The recurrence of visual symbols has been cleverlydeployed in 20th century mass media, such as graphic novels and movies, inorder to express abstract contents, which can’t always be translated intowords. Such references can only be understood depending on context and cultureand knowledge of the viewer/reader about the subject. A good example of shrewd symbolism can be analyzed inWatchmen by Alan Moore, my favorite graphic novel. The story is set in theUnited States, 1985, during the Cold War, in an alternate history wherecostumed adventurers are real and the country is getting closer to a nuclearwar with the Soviet Union.
It tells the story of a group of superheroes andtheir predecessors and the events surrounding the mysterious murder of one oftheir own, Eddie Blake, whose superhero name is the Comedian. Clocks and watches are used throughout Watchmen toimplement symbolism. The first time such symbols appear, is in the form of asmiley face badge. Blake was wearing the badge on his night robe when he wasattacked in his apartment. When Blake was beaten the night of his murder, bloodfrom his nose and mouth stained the badge in its famous pattern: a single lineof blood across the badge’s right eye.
One interpretation is that the stainrepresents the minute hand of a clock, pointing at 12 minutes to the hour,particularly in an implied connection to the Doomsday Clock, which representshow close the world is to a “catastrophic destruction”. It can alsosymbolize a taint on superficial appearances that everything is well: in thesame way the blood stains the happy smile, the world is stained by theuncertain foundation of the blood and falsehood it was built on. This Doomsday Clock is based on a real NuclearDoomsday Clock.
It is referred to occasionally throughout the graphic narrativeof Watchmen, where it signals the proximity of a war between the Soviet Unionand the United States. It appears on the cover of every issue and chapter andis increasingly covered in blood. On the back cover of the first issue, theclock stands at twelve minutes to midnight, and at the close of the story withthe twelfth issue, midnight is struck. Together, the repetitions of thedoomsday clock-face and the titles of the issues/chapters create a circularstructure that serve to summarize and bookend each chapter of the graphicnarrative much like literary texts employ chapter headings or a blank page toframe and delineate chapters in a print novel. The same concept of an imminentcatastrophe is shown in the clocks which sporadically appears in the backgrounddisplaying the hour 11:55 and in the famous painting The persistence of memoryhanging from a wall (Chapter IV, p18).
Another reference to the Doomsday Clock and itsconsequential devastation is marked in chapter IV: Watch Maker, in which thestory of Dr. Manhattan, a member of the Watchmen, is told. His original name isJon Osterman and his father, a watchmaker, following the destruction of Hiroshimaand Nagasaki by an atom bomb, forces his son to take a Ph.D. in atomic physics.While working at a nuclear research center, Jon forgets his watch in a testchamber and remains accidentally locked up, two minutes before midnight,trapped in an “Intrinsic Field Subtractor”. Looking down at his watch, the timebecame midday and the transformation happened, turning him into a blue-skinnedsuper-powered being. The color blue represents everything that Dr.
Manhattan is: truth, wisdom, eternity, devotion, tranquility, loyalty andopenness. His character reflects all of this. He is an invulnerable semi-godwho can change the laws of physics and alter matter on a molecular level, andhe has a calm behavior and temperance.
The association of midnight and a foreseen event isrooted in tradition. In mythology and folklore midnight is a temporal turningpoints when the spiritual sun stands at the zenith, therefore, is associatedwith contemplation, spiritual knowledge and insight.Alan Moore, implementing the symbol of the watch inthe graphic novel, successfully express the crisis America was going through dueto the Cold War.