Watchmen is a twelve-issue graphic novel limited series created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins, published by DC Comics in 1986 and 1987. Watchmen focuses on six main characters: The Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, The Nite Owl II, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and The Silk Spectre II. These characters are primarily based on superhero properties DC had acquired from Charlton Comics in the early 1980s. Series writer Alan Moore created the main characters to present six "radically opposing ways" to perceive the world, and to give readers of the story the privilege of determining which one was most morally comprehensible.
The Comedian is Edward Morgan Blake (which is a reference to Blake Edwards), who began his vigilante career in the late 1930s as a teenager. Over the years, he became a patriotic hero for the United States. The Comedian was based on the Charlton Comics character Peacemaker, with elements of the Marvel Comics spy character Nick Fury added. Moore and Gibbons saw The Comedian as "a kind of Gordon Liddy character, only a much bigger, tougher guy". Gibbons went with a Groucho Marx-style appearance (moustache and cigar) for the Comedian in his design, deciding that the "clown" look had already been appropriated by DC Comics' Joker. His costume itself was noted by Gibbons as being particularly problematic, he was initially designed with a more militaristic costume which was later dropped for a black leather outfit with a "rapist mask". He believes that humans are savage in nature, and that civilization can never be more than an idea. He therefore chooses to become a mockery of society, fighting and killing without reservation.
Blake's murder, which takes place shortly before the story begins in 1985, sets the plot of Watchmen in motion. The character appears throughout the story in flashbacks and aspects of his personality are revealed by other characters. Richard Reynolds described The Comedian as "ruthless, cynical, and nihilistic, and yet capable of deeper insights than the others into the role of the costumed hero". Nicholas Michael Grant said the Comedian is "the only character in the Watchmen universe who is almost totally unlikeable." Paige MacGregor said Comedian's unusual appeal to women was due to "the willingness of Sally Jupiter [...] to have consensual sex with [him] after he tried to rape her" and because of a later moment in which he breaks down and shows his "innate humanity".
He and Doctor Manhattan are the only two superheroes to be government-sanctioned after the Keene Act banning vigilantism is passed.
Physicist Dr. Jonathan "Jon" Osterman was transformed into a blue-skinned god-like being after he was accidentally disintegrated in an "Intrinsic Field Subtractor" in 1959. Within a few months, his disembodied consciousness managed to reconstruct a physical body for itself, assisted in part (it is implied) by his childhood training in watch repair and a solid understanding of precision assembly and disassembly. He is immediately pressed into service by the United States government, who gives him the name Doctor Manhattan, after the Manhattan Project. He is the only character in the story who possesses real superpowers. Though he dabbles briefly in crimefighting, his greatest influence is to grant the U.S. a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union during the Cold War, with his most significant action taking place after he is personally asked by President Richard Nixon to intervene in the Vietnam War, leading to an unqualified victory for the U.S. with the defeat of North Vietnam and the Vietcong, preventing the collapse of the Saigon government and allowing the eventual annexation of Vietnam as the 51st state. Since he works for the U.S. Government, he is exempt from the provisions of the Keene Act, but spends much of his time doing advanced technology research and development and physics research. He is single-handedly responsible for the shift to electric-powered vehicles (by synthesizing the needed elements and chemicals himself) and Veidt credits him with causing a huge leap forward in myriad areas of science and technology. After the death of his father in 1969, he does not bother to conceal his original name and is repeatedly addressed or referenced as "Jon" or "Dr. Osterman".
