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Rorschach in Watchmen #1, DC Comics (1986). Artwork: Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons/DC Comics

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What Watchmen meant in the 1980s

Geopolitical tension was key to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ legendary comic

Watchmen already felt like the product of another time when it arrived in July 1986.

The landmark limited series comic, written by Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons, takes place in an alternate universe freighted with parallels to ours with a story set between Oct. 12 and Dec. 25, 1985. Yet while the series’ version of 1985 unfolds in a world refracted by the introduction of superheroes, it also bears a striking resemblance to the 1985 of our universe, and a dangerous moment in our then-recent past: the culmination of a half-decade of Cold War tension. Through newspaper headlines, feature films, TV movies, and hit pop songs, the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed over everyday life.

That dread didn’t end in March of 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s choices in the months and years to come — calling a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, meeting Ronald Reagan for a summit in Geneva, implementing the Perestroika reform movement — opened what would ultimately prove to be the Cold War’s final chapter. The end of the world seemed to have been postponed.

But for a while leading up to 1985, the years in which Moore and Gibbons conceived and created Watchmen, it felt like we were almost out of time.

Close up of Watchmen smily face with blood arrow like a watch

That sense looms large over Watchmen, often embodied by timepieces themselves. “Watchmen” most obviously means “those who keep watch,” a translation of “custodes” in “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” That phrase translates to “Who watches the watchmen?,” a question asked in graffiti throughout the book.

Moore loves wordplay, however, and it’s no accident that watches and clocks figure prominently into the story. The story’s seemingly invincible superman, Dr. Manhattan, begins life as Jon Osterman, who plans to focus on repairing watches (a nod to the “watchmaker God” formulated by the scientific revolution) only to become nuclear scientist then a godlike superbeing. When we see a Time cover commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing it’s the image of a watch that’s stopped at the moment of the bomb’s impact.

The timepiece that serves as the inspiration for all these watches belongs to the Doomsday Clock, a measure of how close humanity is to a global catastrophe of its own making, including nuclear war. Maintained by the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the clock charts our danger in terms of minutes to midnight, with midnight being the point of no return. The graphic used by the Bulletin looks an awful lot like the clock that approaches midnight on the back cover of each Watchmen issue, and one headline within the book makes explicit reference to it, noting the Doomsday Clock currently stands at “five to twelve.”

The detail suggests that Watchmen takes place in a less apocalyptically tilted world than our real one. Between 1984 and 1987, the Doomsday Clock remained at 11:57. The time fell to a refreshing 11:43 with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but we can’t breathe easy today: Now accounting for climate change and other dangers in addition to nuclear war, the Bulletin has held it at 11:58 since 2018. To drive the connection home on an almost-subliminal level, Moore’s original script for Watchmen instructed Gibbons to depict any clocks shown in the series to be set to the minutes just before midnight. (Though it’s not hard to find counter-examples.)

Watchmen comic art: blood dripping down a wall from a crowd of bodies at the top. A yellow clock face with both hands at 12 Artwork: Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons/DC Comics via Polygon

Though Watchmen’s world is filled with scientific advances introduced by Dr. Manhattan, visible in small details like the (presumably safer) ball pipes that have replaced cigarettes, it’s also one where history has taken a slightly different path to the same place. The book’s New York, for instance, diverges from the actual New York of 1985 in some key ways. It’s filled with outlets for the electric car and Indian fast food joints, the product of some never explicitly detailed war. Newsstands feature comics filled with tales of piracy rather than superheroes, because who needs made-up stories when you’ve lived through the real thing?

But the New York of Watchmen otherwise looks much like the real-world New York of that period, grime and all. It’s fitting how Rorschach’s narration often sounds like it could come from the thoughts of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. The characters frequently traipse through a mugger-friendly Midtown Manhattan, the litter-filled streets lined with peep shows and theaters showing X-rated movies. The area would soon change, but change would come slowly, and, as the current season of HBO’s The Deuce confirms, change would come slowly and with great resistance from those with a vested interest interest in keeping it dirty.

The global politics of this 1985 haven’t been transformed so much as nudged. Vietnam, for instance, has become the 51st state under the Nixon administration, now in its fifth term (look closely and you’ll see a “Stick with Dick in ’84” sign left over from the previous year’s election). Yet the conflict with the Soviet Union remains. Worrying headlines about friction in Afghanistan in early issues presage a Russian invasion that will push tensions to the brink in later installments. Even in a world of supermen and masked heroes, midnight looms.

Unimaginable a decade before, Watchmen owes its existence to changes in the ’80s comics industry, changes brought about in part by Moore and Gibbons. Both were part of a wave of British talent that attracted notice in the U.S. in the early ’80s, and both started working for DC Comics thanks to writer and editor Len Wein, who’d later serve as Watchmen’s editor. While Gibbons wowed Green Lantern readers with his meticulous but expressive art, Moore brought the lyricism and narrative complexity of British work like Marvelman (whose name would be changed to Miracleman in the U.S.) and the then-unfinished V for Vendetta to DC’s then-flailing Swamp Thing.

That book’s success and acclaim, which coincided with Frank Miller’s similarly industry-changing work on Daredevil, helped blow open the door for more mature mainstream comics. 1986 saw the debut of both Watchmen and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Both, alongside the exciting work being done in the indie world, would help push comics in the direction of older readers in the years to come. And if many superhero comics would later take the wrong lessons from the titles, mistaking graphic violence and morally corrupt protagonists for edginess and maturity, those misreadings remained in the future. The mid-’80s saw the medium open up new territory with startling regularity.

Watchmen comic art: left panel: blue legs on a pink rocky surface: right panel Artwork: Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons/DC Comics via Polygon

This included an apocalyptic superhero story inspired by the perilous state of the world. Moore and Gibbons ended all but the final issue of Watchmen with a supplementary section offering glimpses at other parts of the book’s universe. In a memo to the director of his cosmetics line, adventurer-turned-mogul Adrian Veidt explains the company’s backward-looking marketing strategy for Nostalgia, his company’s brand of perfume and aftershave, noting “the success of the campaign is directly linked to the state of global uncertainty that has endured for the past forty years or more.” In troubled times, many wanted to retreat into the past suggested by Nostalgia’s wispy visions of better times. Watchmen, like ’80s products from The Road Warrior to “99 Luftballons,” headed in the other direction, imagining what life might be like if we crossed the unthinkable line into global destruction.

At the same time, the book considered other possibilities. In the memo, Veidt continues: “Simply put, the current circumstances out [sic.] civilization finds itself immersed in will either lead to war, or they won’t. If they lead to war, our best plans become irrelevant. If peace endures, I contend that a new surge of social optimism is likely.” Watchmen’s ending — arranged, we’ll discover, by Veidt’s machinations — allows for both possibilities. Peace has set in after a catastrophe, but the continued existence and possible publication of Rorschach’s journal means war and instability could return at any moment.

It’s a cautiously hopeful conclusion published at a moment when history suggested we were taking steps back from the cliff. It’s also an ending that seems to leave no room for the story to continue, though HBO and Damon Lindelof are giving it a try. Will the new series connect logically to what’s come before? That might be the wrong question. The true test of whether or not this Watchmen honors Moore and Gibbons’ vision will be its ability to use its world to reflect our own back to us — one that often feels closer to midnight than ever.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film, television, and other aspects of popular culture. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter and does not currently moonlight as a masked vigilante. Find him on Twitter @kphipps3000.