The Fallout of Dreams, the Demonstration of Shadows: Watchmen and the Atomic Zeitgeist of the ‘80s

In the world of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, a number of objects and occurrences are famously conspicuous by their absence. The most easily noticeable absentee is the national trauma of the Vietnam War, which, in the universe of the story, was a sweeping victory for the United States, almost single-handedly and quite effortlessly secured by Dr. Manhattan. Superhero comic books are also absent: readers probably consider the topic too political, publishers too “grown-up” to appeal to the target audience of 13-year-olds, not to mention that “[t]he American public has never really gone in for super-heroes in a big way” as Ozymandias puts it in the text section of issue #10, in his trim handwriting. The comic shops are dominated by pirate stories and war stories instead. There seems to be no antinuclear movement in the Watchmen timeline as well. But there certainly was one in the timeline of our mid-‘80s.

In June 1982, one million people marched against the arms race in the streets of New York in the largest demonstration in America’s history.1 Around the same time, 750,000 rallied for the same cause in London. In the first half of the decade, during the highest peak of US-USSR tensions since the Cuban Missile Crisis, warheads, fallouts, and explosion simulations were not just on the protest signs and in the nightly news. They infiltrated people's dreams, turning them into radicals forced to leave their former normal lives behind. They guided intensely personal choices, such as not having kids in a world destined–it sometimes appeared–for imminent nuclear slaughter. A friend of mine, a person who in the ‘80s was in his twenties, serving in the Soviet army, once told me he participated in a grandiose military exercises around 1984, the ones modeling a full-scale war. What war, I asked. “The World War,” he retorted, “which else?”

This was the air Moore and Gibbons breathed in 1986. It is not immediately obvious how much of it got soaked into the pages of Watchmen. Let me show.

The details of mutually assured destruction

If the tone of this text will occasionally appear laudatory, it is a fair assessment. To a significant extent, what follows is an appreciation of the depth of research and the ingenuity of metatextual acumen that went into the making of Watchmen. This, of course, is a genre of its own, as the present author is well aware. However, in the case of the ‘80s nuclear zeitgeist, the allusions Moore implanted into the narrative were so deeply anchored in that particular moment in time, so subtle, and, therefore, so fleeting, that one has to know exactly what to look for in order to spot their flashes in the panels.

Take the authors’ handle on the matters of the U.S. atomic doctrine. When at the end of issue #3 an emergency meeting is assembled in the war room in the aftermath of Dr. Manhattan’s abrupt departure from Earth, with (President) Nixon and Henry Kissinger in attendance, they discuss whether a “first strike” on the Soviet Union that just invaded Afghanistan2 should be launched. Throughout my initial readings I considered the scene a caustic comment on U.S. militarism a la Dr. Strangelove or, perhaps, on the character of the Nixon administration: a Nixon administration on steroids, supercharged by five terms in office. I was wrong. In fact, the entire conversation occurs within the strict limits of the official military doctrine of the United States.

Here is the calculus. The conventional forces of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact in Europe were more numerous than NATO’s throughout the entirety of the Cold War. Therefore, the American policy called for nuclear retaliation against a Soviet nonnuclear attack on Western Europe as a deterrent against further escalation, the so-called first use strategy.3 On page 264 of that issue, Nixon is informed that, according to “[t]he latest analysis,” “if the Soviets continue into Pakistan, it’s 60% certain they’ll try taking Western Europe also.” The leader of the free world then acts in a completely reasonable and strategically justified manner, given the circumstances. A useful comparison: Al Haig, the Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan, made headlines in 1982 with a suggestion to fire a “nuclear warning shot” over Europe to prevent Soviet expansion. Moore’s Nixon is a dove of sorts, not a hawk.

From issue #3, page 26. Written by Alan Moore, drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons, colored by John Higgins.

This is not the only instance of Moore zeroing in on headlines and famous quotes. I am all but sure that the following episode presents a genuine call-and-response between the real world and its alternative Watchmen outbranching. We are seven issues deeper into the international crisis now, at the beginning of issue #10. On the third page, Nixon walks into the secret underground base, surrounded by his retinue, receiving the latest updates. In response to the phrase “no profit in employing mad bomber tactics,” the President nearly loses it: “Don’t… Don’t you start that ‘mad bomber’ shit. That whole image, it was your suggestion.” What image?

