise visit to Moloch, a former enemy of the Watchmen’s. He had been one of the very few criminals who was prepared to create an alter-ego because, in another of Moore’s nods to the absurdity of the genre, criminals usually had too much on their minds to give them time to think about dressing up. Rorschach draws another blank – with this man who turns out to be another cancer-sufferer….

The world in the Watchmen universe is a nasty place. Dr Manhattan might have won the Vietnam War, but he won it for Nixon who has since been able to rescind the ‘two-term’ rule on presidential office. And all his work on clean energy – there are airships and electric cars wherever you look now – has not made the world either a better or safer place. That’s the point. For all the good they’ve tried to do, none of the Watchmen has ever changed society for the better. And, fairly or not, the Doctor is now being seen as toxic. It’s enough to make anybody want to emigrate to Mars.

But there are at least a couple of other things to mention before I finish. Friendships and sexual relationships are all problematic. Rorschach: nope. The Comedian: he considers everything a joke, including anything that might be considered right behaviour so long as he can get the job done. The first Nite Owl stopped him trying to rape the ‘Silk Spectre’, theonly female Minuteman – but Dr Manhattan didn’t stop him killing his Vietnamese former lover after she slashed his face when he was sarcastic about her pregnancy. The Silk Spectre married the agent who was helping her to cash in on her fame. (Ozymandias has built part of his empire on merchandise. Rorschach twists one of his action figures into an impossible position during his visit. No doubt if he’d had pins with him he would have stuck those in too.)

Dr Manhattan has long ago left his scientist wife to live with the second Silk Spectre, daughter of the first, and the main motive for his first wife to very publicly blame him for her cancer. She is Laurie Jupiter – actually Laurel Juspecsyk – and she leaves him when his relationship issues become too much for her to bear. When she realises that while he’s making love to her he can also carry on working by duplicating himself, it might simply be Moore’s sly dig at the way men often let their attention wander elsewhere, but it’s one God-like power too many for her. She runs off, stays with the more recent Nite Owl, and… what? We’ll have to see, but it’s looking promising for him. (Is this all a bit crude? Or is it part of Moore’s irony-laden project to satirise the crudity of sexual relationships in typical comic books? You decide.)

Finally… there’s the visual world of the book. The layout and flat colouring are retro: the nine panels, each the size and shape of a cigarette card, give it an early- to mid-20th Century look. But within the layout or, occasionally, breaking out of it are new things. There’s as much graffiti in Moore’s universe as in the real New York of 1985, but it is endlessly self-referential. ‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’ is a favourite, or pro-Nixon slogans, or references to the end of the world. (These echo nicely the clock-faces alongside each chapter-heading, showing the time edging ever closer to midnight, and the prophet of doom with ‘The End is Nigh’ on his placard and his conviction that the world will end tomorrow. It doesn’t stop him reminding the news-vendor to reserve tomorrow’s paper. How we laughed.) There’s the blood-smeared smiley-face badge (the Comedian’s) that has become the book’s logo. There’s the different visual world and scroll-like text panels of The Black Freighter. There’s the Doctor’s Fortress of Solitude – I can’t remember what he really calls it – a mixture of domes that wouldn’t be out of place in a nuclear power station and giant cog-wheels that seem to be from a time when science and engineering were less problematic.

But I can’t cover everything. I’ll come back to this when I’ve read more.

12 May
Chapters 5-8
Hmm…. It’s still interesting, but the narrative slows down in these middle chapters. The chronology, compared to the earlier chapters, is almost plodding, with only occasional back-tracks (mainly to do with Rorschach’s earlier life) or a re-run from an alternative point of view. And most chapters focus almost exclusively on just one thread. Chapter 5 is the exception: Nite Owl and Laurie Juspecsyk are talking a few things over, not many of them personal – he is left sighing when she tells him she thinks of him as a brother – and this is framed (no pun intended) by the Rorschach storyline. He starts the chapter with another visit to Moloch, none of which is pretty, but the tortures he brings to bear on this dying old man only convince him that he knows nothing about who is behind the apparent campaign against the former Watchmen. Except… he says that the Comedian mentioned something unintelligible about a secret island. File that away for later. The chapter ends when he is arrested for killing Moloch – a murder he definitely didn’t commit. Chapter 6 is Rorschach in jail, and an increasingly despairing psychiatrist’s attempts to understand him. (He gives up in the end, apparently for the sake of his own sanity. How we laughed.) Chapter 7 is Nite Owl and Laurie in the Silk Spectre costume she never threw away, and the aphrodisiac effects of dressing up and playing like the old times. Chapter 8 is these two breaking Rorschach out of jail.