Doctor Manhattan was based on Charlton's Captain Atom, who in Moore's original proposal was surrounded by the shadow of nuclear threat. However, the writer found he could do more with Manhattan as a "kind of a quantum super-hero" than he ever could have with Captain Atom. Moore sought to delve into nuclear physics and quantum physics in constructing the character of Dr. Manhattan. The writer believed that a character living in a quantum universe would not perceive time with a linear perspective, which would influence the character's perception of human affairs. Moore also wanted to avoid creating an emotionless character like Spock from Star Trek, so he sought for Dr. Manhattan to retain "human habits" and to grow away from them and humanity in general. Gibbons had created the blue character Rogue Trooper, and explained he reused the blue skin motif for Doctor Manhattan as it resembles skin tonally, but has a different hue. Moore incorporated the color into the story, and Gibbons noted the rest of the comic's color scheme made Manhattan unique. The blue skin color is explained as being a result of Cherenkov Radiation. Moore recalled that he was unsure if DC would allow the creators to depict the character as fully nude, which partially influenced how they portrayed the character. Gibbons wanted to tastefully depict Manhattan's nudity, selecting carefully when full frontal shots would occur and giving him "understated" genitals — like a classical sculpture — so the reader would not initially notice it. Dr. Manhattan's forehead is marked with the atomic structure of Hydrogen.
In the Watchmen film, Doctor Manhattan is a CGI character modeled after Greg Plitt with motion capture and facial performance provided by Billy Crudup. Crudup also plays the pre-transformation Jon Osterman.
Doctor Manhattan is the only character with super powers, though his powers are so advanced that they make him almost like a god. His consciousness has become linked to reality on a quantum level, allowing him to behave in the ways of sub-atomic particles, and have precise mental control over sub-atomic particles and forces, including the ones in his own body. Uses of this power include matter transformation, teleportation over astronomical distances, phase shifting and creating multiple copies of himself. He is seemingly immortal and does not require food, water or air to survive. Perhaps the superpower that most defines his personality is his ability see all along his own personal timeline at once, past and future. The only thing known to interfere with his ability to see the future are tachyons, high-energy particles that travel backwards through time, which could be made by nuclear detonations on a global scale ( Ozymandias uses custom-made tachyon-emitters in satellites and at his Antarctic base specifically to trick Dr. Manhattan into thinking that a nuclear war was imminent). Dr. Manhattan is not omniscient, however, only knowing the past and future as it has or will occur for himself. This power to see the future is perhaps the greatest, and only practical, limit to Dr. Manhattan's powers: he does not take action or interfere because he knows that he will not, and feels and is as powerless to change the future as a normal person can change what they did yesterday. The result is that the most powerful man in the world, the literal super-man, has become indifferent to human concerns and feels increasingly less desire to interfere in human events.
The Nite Owl II is Daniel Dreiberg, a retired, out-of-shape superhero who uses owl-themed gadgets, in a manner which led Dave Gibbons to consider him "an obsessive hobbyist... a comics fan, a fanboy." Nite Owl was based on the Ted Kord version of the Charlton superhero Blue Beetle. Just as Ted Kord had a predecessor, Moore also incorporated an earlier adventurer who used the name "Nite Owl", the retired crime fighter Hollis Mason, into Watchmen. While Moore devised character notes for Gibbons to work from, the artist provided a name and a costume design for Hollis Mason he had created when he was twelve. Richard Reynolds noted in Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology that despite the character's Charlton roots, Nite Owl's modus operandi has more in common with the DC Comics character Batman. According to Geoff Klock, his civilian form "visually suggests an impotent, middle-aged Clark Kent." The second Nite Owl is another Crimebusters vigilante who has not revealed his identity in the post-Keene Act era throughout the novel.
Adrian Veidt was formerly the superhero Ozymandias, drawing inspiration from his hero Alexander the Great and the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, for whom he is named. He is the story's main antagonist. At the start of Watchmen he has retired to devote his attention to the running of his own enterprises. Ozymandias was directly based on Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, whom Moore had admired for using his full brain capacity as well as possessing full physical and mental control. Veidt is believed to be the smartest man on the planet, even capable of outsmarting Dr. Manhattan. His combination of intelligence and highly advanced fighting skills makes him perhaps the most feared and dangerous of the mortal Crimebusters. He is often accompanied by his genetically-engineered lynx, Bubastis. Richard Reynolds noted that by taking initiative to "help the world", Veidt displays a trait normally attributed to villains in superhero stories, and in a sense he is the "villain" of the series. Gibbons noted "One of the worst of his sins [is] kind of looking down on the rest of humanity, scorning the rest of humanity." In 2008, he was ranked number 10 on the Forbes Fictional 15. Wizard magazine also ranked Ozymandias as 25th greatest villain of all time and IGN ranked him as 21st Greatest Comic Book Villain of All Time.