In one of Nixon’s most famous (though unconfirmed) statements, reportedly made in 1974, shortly before his resignation, he bluntly told his advisors: “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone, and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.” The President was, also reportedly, drinking heavily at the time. It is rumored that after the exchange took place, James Schlesinger, the Secretary of Defense, issued an unofficial and, strictly speaking, unconstitutional order to clear all the presidential decisions related to nuclear weapons with him before execution. An alternative theory, which Moore is clearly riffing off, is that Nixon used his madman persona to achieve political goals. All similarities with other Republican presidents, living or dead, are, of course, purely coincidental.

From issue #10, page 3.

Hiroshima lovers in Livermore

Nuclear paranoia itself is both present in Watchmen and important to the book’s aesthetics, with the Doomsday Clock as its principal and recurrent visual stand-in. It’s just that the organized, society-wide movement of people against the nuclear proliferation that was a staple of the first half of the 1980s is not there. Presumably, the existence of Dr. Manhattan made average Americans so sure of their strategic dominance and geopolitical superiority that the prospect of atomic holocaust does not even enter their minds.

A correction: does not enter their minds consciously. In fact, the first reference to nuclear war in the comic occurs quite early, on page five5 of issue #1. In the upper left panel - a cityscape with a non-descript grid of concrete high rises and offices, slightly dignified by a fat pale moon and a lonely airship. On the wall of the nearest building - a print ad for this world’s Skittles knock-off, the “mmeltdowns!” The print shows only a stylized nuclear mushroom, propelling allegedly delicious dragees in all directions. In issue #7, the readers will get to hear a TV spot for the same confectionery: “With fruity fallout and a delicious molten center. They’ll blow you all the way to China…” A different, even larger mmeltdowns! ad is hanging in the background of the last panel on page 26 of the penultimate Watchmen issue, seconds before the octopus explosion.

From issue #11, page 26.

Suppressed images and scenarios do not only return through the junk visuals of the advertisement industry. They also use the royal road of the unconscious, the dreams. The same seventh chapter escorts the reader to Nite Owl’s nuclear nightmare, the one where he and the Twilight Lady-turned-Silk Spectre get carbonized–that is the scientifically correct term, not vaporized–by a nuclear detonation:

From issue #7, page 16.

Indeed, there was an epidemic (or possibly a pandemic) of nuclear nightmares in the ‘80s. Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson recounts that whenever he was invited to give a public speech on the topic he would ask his audience how many of those present had bad dreams of this sort. In the audiences of peace groups members, about 2/3 would usually raise their hands. Throughout his two-year period of fieldwork at (or, technically speaking, around) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the two6 research centers tasked with developing and testing American nuclear weapons, Gusterson encountered only one atomic scientist who had his sleep thusly disturbed.

In short, dreams are political. Or, at least, some of them are. The anthropologist also relates a number of conversion narratives of anti-nuclear activists that were triggered by the invasion of plutonium nightmares. Here, for instance, is the story of Karen Hogan, a daughter of two Livermore employees, who, despite some nightmares as a teenager, was generally not interested in or disturbed by the matters of nuclear arms race until a certain point:

Karen's fears went away until the early 1980s when, in her thirties and now living an hour away from Livermore, she had two vivid nightmares about nuclear war. In one of them, everything everywhere was on fire. In the other, she was being ordered to press the button to launch the nuclear missiles that would end everything and was panic-stricken to find no way out. The nightmares came at a time when many other people were having similar nightmares and, in the context of a burgeoning antinuclear movement, were discussing them with one another. Karen, who was now a writer, joined the movement and also began volunteering at a hospice to make herself confront the issue of death. Now she began to tell her friends and family that she felt the laboratory should not be working on nuclear weapons.7