I’ve deliberately made it sound simple, but Moore and Gibbons make it feel as dense as ever. Running alongside the main storyline are the fast-approaching end of the world and various other more or less newsworthy events. The Comedian’s death is never far from Nite Owl and Rorschach’s minds, Veidt makes appearances, both in and out of his Ozymandias suit, and Dr Manhattan turns up at the end of Chapter 8. And the minor characters we’ve met before, the newsvendor and the guy who has so far spent about two weeks reading The Black Freighter sitting next to his kiosk, continue to provide a chiming two-part chorus.

How much detail do you need? And am I becoming slightly exasperated that if anything ever seems understated or subtle, Moore has to spell it out? In Chapter 5 there’s some of that graffiti I mentioned, of the sort that makes a kind of half-buried commentary on the action. It’s a life-size silhouette of lovers kissing and, in the context of all the talk of impending nuclear catastrophe, it evokes the infamous shadows of vaporised victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Clever me, I thought, for spotting that – and then, in Chapter 6, Moore squeezes the image dry. First it’s an ink-blot in the psychological test the psychiatrist administers. (I’ll pass over the clunking inevitability of the ‘Rorschach test’ in-joke between Moore and the reader.) In the next frame we see it transformed, with only the slightest of changes, into the silhouette of his mother and a stranger coupling, as witnessed by the young Walter Kovacs and now remembered by the adult Rorschach. Ok Alan, got it – just as we’ve got the joke in The Black Freighter that the castaway survives by eating (wait for it) raw shark. But in case we don’t get the Hiroshima reference yet, the ever more depressed psychiatrist has noticed the same painted image next to the news-vendor’s kiosk, and he explains it for us. Later we see the silhouetted figures of Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre, finally getting it together. Oh dear – will their coming together (no pun intended, honest) lead to another Hiroshima? Do we care?

Maybe I should concentrate on the extended McGuffin of the main plot. I said at the start that it’s a whodunit, and in these middle chapters Moore keeps it bubbling by having Rorschach obsess about the deaths of one ‘mask’, the botched attempted murder of another (Ozymandias) and the discrediting of first Dr Manhattan and now Rorschach himself. The Nite Owl story that interlocks with Rorschach’s has Dan Dreiberg (aka Nite Owl) starting to believe that Rorschach might be right, and that the motive is to decommission any interfering masked heroes who might step in to save humanity from nuclear war – or persuade the one who doesn’t wear a mask, or anything else, that he should come back from Mars and sort out the Russians. But who would possibly wish that?

All this is helpfully – or, deliberately, unhelpfully – summarised for us in the four-page prose section that ends Chapter 8. It’s a mock-up of the latest issue of The New Frontiersman, a right-wing periodical put out by a tiny local press. It has the story absolutely right – but Moore has a great time rendering it implausible through the bigoted tone of the owner’s editorial. His praise of the KKK, the original masked vigilantes, and his overblown criticism of the rival publication that published the story discrediting Dr Manhattan makes it sound like the ravings of a demagogue. But we know…. Then, on the fourth page, there’s another crazy story. Could the recent disappearances of celebrities be somehow linked? It sounds like a typically nonsensical conspiracy theory – except, earlier in the chapter…

…we’ve been witness to a conversation between two of the missing people. And they are involved in something very weird indeed. In just six panels the missing and somewhat reclusive former writer of The Black Freighter is getting the missing, internationally known designer to mock up an image for him, comic-book style. It’s of a one-eyed octopus-like creature, apparently – but surely not – based on what has briefly seen shown to her of what is under the huge tarpaulin we can just see below the beach-house. It’s a teaser, because all we get is six panels – and an image of the creature’s obscene-looking eye and mouth-parts – before we’re back to the Nite Owl/ Silk Spectre story thread.

