“Rorschach’s journal. October 12th, 1985.” While a man hoses a large pool of blood off of a city sidewalk, Rorschach reflects that this city and its criminals fear him. They could follow in the footsteps of good men like his father or President Truman, but instead they choose to live in filth and follow the Communists. Someday, it will be too late for all of them. They’ll ask Rorschach to save them then, but he’ll refuse.
Rorschach’s antagonism towards criminals and the contrast he draws between the good men and the Communists establishes him as a politically right-leaning figure, committed to ideals like justice and patriotism. His fantasized refusal to save the world suggests that he is also vindictive and believes in retribution.
Two detectives look through Edward Blake’s apartment, a man who was recently murdered when an intruder threw him through the window of his high-rise apartment. In a brief flashback, Blake wears a smiley-face badge as he’s thrown through the window. A drop of his blood splatters across it. One of the detectives suspects it was a simple breaking and entering job, but the other is skeptical. Photos of Blake show that he is huge, like a weightlifter, and covered in scars. In his apartment, there’s a picture of him shaking President Ford’s hand—it seems he was some sort of American “diplomat.”
Blake’s smiley-face badge smeared with blood symbolizes the novel’s critique of comic book heroes. While heroes prior to Watchmen were most often depicted as virtuous, noble figures who always do the right thing and act for the good of society, Alan Moore depicts his heroes as deeply flawed people. The smear of blood on the smiley-face badge represents how the novel defaces popular notions of heroes, making them more dynamic as well as more grotesque.
The detectives decide to continue their investigation discreetly so that “masked avengers” don’t get involved. One of them remarks that the Keene Act of 1977 outlawed most vigilantes, but Rorschach is still out in the streets, acting on his own, and he’s crazy. As the two detectives make their way out of the building, a doomsayer stands in the street, holding a sign that says, “The end is nigh.”
The detectives’ wariness of the “masked avengers” suggests that society holds a low view of vigilante heroes, fearing them enough to outlaw them altogether. This implies that society has moved past viewing such vigilantes as heroes, reflecting the novel’s overall critique of the superhero concept.
When the street is empty, a man wearing a trench coat, fedora, and white mask with black shapeless blots appears—Rorschach. He shoots a grappling hook from the street up into Blake’s shattered window and climbs up the side of the building. He looks through Blake’s apartment, his dresser and drawers. When he reaches the closet, he finds a button on the wall that slides a false panel away, revealing a hero costume adorned with a star and stripe, several guns and knives, and a framed photo of a group of masked avengers.
Rorschach’s mask, which looks like a constantly changing Rorschach blot test, symbolizes his view of ethics and morality. Rorschach views the world as divided between good and bad people, with no gray area existing between, just like his mask. However, his mask’s black blots constantly change shape and dimension, reflecting how Rorschach’s own judgments of good and evil are inconsistent. Blake’s costume reveals that he is a hero, while the star and stripe motif suggests that he is an icon of American patriotism.
Daniel Dreiberg, a middle-aged man, talks with Hollis Mason, an older man, in Hollis’s home. They reminisce about their past days as heroes—they are both now retired. Hollis jokes that Daniel was the better Nite Owl of the the two of them. Daniel says it’s nearly midnight, so he should get going, but thanks Hollis for sharing a beer with him each week and catching up. He leaves and walks home through mostly empty streets. When he reaches his apartment, however, he sees a light on in the kitchen. Daniel enters and finds Rorschach in his kitchen, eating from a can of beans. Rorschach doesn’t take his mask off to eat, only pulls it up over his mouth.
Daniel and Hollis’s reminiscing about past days suggests that they are nostalgic for their lives as masked heroes. This foreshadows Daniel’s eventual mid-life crisis and return to vigilante work and indicates that their heroism was at least partially motivated by their own personal and emotional gains. Rorschach’s refusal to remove his mask, even to eat, suggests that he is very protective of, even dependent on, his vigilante alter ego.
Daniel seems shocked and nervous to find Rorschach there. Rorschach tosses him Blake’s blood-smeared smiley-face badge and tells him it belonged to the Comedian; someone threw him out his window. Daniel asks if they can talk in the basement, where they’ll be less exposed. The two men descend into a large, dusty room full of equipment covered in sheets. Daniel asks if the Comedian’s death might be a political assassination, since the government’s had him overthrowing South American Marxists since 1977.
Daniel’s suggestion that the Comedian’s death is politically motivated reveals that the government employs some heroes as covert operatives. This not only subverts the classic idea of a hero—since the hero is now a political tool, rather than someone fighting for the good of everyday people—but also suggests that the American government works around its own laws by utilizing some vigilantes, even while legally banning all of them.
