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Watchmen | Motifs

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Bloodied Smiley Face

The most recognizable part of the Comedian's costume is the yellow smiley face pinned to his left shoulder. The accessory is meant to poke fun at people's optimism in a world doomed to nuclear Armageddon. When the Comedian is murdered, his treasured symbol ends up on the sidewalk, with a streak above the left eye. The bloodied smiley face appears in different guises throughout the book. In Chapter 4 there is a smiley face made of rocks on Mars. In Chapter 12 a spark hydrant is smeared with blood; its sockets look like the eyes on the Comedian's pin. Chapter 12 has another hidden bloodied smiley face in the panels immediately after Rorschach's death. Black ice and a scooter handle illuminated against the yellow light of the tunnel form a makeshift smiley face, and steam from Rorschach's recently obliterated body is the streak of blood.

This symbol appears in more than a dozen other places in the book, and with good reason: it represents the grim realities of life. Neither optimism nor power nor strength can erase the ugliness of the human race and people's treatment of one another. Society strives for happiness but finds nothing but misery. This is true for the Comedian, who embraces the world's disastrous fate with grace until he learns about Adrian's plan, which is more terrible than anything he could ever imagine before. The thought of all those lost lives ruins him before he hits the pavement. Even Adrian loses his formerly contagious optimism when he realizes human nature cannot be controlled, and the peace he worked so hard to achieve will be fleeting. The image of the bloodied smiley face reminds the reader the worst can always happen—and probably will.

Nostalgia Perfume

Adrian Veidt's Nostalgia perfume is seen frequently throughout the pages of Watchmen, both in billboard and magazine advertisements and in the hands of the book's characters. Its name was chosen to remind people of better days, encouraging them to buy during times of "global uncertainty." The perfume appears in Watchmen when characters are thinking about "the old days." It's on Sally Jupiter's dresser as she and Hollis reminisce over the phone. Rorschach, who misses the days when vigilantism was legal and admired, keeps a bottle of it in his pocket and apparently douses himself in the fragrance to cover up more unsavory smells. Laurie hurls a bottle of the perfume at Dr. Manhattan's glass clockwork castle after she revisits old memories and realizes the Comedian is her father. When a bottle of Nostalgia is visible, glimpses of an idealized past aren't far behind.

The Black Freighter

The Black Freighter is the comic-within-the-comic read by Bernie, the teenager who sits next to the newsstand every day. It tells the story of an unnamed narrator marooned on a deserted island after a deadly altercation with a pirate ship from hell. It's up to him to find a way back to his hometown and save his family before the pirates arrive. The Black Freighter is a cautionary tale about the dangers of doing what is morally right, and the narrator's plight parallels that of Watchmen's vigilantes, particularly Adrian Veidt. Each man considers himself a moral person, yet each is willing to kill others who stand in the way of a goal. The comic book narrator kills two townspeople so they don't report him to the pirates; Adrian oversees the deaths of the Comedian, Moloch, his three Vietnamese servants, his assistant, several employees, and millions of New Yorkers. They think their aspirations justify the loss of life. When they finally achieve their goals, they are not happy with the men they have become.

Clocks

The clock is one of Watchmen's most prevalent images. An analog clock appears at the beginning of each chapter; its hands tick steadily closer to midnight with the passing of each part of the story. Chapter 1's clock is at 11:58; Chapter 12's is at 12:00. This is symbolic of the Doomsday Clock, a metaphor for the world's proximity to global disaster. The Doomsday Clock was established in 1947, and scientists and security experts determine its movements each year. Rhetoric in favor of nuclear action advances the clock's hands; steps to prevent such actions move the hands in reverse. When determining the Doomsday Clock's movements, experts take factors such as climate change into account as well. However, the clocks in Watchmen advance only as the threat of war increases. This increases the tension with each subsequent chapter and foreshadows calamity at the book's end. That's why even though Adrian Veidt deploys the mutant octopus a little before 11:30 p.m., the clocks all over New York City read midnight.

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