As in the earlier chapters, Moore revels in the fact that this is hokum. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have been having a wonderful time. First they’ve been out on the practice-run rescue of people trapped in a building torched by a corrupt landlord – I’m not making this up – that in turn rescues the middle-aged Dreiberg’s libido. Moore even has him making references to the mid-life crisis that makes him want to take out the Owlmobile again. (It isn’t called that, but it could have been.) Then, in Chapter 8, comes the rescue of Rorschach, interspersed with pages showing Rorschach’s morality-free attitude to the prisoners who want to do him harm in revenge for his past exploits. We’ve already seen the hot chip-fat in the face that got him put in solitary, and now we get his super-cool and clinical moves to kill his would-be killers.

Lurking beneath, of course, are some (pretty clunking) questions about right and wrong – Laurie, the Silk Spectre, isn’t really happy about freeing a murderer, just as she keeps insisting she hates her stupid costume – but I’m going to file those away for later. They go alongside the bigger question raised by a bit of graffiti in an earlier chapter, referring to Enola Gay. In the 1980s this, the name of the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, became almost a short-hand term for the horror of the event. There had even been an OMD song in 1980… so, alongside the shadow-figures, we all know that dropping the bomb was morally dubious, yes? I’ll file that away for later too.

What else? Too much, perhaps, for a lightweight bit of nonsense like this to carry? Isn’t this all just a game of Moore’s, a challenge to himself not only to bring as much to ‘comics’ (the term he always uses) as Modernist novelists bring to their fictions, but to dare the world to take him seriously? Or not? I suspect he found it hilarious when this book reached a list of the hundred greatest of the 20th Century…. I’m left, appropriately enough in a book like this, with questions about the characters. Why does Moore have Rorschach unmasked as the placard-waving doom merchant who buys The New Frontiersman from the news-vendor whenever it’s on sale? Is Moore asking serious questions about masks? Rorschach sees his mask as his skin and ‘Walter Kovacs’ now no more than a convenient disguise. Dan Dreiberg tries to explain to himself and Laurie why he needs his alter-ego, but can only come up with amateur psychology. (Is it all amateur psychology? You bet.)

Meanwhile, as we know, Ozymandias has commercialised his alter-ego. We see him in a TV show in the background, demonstrating that a man in his forties can still perform – and I can almost see the wink on Moore’s hairy face as Dreiberg without his costume isn’t performing at all. And yes, Alan, I know all about Shelley’s poem. Ozymandias thought he was God but all that remains of him is a shattered statue in the desert. We all know – don’t we? – that the real God is Dr Manhattan. Laurie calls him the deus ex machina as he magically appears near the end of Chapter 8, in order to whisk her away to Mars for the Serious Talk she promised. Helpfully – thanks, Alan – he explains the term. ‘“The god out of the machine.” Yes, yes, I suppose it is.’

This isn’t the end. As in V for Vendetta Moore is linking key events to a special date in the calendar. Then it was Bonfire Night, a very British celebration. This time it’s Halloween and Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, prepares for visits from the kids who appear every year. But the druggies who hang around the kiosk – they are another chorus, who take the media propaganda literally – decide they need to take revenge on the man they mistakenly think sprang Rorschach from jail. They knock on his door, and he is happy to answer it. ‘Happy Halloween, kids…’ the old man begins to say, and the punch he receives, with the gleeful taunts of the gang leader, morph into a memory of a fight being won by him in role as the first Nite Owl. the last we time we see his face there’s the shadow of the solid metal ‘in gratitude’ statuette that is about to crash down on him. The next panel shows the jack-o’-lantern he made, smashed on the floor. As the gang leaves, the real trick-or-treaters arrive to discover the body.

As I said before, it isn’t subtle. But is the era of the masked hero back on-track now? Or is Doctor Manhattan the deus ex machina needed to save the world? Rorschach and Nite Owl think he is. The New Frontiersman thinks he is. But Laurie isn’t so sure as he teleports her away. But if he isn’t important, why has somebody tried to discredit him?

15 May
Chapters 9-12 – to the end
Well, that was a blast. Or two blasts…. But there’s only one that has any real consequences, because the brains behind both of them hadn’t realised that the second wouldn’t have any lasting effect on Dr Manhattan. And, now I think about it, there’s a clue there. There’s a teaser twist that suggests the first won’t have any lasting effect either – because there’s always something you don’t know about, and that you therefore don’t take into account, however carefully you plan things.