Nite Owl’s dreams, therefore, present a point of exchange between the reality of 1986–the year of Chornobyl’s disaster–and its reflection in the pages of Watchmen. In one of his interviews on the topic of Steve Ditko, Alan Moore confides that after he saw the design of Ditko’s the Question (which, of course, provided a departure point for Gibbons’ design of Rorschach) he started wondering if Ditko was taking inspiration from his dreams. I cannot help but ask whether Moore’s own nightmares contributed to the Watchmen edifice. It is quite probable he used to have those since at least 1985, when he was intensely researching nuclear energy and nuclear weapons for “The Nukeface Papers” storyline in Swamp Thing #35 and #36. Perhaps earlier, in that the world of V for Vendetta, which began serialization in 1982, was centered around the aftermath of a “limited nuclear war” as well.

Another such point of exchange–or dialogue, if you will–is the image of “Hiroshima lovers,” the graffiti of silhouetted shadows of a man and a woman that makes its first appearance on page eleven of “Fearful Symmetry”, the series’ fifth chapter. As the following issue #6 explicitly acknowledges, this is a reference to “people disintegrated at Hiroshima, leaving only their indelible shadows.” The image will subsequently reappear in a variety of alterations, modifications and re-glossings, up until and including the blown-up shadows of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre merging in a kiss on the walls of Ozymandias’s Anubis Hall on page twenty-two of issue #12. A consummation of contours in an antipodean Antarctic Netherworld.

Those “indelible shadows” played a significant role in the history of nuclear extermination. American scientists who arrived at Hiroshima after the explosion carefully measured them in order to calculate, using elementary school-level trigonometry, the height at which the detonation of a Little Boy8 occurred. These shadows also had their afterlife in the world of fine arts. Yves Klein, an influential post-war French artist, reportedly given the impression from observing the silhouette of a man imprinted onto a rock by the atomic flash at Hiroshima, created a series of fire paintings, Peintures de feu, in the months preceding his death. Klein used a flamethrower as his brush.

In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, a group of activists made sure those shadows would return to haunt the United States itself: members of the antinuclear movement painted disembodied silhouettes on the sidewalks of Livermore and all over the San Francisco Bay Area in August. I think Moore saw them, at least in the papers. I wonder if their outlines were still visible on Livermore pavements when the first issue of Watchmen arrived at newsstands.

* * *

On reading Watchmen, in Kyiv, in 2022. A misplaced postscript.

I contacted TCJ with an offer to write an essay that I am, apparently, now finishing, on February 21st, 2022. The send data of the e-mail reads 21:28, Kyiv time. While I was composing it, I missed an hour-long televised address of Vladimir Putin, broadcasted by the state media of neighboring Russia. Perhaps because I never did see it in full, I did not really understand what it was, and believed it to be just another bizarre fit of Russian propaganda; possibly a shade more expressionistic than its regular produce. My more perceptive friends realized that very evening that Mr. Putin was laying down the case for why my country, Ukraine, does not and, more importantly, should not exist. He started a full-scale invasion9 three days later.

I spent the night it began far from home, in Kyiv, and heard distant explosions at 5 AM, as they happened; I would then read about the Russian bombings of Ukrainian cities in the newsfeeds. As I arrived at my apartment that morning, I saw a cautiously affirmative response from TCJ’s Joe McCulloch and wrote back, as politely as I could, that “the process of editing the text might prove a bit arduous” in view of the latest events. Many years have passed in the months following that exchange. I spent two weeks under Russian occupation, as the Kyiv suburb where I resided was captured by the invading forces in the early days of March. The town next door, once unknown to almost anyone except its residents, is called Bucha. Throughout the next six weeks, I changed five apartments. Due to the kindness of my friends and relatives, I did not feel as a refugee in anything but name.

In the month preceding the start of the full-scale war, and about a month after its beginning, when I finally regained the ability to interact with fiction, I was re-reading Watchmen. An uneasy grin at the sight of panels reading “Russia merely claims to be securing her borders,” and “tanks mass in Eastern Europe as conflict escalates,” and “nuclear war is quite possible within the next ten days,” goes without saying. Notably, I found myself returning, time and again, to the previously inconsequential pirate comics sub-plot sentence: “Truly, whoever we are, wherever we reside, we exist upon the whim of murderers.”

