From the cover image of the first issue, you can tell this is like nothing you've read before. A long tracking shot from a blood-soaked gutter (and the iconic smiley face button therein) up the side of a highrise to a broken window, where a cop mutters "Long way down."
Narrated by Rorschach, last of the now-outlawed mystery men of New York, the tale kicks off as a murder mystery. A man was flung out a window to his death... but why? In short order, Rorschach establishes that the man, Eddie Blake, was in fact the government-sanctioned 'supersoldier' known as the Comedian. A veteran of three wars, as well as one of the few surviving "Minutemen" (a group of costume-wearing 'heroes' who fought crime and had their 15 minutes of fame in the 1940s and 50s), Blake wouldn't have been an easy target.
A hard target in a hard world. Nixon is still President in 1985 and veiled references are made in one panel to two reporters from the Washington Post found dead in a car trunk. The Soviet Union's armed forces are positioned for an attack on Europe, bringing the world ever close to the point of atomic destruction; the clock hand sweeps toward humanity's midnight.
Regardless of the world's crisis, Rorschach pursues his investigation by seeking out and interviewing his former comrades, including Daniel Dreiberg (aka Nite Owl II), Jon Osterman (aka Dr Manhattan, the world's only superbeing and linchpin of America's defense), Osterman's girlfriend Laurie Juspeczyk (aka Silk Spectre II), and Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias, the smartest man in the world). He even follows up on an old enemy-- Edgar Jacobi, aka Moloch. (Of them all, this one-time crime boss with a mystical shtick has fallen on hard times, being near-destitute and having developed incurable cancer. For all that, however, his interactions with Rorschach remain one of the miniseries' darkly comic highlights.)
The investigation stirs up a lot of old business for these former friends (and enemy). Much of their history is told in flashback, where we see the "golden age" of mystery men give way to a darker and more violent second chapter--wherein new heroes such as Nite Owl II, Rorschach and Ozymandias are branded as fascists and public enemies, before they are finally outlawed. We also see how pirate comics gained popularity when real superheroes were discredited, in an ongoing (and darkly allegorical) series of snippets from the "Black Freighter" comic read by a boy at a newsstand.
Things grow worse quickly. Ozymandias is attacked by a gunman, Dr. Manhattan is driven to lash out at a TV studio, after which he goes to Mars for peace and quiet, and Rorschach is hunted relentlessly by the NYPD after being framed for a murder. Even Dreiberg and Laurie are attacked by street punks, an event that triggers a dormant attraction between them.
Told with accelerating pace, the book careens headlong toward a collision in many dimensions. What does it mean to "save the world" and what price must a hero pay? Is there anything good that can come from a monstrous crime or do concepts of good and evil break down at the scale of humanity's survival? And the innocents--a collection of bystanders met here and there throughout the book--what is being saved if they are to be sacrificed?
SPOILER WARNING- I'm discussing some details of the plot's resolution here, so... be warned.
WATCHMEN grew out of a proposal Alan Moore drafted to use the characters DC Comics acquired from Charlton Comics. This group included Blue Beetle, the Question, Captain Atom, Peacemaker and a few others. However, DC realized that Moore's story would make such massive and fundamental changes in these characters that few (if any) could be used in future stories afterward. Moore was encouraged to invent a new set of characters, and he did-- based obviously upon the Charlton pantheon.
Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, the Question became Rorschach, Captain Atom became Dr Manhattan, and so on.
The change probably liberated Moore to go larger in scope than his original proposal (maybe not, though I suspect the destruction of New York wouldn't have been okay with DC). In any case, the book had license to be one of the darkest works seen in comics to that point, as well as a searing deconstruction of the heroic myths underpinning superhero comics in general.
Much is made of the diverse neuroses and even psychoses of the main characters. I liken these to the kinds of stress disorders suffered by police officers in crime-ridden precincts or soldiers in combat zones. Moore never explicitly draws the connection but it is clear that being heroes had damaged all of these people in different ways. Dan Dreiberg can only be gratified in costume; Rorschach's mind broke and he surrendered his identity in the wake of a horrific kidnapping/murder; Ozymandias has succumbed to megalomania (perhaps); and Dr Manhattan has grown so alien, he cannot comprehend even the basics of human emotion any longer. They are tragic and broken individuals but have committed themselves to something noble, something largely beyond their power.
Some final thoughts.
Consider the wonderful grace notes sprinkled through the book. Rorschach palms a sugar cube in one book and chomps on it in another; the smiley-face motif repeats in odd places; a bottle of cologne is passed around; and unconnected strangers meet in odd circumstances. Truly, WATCHMEN is an intricate piece of work with many interrelated pieces, fascinating to observe and consider (especially for a first-time reader).
Among the characters, Rorschach alone achieves the heroic. True, he is deeply disturbed, but his integrity is unbroken; he is committed to justice (with an unhealthy fanaticism, true, but still) and cannot tolerate the idea that the New York incident will go unpunished. He also realizes what would happen if he exposed the truth. Caught between these irreconcilable extremes, he dares Dr Manhattan to kill him-- that is the only way that the truth's shattering ramifications can be averted.
Even so, his journal is in the hands of the New Frontiersman magazine, and the story may not be over. As Dr Manhattan says to Veidt, nothing lasts forever. Not even a utopia founded on millions of deaths... and an enormous lie.
Truly one of the great works of comics, as well as one of the most controversial, WATCHMEN will be read and discussed for decades to come.