But I’m not telling you the plot. The killer is… Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, aka Rameses II. But Moore makes sure that by the time we get to Chapter 12 nobody, if you’ll pardon the pun, is ready to unmask him. And this despite him having killed not only the Comedian, Moloch and several others but, at the end of Chapter 11, half of New York. Nite Owl and Rorschach, putting their moral differences to one side, have discovered that Veidt owns the corporation behind the anti-Dr Manhattan smear campaign, among other nefarious activities. Meanwhile the Doctor, having been persuaded by Laurie that humanity is a scientific phenomenon worth saving, has also zeroed in on Veidt’s own Fortress of Solitude in Antarctica. They all arrive too late to prevent the psychic tachyon bomb that Veidt has somehow managed to calculate will do exactly what it does. It makes the superpowers, who buy into the explanation Veidt has prepared in advance, step back from the brink. Not only that. Days or weeks afterwards, it seems to be the dawning of a new age of Aquarius. Somewhat implausibly, given that somebody has got to clear up the millions of corpses we’ve had a glimpse of in six full-page panels at the beginning of Chapter 12, there’s enough international harmony and understanding to set humanity back on-track. Veidt’s cunning plan has worked.

Except it hasn’t. Moore has had to scramble Dr Manhattan’s godlike perceptions for the duration – it’s static cause by the activity of tachyons, if you want to believe that – but he’s recovering after Veidt has convinced them all, including him, that the plan has all been worthwhile. He buys into the idea that he won’t be needed any more – we’ve already seen him smiling as he happens upon Dan and Laurie celebrating their humanity in the best way they know how – and he says he’s going to find a different galaxy to work on. Mankind is just too complicated, I guess. But before he goes, he drops a big clue that things aren’t actually over yet. Veidt needs reassurance from him: ‘I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.’ The Doctor’s response is chilling: ‘“In the end”? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.’ And he disappears in a wisp of scientific smoke.

What can he mean? Is it to do with Veidt’s own state of mind? He might be genius enough to outwit even Dr Manhattan, but he’s also got a serious problem with his self-esteem. He doesn’t just think he’s a god, but one modelled on the god-kings of ancient Egypt. He is a great believer in the cult of self-reinvention – yet another of those themes that threads its way through the book – and he completely believes his own publicity. Megalomania doesn’t even begin to describe his way not only of killing anybody who might spoil his plans, but anybody involved in carrying them out. Rameses II – Nite Owl, with only the minimum of prompting, correctly guesses this to be Veidt’s computer password – has long ago superseded Alexander (aka Ozymandias) in Veidt’s pantheon. We’ve seen how he blows up the ship carrying all those involved in developing his cloned octopus-beast – including the missing writer and designer – on the secret island the Comedian had found out about. There was no mask-killer conspiracy, only Veidt covering his tracks.

Does the end justify the means? This is the (self-consciously?) deep philosophical conundrum behind all the comic-book hokum of magic science and saving the world. Rorschach will do anything to gain information. The Comedian would, notoriously, do the same in a different way. Dr Manhattan considers himself above human morality, of no more interest to him than the behaviour of termites. (He says it, and Laurie only wins him over by drawing attention, using the oldest statistical solecism in the book – what are the chances that any one person on earth could ever have been born? – to the mathematical possibilities of trying to get to the bottom of us as a species.) And, lurking behind all this although not rehearsed again now, is the question of Hiroshima. Did dropping the Bomb really shorten the war?

In the short term, who knows? There are websites dealing with that very question, but… no single event is a quick fix. Veidt’s faked alien invasion seems to be but, just in case we believe it, Moore inserts that twist on the very last page. The editor of The New Frontiersman is stuck for a good conspiracy now, and asks his useless assistant to look for a filler from the slush-pile. What might he find…? Ah. We suddenly realise why Moore has been having Rorschach, the most secretive of operators, keep a journal. On the slush-pile is what had seemed, judging by the opening line, to be the ravings of a crank. But if you read on, as we know, it contains everything about Veidt that Rorschach and Nite Owl had found out. The New Frontiersman will be able to prove that the whole ‘alien invasion’ stunt was a fake. (Let’s not worry for now whether anyone will believe them.) Rorschach is out of the picture – we saw Dr Manhattan zap him out of the picture at his own request eight pages back – so who knows? Cue Twilight Zone music, playing over the final panel of the editor’s voice saying to the assistant, ‘I leave it entirely in your hands’ as he reaches for the journal on the pile.

