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Watchmen | Chapter 1 : At Midnight, All the Agents ... | Summary

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This study guide analyzes Watchmen as presented in a compilation of all 12 original volumes. The main storyline is divided into 12 chapters as determined by the original comic books. The found documents—essays, book excerpts, newspaper clippings, and photographs—each have their own sections of analysis following the related chapter.

Summary

Watchmen opens on October 12, 1985, in a dystopian New York City where Richard Nixon has claimed a fifth term as president of the United States and the fear of nuclear war with Russia looms large. Chapter 1 begins with an entry from the journal of Rorschach, a masked crime fighter. He is disillusioned with New York, where "the streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood." The art shows blood streaming into a sewer grate. A circular yellow smiley face, blood splattered over one eye, rests in the viscous liquid. Above, in an apartment building, two detectives investigate the death of Edward Blake. Someone threw Blake over his balcony. Without any leads, the detectives decide to keep investigating in private to avoid attracting any "masked avengers" who might want to solve the case themselves. Although the Keene Act of 1977 prohibits vigilante justice, Detective Steven Fine worries about Rorschach, whom he describes as "crazier than a snake's armpit and wanted on two counts murder one."

Hours later Rorschach does some investigating of his own. He uses a grappling hook to hoist himself into Blake's apartment and discovers a secret closet-within-a-closet. In it he finds a complete crime-fighting costume and an old photograph of a group of masked superheroes.

In another part of town, Hollis Mason and Dan Dreiberg share a few beers and trade stories about the old days. Hollis was the original Nite Owl, a masked crime fighter; Dan picked up the persona after Hollis retired. Dan heads home through the dark and graffiti-covered New York City streets to find Rorschach sitting at his kitchen table. Rorschach tells him the Comedian, aka Edward Blake, has been murdered. Dan wonders if the Comedian's death was a "political killing," but Rorschach suspects someone is murdering "costumed heroes." Dan is visibly shaken after Rorschach leaves.

After stopping at a local bar and grill to see if anyone knows anything about the Comedian's murder, Rorschach visits Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, "the world's smartest man"—and one of the wealthiest. Veidt cashed in on his alter ego with posters, diet books, and action figures after his retirement in 1975. Rorschach calls him a "prostitute." Nevertheless, he warns Veidt about a potential "mask killer" on the loose. Then Rorschach heads to Rockefeller Military Research Center to visit Dr. Manhattan and his partner, Laurie Juspeczyk, aka Silk Spectre II. Laurie isn't upset by the Comedian's death, as he once tried to rape her mother, but she is upset by Rorschach's attitude. Dr. Manhattan teleports Rorschach out of the building.

Laurie calls Dan to see if he wants to grab some dinner. Dr. Manhattan—whom Laurie calls "Jon," per his name prior to his radiation accident—stays behind to continue his work. After a nice dinner, Laurie and Dan reminisce about the old days and agree "the Keene Act was the best thing that ever happened to [them]." The chapter ends with a lyric from Bob Dylan's song "Desolation Row."

Analysis

Watchmen takes place in a dystopian universe. As in most dystopian settings, the situation is bleak. People are unhappy, the government is too powerful, and the future looks dismal. Yet this version of the world isn't too far off from the reality of 1985. Moore demonstrates how a few small changes in the outcome of important historical events can send a thriving nation into a tailspin. For example, in reality the United States was unable to stop the spread of communism in Vietnam and effectively lost the Vietnam War. In Watchmen the United States came out victorious and adopted Vietnam as its 51st state. In reality President Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974 in the midst of the Watergate scandal. In Watchmen Nixon is a hero thanks to his successful navigation of the war. This leads to the revocation of the law prohibiting presidents from serving more than two terms, which is why Nixon is serving his fifth term when the story begins in 1985. This "new" universe is familiar but slightly off-kilter, which enhances the already-tense tone of the book.

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to a large cast of major characters, including Laurie, Dan, Dr. Manhattan, Adrian, and Rorschach. Though the first four are important to the plot and themes, Rorschach alone is the book's protagonist: Rorschach is the cause of action and propels the plot forward. He is the first to learn about the Comedian's death, and he is the only one with any inclination to investigate it. When other characters, such as Dan and Laurie, begin to take on more active roles later in the story, they are responding to things Rorschach has already done. He is the leader.

From the outset it is apparent Rorschach isn't like his fellow vigilantes. For one thing he's the only one of them who still goes by his crime-fighting name. His former partner, Dan, doesn't even seem to know his real name. Rorschach is also the only character still actively practicing vigilantism despite the passage of the Keene Act. Even before the subject is explicitly introduced in Chapter 6, it is clear Rorschach identifies more with his masked alter ego than with his "regular" personality. That's one reason Rorschach can't let go of the Comedian's death. When he's in vigilante mode, he focuses on making sure justice is served. Because he identifies only as Rorschach, he is always in vigilante-mode. He can't turn it off. He may not have liked the Comedian, and he knows millions more lives are in peril as tensions between the United States and Russia worsen, but "evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon." He is propelled by an insatiable need for justice.

The desire for justice is unwavering in Watchmen, but morality is subjective. The five major characters have wildly varying ideas about right and wrong. Laurie, for example, hates the Comedian because he attempted to rape her mother. She thinks that makes him a bad person, and she doesn't care that he's dead. Yet Rorschach thinks the Comedian simply may have had a "moral lapse" in judgment. That's somewhat odd, considering Rorschach's utter disdain for what he deems the sexually promiscuous, murderous, and filthy population of New York. Perhaps Rorschach is hesitant to judge the Comedian for his moral failings because Rorschach, an admitted murderer, has so many of his own.

The detailed illustrations in Watchmen are important to understanding the nuances of the plot and its characters. Filled with symbolism, foreshadowing, and small but significant details, they are just as vital in the storytelling process as the text itself. Author Alan Moore was very specific in his instructions to illustrator Dave Gibbons, and every detail in every frame is there for a reason. For example, the sign outside Hollis Mason's house/auto repair shop reads "Obsolete Models a Specialty." This sign isn't just about cars—it's also about Hollis and his crime-fighting friends. Hollis and Dan both feel obsolete after the passage of the Keene Act. They miss the old days, as is evidenced by their weekly meetings to reminisce. Dan's longing for the past is evident during his dinner date with Laurie as well. Although they both swear the Keene Act was a good thing, the wistful look on Laurie's face and the morose look on Dan's suggest the opposite. Their body language contradicts their words, strongly hinting Dan and Laurie aren't as content as they wish to appear.

The quotes at the end of each chapter of Watchmen encapsulate the tone of the previous pages and serve as a snapshot of the chapter's major plot points and themes. The first chapter's quote, a lyric from "Desolation Row" by Bob Dylan, relates to the idea of vigilantes protecting the inhabitants and visitors of a squalid, undesirable area of town from the straight-laced moral authority. In his preface to the 2014 edition of Watchmen, illustrator Dave Gibbons says the song was, for him, "the spark that would one day ignite Watchmen." The title of Chapter 1, "At Midnight, All the Agents ..." comes directly from the excerpted lyric, a practice which is continued throughout the book.

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