A vigilante who wears a white mask that resembles ink blots, Rorschach continues to fight crime in spite of his outlaw status. He was born Walter Joseph Kovacs, the son of a prostitute, and spent much of his childhood in a home for troubled youth; later he worked in the garment industry. After reading about the murder of Kitty Genovese and the reported complete indifference of the witnesses of the crime, he modified a special fabric to create a mask and became a vigilante, eventually forming a productive partnership with Nite Owl II. In 1975, after a failed attempt to find and rescue a young kidnapped girl before she was murdered after vowing to her parents that he would be successful, he lost his sanity, viewing Rorschach as his real identity and Kovacs as his "disguise". When the story begins, a man is seen walking around New York carrying a sign that reads "The End Is Nigh," but it is not until several chapters later that the reader learns that this man is Kovacs/Rorschach.
Moore based Rorschach on the Steve Ditko creation Mr. A. Moore said he was trying to "come up with this quintessential Steve Ditko character — someone who's got a funny name, whose surname begins with a 'K,' who's got an oddly designed mask". As a result, Rorschach's real name is given as Walter Kovacs. Ditko's Charlton character The Question also served as a template for creating Rorschach. Comics historian Bradford W. Wright described the character's world view as "a set of black-and-white values that take many shapes but never mix into shades of gray, similar to the ink blot tests of his namesake". Rorschach sees existence as random and, according to Wright, this viewpoint leaves the character "free to 'scrawl [his] own design' on a 'morally blank world'". Moore said he did not foresee the death of Rorschach until the fourth issue when he realized that his refusal to compromise would result in him not surviving the story.
Laurie Juspeczyk, the second Silk Spectre, is the daughter of Sally Jupiter, the first Silk Spectre. Laurie's mother apparently wanted her to follow in her footsteps and so she fought crime for ten years before the Keene Act banned vigilantes. Unlike the other protagonists, Silk Spectre was not based on a particular Charlton character, although her relationship with Dr. Manhattan is similar to that between Captain Atom and the heroine Nightshade. Moore felt he needed a female hero in the cast and drew inspiration from comic book heroines such as Black Canary and Phantom Lady.
Laurie is kept on retainer by the government because of her relationship with Doctor Manhattan and lives on a government base at the beginning of the comic. When Doctor Manhattan leaves Earth, the government has her removed from the base and suspends her expense account, forcing her to move in with Dan, with whom she starts a romantic relationship. At the end of the eighth issue, Doctor Manhattan appears and takes her to Mars because he knows she wants to convince him to save the world. On Mars, she realizes that The Comedian was her biological father. After the final encounter with Veidt at the end of the series, she assumes the identity of Sandra Hollis and continues her relationship with Dan.
In the Watchmen film she is played by Malin Akerman. In a 2003 draft script by David Hayter, which was reviewed by IGN, Laurie has the family name Jupiter and the alter ego name "Slingshot". The former detail seems to have been retained in the final version of the film. The film gives her date of birth as December 2, 1949.
Key to the success of Watchmen is the wide range of characters it features beyond the 'main' stars. Moore stated in 1988 that, in Watchmen, "we spend a good deal of time with the people on the street. We wanted to spend as much time detailing these characters and making them believable as we did the main characters." Moore and Gibbons deliberately wanted all their characters "to have a place in this vast organic mechanism that we call the world." The fleshing-out of the world was, in Moore's words, to demonstrate that "all the way through the entire series human life is going on with all of its petty entanglements and minor difficulties and all the rest of it." Moore adds that it is possible to see the story as being as much about the supporting as the main characters:
What Nixon does and what Dr. Manhattan does and what Veidt does — it affects the people on the street corner but only peripherally, indirectly... And yet, in some ways, those people on the street corner, it's their story. They're the people we're concerned about.—