Is it a cheap trick? Of course it is, Moore’s reminder that this is only a pulp comic book. Except… all through these final chapters – through the whole book – there have been constant reminders that it can also be seen as something more. Those philosophical questions – wouldn’t Moore want us to see them as more than mere glitter to add zest to a pulp storyline? Then there’s the psychology of why human beings want to do the right thing, the question of whether, at bottom, we want to solve problems rather than walk away from them, the chaos which lies, or doesn’t, at the centre of human existence. (Dr Manhattan can’t be bothered with it, preferring the certainties of his sense of predestination. But then Laurie manages to persuade him that the chaos is what’s interesting.) All these questions come not only at the heart of the main characters’ debates with one another, but are echoed in the background stories which, as ever, offer a sly commentary or chorus. At one stage, a cat-fight between two lesbians – I’m not making this up – leads to three people, separately, seeking to offer some kind of mediation. Isn’t this what we’re like, really? We don’t just walk away, do we?

I’m not making any comment beyond the fact that between them, Moore and Gibbons seem to want to offer the most multi-layered experience they can. Multi-layered is good, isn’t it? Isn’t that what I’ve been singling out for praise from the start? Like those visual and verbal echoes that go with the echoing themes. In these final chapters Veidt is proud, Alexander-like, to be able to cut the Gordian Knot – a decisive act that he asserts offers a better solution. Meanwhile there’s the knottiness of human relationships, the ones that Dr Manhattan finds so exasperating and that Laurie realises are essential to our nature. One of the gay women, just before their big fight, offers a book that sharp-eyed readers will recognise as Knots, the 1970 pop-psychology book on relationships that was still well regarded in 1985. And the fans at the big concert at the epicentre of Veidt’s psychic explosion are identifiable by their topknots; Alexander- or Rameses-like, Veidt considers them expendable.

Human relationships. The knotty complexity of these runs parallel to the main storyline, and I find this more impressive than the tricksy or jokey echoes. Laurie and the Doctor – she and the other characters always call him Jon – eventually find their way to an amicable solution of sorts. So, therefore, do Dan and Laurie – but, in of those little jokes Moore can’t resist, they will have to take on new identities now. Laurie also finally works out something that’s been troubling her all her life: her mother, as reported in the first Nite Owl’s memoir, was the victim of an attempted rape by the Comedian. But in this book, the product of decidedly male imaginations, it doesn’t stop her having sex with him again. He wasn’t trying to seduce Laurie as she grew up, he was simply admiring how his daughter had turned out.

It isn’t that knowledge that led to the smashing of a snow-bubble, her earliest memory, but a row between her mother and her jealous, domineering husband. And that becomes another echoing visual motif. Her memory, first of the row and then of the details of conversations that make her realise the truth about her mother and the Comedian, is enough to smash the Doctor’s Fortress of Solitude. It’s a spacecraft as well, and as they take a tour of Mars in it – he really is omnipotent – she forces him to land somewhere impossible. (Another metaphor? Probably.) It’s shining domes shatter on impact… as does the showy dome of Veidt’s as he lets in the Antarctic blizzards to kill his faithful servants who know too much. It’s all very neat and pretty to look at, like a well-made watch.

Is there any more to say about this book? Probably. It’s an impressive achievement, and allows readers like me to play at spotting the links and references… but so? Are its metafictional and visual games really any more than that? Are the ‘Watchmen’ really Moore and Gibbons themselves, piecing together the structure of their fiction with all the care of Jonathan Osterman’s father all those decades ago? Even as I’ve been writing this I’ve noticed that in many ways, chapters in the second half are mirror-images of those in the first. In this scheme, Laurie holds the centre ground, literally – bringing hope to Dan in Chapters 6 and 7, and bringing resolution to Dr Manhattan in Chapter 9, an echo of his lonely Chapter 4 except that this time the flashbacks are hers. These men can’t sort themselves out on their own, it seems. Now I think about it, this even works for the first and last chapters. In Chapter 1, middle-aged Dan spends time reminiscing with Hollis Mason, his older precursor as Nite Owl. In Chapter 12 he takes Hollis’s name as his new identity, with the woman who will make him much happier than a mere friend ever could. That’s what women are apparently for in this book.

I don’t know. Watchmen fizzes with ideas, but what on earth did Moore think he was playing at?