Rorschach thinks it’s more likely that someone is killing “costumed heroes.” He mentions that Hollis said some critical things about the Comedian in his book, but Daniel says he’s wrong to think Hollis could be involved. Having warned Daniel, Rorschach starts to leave through a secret tunnel. Daniel says he misses the good old days, when they were partners. As he leaves, Rorschach snubs Daniel for quitting hero work. Daniel sits on a box, staring at the smiley-face badge. Next to him, a hero costume decorated like an owl hangs in an open locker.
Rorschach’s suspicion of Hollis for criticizing the Comedian, an American patriot, suggests that Rorschach maintains strict loyalty to government and the notion of patriotism. Additionally, his disparaging of Daniel for retiring suggests that he sees their vigilante work as a duty, rather than the entertaining diversion that Hollis and Daniel speak of it as.
“Rorschach’s journal. October 13th, 1985.” He sleeps through the day and sets off at night, reflecting on how much he hates the filthy people in this city. Rorschach wants information on the Comedian’s death, so he goes to a bar called Happy Harry’s. The bartender is terrified to see him and pleads with him not to kill anyone tonight. When a man makes a snide remark behind Rorschach’s back, Rorschach grabs him and starts breaking his fingers one at a time, demanding information on Blake’s murder. The other patrons are horrified but have no information. The lack of progress makes Rorschach “slightly depressed,” so he leaves the “human cockroaches” alone to go visit a “better class of person.”
Rorschach’s view of the people in the bar as “human cockroaches” suggests that he despises America’s underclass, even while belonging to it himself. This reiterates Rorschach’s characterization as a politically right-leaning figure, while also suggesting that he carries some amount of self-contempt. Although Rorschach often despises others for their lack of morality, his casual violence against people he considers beneath him, like the man whose fingers he breaks, demonstrates how inconsistent Rorschach’s own morality is.
Rorschach speaks with Adrian Veidt in Veidt’s penthouse apartment. Veidt is surprised to hear of the Comedian’s death but wonders if it could have been a political assassination. Rorschach thinks this unlikely, since no country would dare challenge America while they have Dr. Manhattan on their side. Veidt thinks the Comedian was “practically a Nazi,” but Rorschach defends the Comedian’s honor, arguing that he never retired, never cashed in on his reputation or sold action figures of himself like the ones Veidt has of himself strewn about his desk. Veidt defends himself, saying he chose to retire of his own will, two years before the police strike and Keene Act demanded it. Rorschach clearly despises Veidt and leaves, rappelling out of a high window.
Veidt’s penthouse apartment and line of merchandise indicates that he is a wealthy businessman. His belief that the Comedian was “practically a Nazi” indicates that although Rorschach idolizes the Comedian as a true patriot, many people despise him. This not only suggests that the Comedian was a deeply flawed hero, but that many people find the American government and its operatives morally dubious. Watchmen’s critical view of America also contrasts with classic American hero comics of its time—especially Superman—which more often took a patriotic stance.
“Rorschach’s journal. October 13th, 1985. 8:30 p.m.” Rorschach feels disgusted after meeting with Veidt and thinks he is “pampered,” “liberal,” and “shallow,” perhaps a “homosexual.” He mentally runs through a list of all the old heroes, all of whom are now retired (which Rorschach mentions with disgust), living in obscurity, or dead, except for two who live at the Rockefeller Military Research Center. Rorschach decides to visit them and warn them about the murder.
Rorschach’s antagonism towards Veidt’s “liberal” sensibilities again characterizes him as a politically conservative, right-leaning figure. Additionally, Rorschach’s distaste for Veidt foreshadows the eventual conflict between his and Veidt’s ethical stances and approaches to saving the world.
Rorschach finds Laurie Juspeczyk and Dr. Manhattan in a large military facility. Laurie is a normal middle-aged woman, but Dr. Manhattan is blue-skinned, naked, and 30 feet tall. Laurie is not happy to see Rorschach and mentions that he’s wanted by the police. Rorschach tells them of Edward Blake’s murder, but Dr. Manhattan—shrinking down to human size—tells him that since he and the Comedian are the only heroes employed by the government, he was already informed. Laurie is not sad to hear that Blake died. She says the man was a monster who tried to rape her mother, as Hollis wrote in his book. Rorschach blows off the event as a patriot’s “moral lapse,” which infuriates Laurie. Dr. Manhattan, whom Laurie calls Jon, tells Rorschach he must leave, and teleports him outside into an empty field.
