The recurrence of visual symbols has been cleverly
deployed in 20th century mass media, such as graphic novels and movies, in
order to express abstract contents, which can’t always be translated into
words. Such references can only be understood depending on context and culture
and knowledge of the viewer/reader about the subject.
A good example of shrewd symbolism can be analyzed in
Watchmen by Alan Moore, my favorite graphic novel. The story is set in the
United States, 1985, during the Cold War, in an alternate history where
costumed adventurers are real and the country is getting closer to a nuclear
war with the Soviet Union. It tells the story of a group of superheroes and
their predecessors and the events surrounding the mysterious murder of one of
their own, Eddie Blake, whose superhero name is the Comedian.
Clocks and watches are used throughout Watchmen to
implement symbolism. The first time such symbols appear, is in the form of a
smiley face badge. Blake was wearing the badge on his night robe when he was
attacked in his apartment. When Blake was beaten the night of his murder, blood
from his nose and mouth stained the badge in its famous pattern: a single line
of blood across the badge’s right eye. One interpretation is that the stain
represents the minute hand of a clock, pointing at 12 minutes to the hour,
particularly in an implied connection to the Doomsday Clock, which represents
how close the world is to a “catastrophic destruction”. It can also
symbolize a taint on superficial appearances that everything is well: in the
same way the blood stains the happy smile, the world is stained by the
uncertain foundation of the blood and falsehood it was built on.
This Doomsday Clock is based on a real Nuclear
Doomsday Clock. It is referred to occasionally throughout the graphic narrative
of Watchmen, where it signals the proximity of a war between the Soviet Union
and the United States. It appears on the cover of every issue and chapter and
is increasingly covered in blood. On the back cover of the first issue, the
clock stands at twelve minutes to midnight, and at the close of the story with
the twelfth issue, midnight is struck. Together, the repetitions of the
doomsday clock-face and the titles of the issues/chapters create a circular
structure that serve to summarize and bookend each chapter of the graphic
narrative much like literary texts employ chapter headings or a blank page to
frame and delineate chapters in a print novel. The same concept of an imminent
catastrophe is shown in the clocks which sporadically appears in the background
displaying the hour 11:55 and in the famous painting The persistence of memory
hanging from a wall (Chapter IV, p18).
Another reference to the Doomsday Clock and its
consequential devastation is marked in chapter IV: Watch Maker, in which the
story of Dr. Manhattan, a member of the Watchmen, is told. His original name is
Jon Osterman and his father, a watchmaker, following the destruction of Hiroshima
and 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 test
chamber and remains accidentally locked up, two minutes before midnight,
trapped in an “Intrinsic Field Subtractor”. Looking down at his watch, the time
became midday and the transformation happened, turning him into a blue-skinned
The color blue represents everything that Dr.
Manhattan is: truth, wisdom, eternity, devotion, tranquility, loyalty and
openness. His character reflects all of this. He is an invulnerable semi-god
who can change the laws of physics and alter matter on a molecular level, and
he has a calm behavior and temperance.
The association of midnight and a foreseen event is
rooted in tradition. In mythology and folklore midnight is a temporal turning
points when the spiritual sun stands at the zenith, therefore, is associated
with contemplation, spiritual knowledge and insight.
Alan Moore, implementing the symbol of the watch in
the graphic novel, successfully express the crisis America was going through due
to the Cold War.