Dr. Manhattan is the only true superhuman in the story, since all the other masked vigilantes are just regular humans wearing costumes. Dr. Manhattan’s character and relationship to regular humans thus parallels popular hero comics, particularly Superman. Laurie’s accusation that the Comedian tried to rape her mother further suggests that, though many regard him as a hero, he was a deeply flawed, even monstrous figure. Rorschach’s disregard of the Comedian’s “moral lapse” again shows the inconsistency of his moral code, since he is willing to overlook gross conduct as long as someone is properly patriotic.
Back in the military station, the confrontation with Rorschach still bothers Laurie—she thinks Rorschach is “sick inside his mind.” Jon is doing something with a complicated machine. Laurie tells Jon that she needs a night out and asks him if he’d mind if she asked Daniel Dreiberg out for a drink. Jon says he doesn’t mind, since he is too preoccupied with his science experiments; he doesn’t even look up. Laurie calls Daniel and arranges to go out with him later that night.
Jon’s disregard for Laurie, even though she is distressed, and his preoccupation with science suggest that he struggles to relate to mere human beings, since he has so little in common with them. This foreshadows his eventual decision to leave Earth altogether.
“Rorschach’s journal. October 13th, 1985. 11:30 p.m.” Rorschach walks the New York City streets, reflecting on how no one seems to care that the Comedian was murdered. Rorschach thinks war is coming and millions will die soon, and wonders if one man’s death means anything in the midst of it. He decides that it must—there are good people and evil people, and evil must be punished “even in the face of Armageddon.” There are so many who deserve punishment and so little time to deliver it.
Rorschach’s contemplation on good and evil confirms that he sees morality in black and white terms—there is no ambiguity or nuance, in his mind. His feeling that evil must be punished no matter what suggests that his view of ethics places more value on justice and retribution than on actually helping people.
Laurie and Daniel have dinner and drinks together. Laurie insists on paying for the meal, stating that if the government insists on her being a “kept woman” for their best weapon, they can afford to pay for dinner now and then. The pair leave and walk out to a rooftop garden, reminiscing about their old hero days. Laurie thinks that dressing up in costumes and running around was a stupid way to spend their youth, and that the Keene Act was the best thing for them. Daniel lightly agrees. They swap stories and laugh a bit, remarking that there seems to be less laughter around lately.
Laurie’s reminiscing reveals that she was a costumed hero once as well, though her feeling that it was a waste of youth suggests that she does not believe that the masked vigilantes ever achieved anything worthwhile. This further reiterates the idea that the heroes’ vigilante crusades are motivated more by personal benefit than by any true service to society.
The next section is an excerpt from Hollis Mason’s Under the Hood. A fellow writer told Hollis to start his book with the saddest thing he remembers. Hollis states that his saddest memory is set to “The Ride of the Valkyries.” When he is a kid, after his family moves to New York from Montana, he and his dad work in an auto shop for a man named Moe Vernon. Moe is a jokester and loves opera music. One day, while Moe is wearing a pair of foam breasts to get a laugh from the postman, he receives a telegram from his wife that she’s stolen all his money and run off with one of Moe’s top employees. Moe bursts out of the office with his foam breasts, “Ride of the Valkyries” blaring from the stereo, and he announces his tragedy. All his employees laugh at the sight. That night, Moe kills himself.
Each chapter ends with a similar excerpt of a book, article, or piece of marketing material. While these pieces are tangential to the main story, they usually contain bits of backstory that flesh out the world and characters. Additionally, since Watchmen was initially published as 12 separate issues, the excerpts at the end of each chapter often contain foreshadowing hints of what is coming in future chapters. Hollis’s reflection on his saddest memory reinforces the tragic and absurd tone of the overall story.
Hollis describes how he graduates the police academy and becomes a cop when he is 23, in 1939. Compared to his country-boy sensibilities, New York seems desperately immoral. He thinks that his years spent dressing as an owl and fighting crime begin with his fascination with pulp adventure fiction and comic books, which clearly and conveniently define good and evil. They appeal to his childhood fantasies of rescuing beautiful women and having courageous adventures. When Hollis starts seeing stories in the newspapers about costumed crime fighters, they stir his romantic sensibilities and he decides he must become one.
Hollis becomes infatuated with the romanticism of costumed crime fighting, which again suggests that his role as a masked vigilante is as much motivated by personal emotional needs as it is by the desire to help society. Hollis’s suggestion that wearing costumes and fighting crime appeal to childhood fantasies also implies that the act of running around as a hero is itself rather childish.