Truly indeed.

In Considering Watchmen, Andrew Hoberek remarks that Moore’s and Gibbons’ comic contains several iconic images of impotence in supposedly almighty beings. There is Dr. Manhattan levitating above the surface of Mars, sculpting the majestic glass cathedral out of sand, seemingly shaping the world with the touch of his mind - but, as he sees it, just following a script he cannot change. Then there is Richard Nixon, the leader of the free world entrusted with the U.S. nuclear codes, procrastinating in a bomb shelter, chained to his suitcase, incapable to do anything but “wait” and follow the protocol. The case of Dr. Manhattan is, however, unique. In a sense, he is the least powerful creature of the Watchmen universe. Certainly the most cowardly one.

When he appears to “collect” Laurie “in readiness” in the middle of issue #8, the only motivation he gives is that they “have a conversation scheduled,” an hour in his future because Silk Spectre “want[s] to talk” to him. Here’s an interesting thing, though: Dr. Manhattan cannot read other people’s thoughts. Nothing in the comic book suggests otherwise.10 The force that “urges” him to teleport himself into Dan Dreiberg’s living room, the force he cannot or, a funny thought, is afraid to name, is his own wish. His jealousy. His need for human contact. His compulsion to make a scene. Who makes the world? The answer is very simple, Jon. Each and every one of us, each second of our life. Even those who do not believe they possess free will anymore.

As I re-read Watchmen, I was struck by the numerous instances of kindness and bravery emanating from “little people” - of them chiseling the universe with unkempt and awkward charm. Not only poor old Seymour on the last page of the comic, standing above the crank file, holding the future of the world in his ketchup-stained hands. There is a pair of policemen, and Rorschach’s psychologist, rushing to help two female lovers who are “hurting each other” in the last minutes before the catastrophe. The newspaper vendor and a street boy embracing, trying to protect one another from the terrible nothingness of white light. Rorschach, taking his mask off, becoming human again, refusing to be “reasonable” even in the face of the Apocalypse.

Watchmen presented itself as a story of modest acts of kindness, spontaneous cooperation, the heroism of the supposedly “unremarkable” people in the face of all the scheming masterminds–with or without quotation marks–of the world, standing knee-deep in the blood of the innocents. As a Ukrainian, I have a very good guess about why that might be the case.

* * *

  1. At the time. As of now, the 1982 march occupies an honorary ninth place, according to the Wikipedia entry. The ranking appears to be somewhat unfair, as far as it includes both prolonged multi-site nationwide initiatives such as George Floyd protests and localized one-off events under the same heading.
  2. The events of Watchmen occur in the 1985 of the book’s timeline. In our timeline, this happened six years earlier, in 1979.
  3. My source for this, as well as the bulk of facts regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear protocols in this essay, is Hugh Gusterson’s Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War and the interview Prof. Gusterson kindly granted me for an unrelated project.
  4. The same page contains a curious coloring mistake, probably not readily noticeable to American or western readers. Both the Black and Caspian Seas in the second panel are marked as parts of the terra firma, as if two buffer states existed between present-day Ukraine and Turkey on the one hand, and present day Kazakhstan and Iran on the other.
  5. In contrast, the eschatological catastrophe Rorschach is talking about from the book’s first page is a moral and political one, not atomic. Not at this point at least.
  6. With Los Alamos National Laboratory being the second.
  7. Gusterson, Hugh. Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War (1st paperback edition). University of California Press, 1998. pp. 166-167
  8. A pet name for the enriched uranium gun-type fission bomb dropped on Hiroshima, given by Manhattan Project scientists.
  9. It is important to remember that the Russian-Ukrainian war did not start on February 24th, 2022. It began eight years earlier, in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea and covertly sent its forces to fight in the self-proclaimed proxy states of Donbass.
  10. On page 22 of issue #4, Dr. Manhattan orders a large crowd of protestors to “return to [their] homes.” Two panels later they are all teleported from the site. The caption in the next panel reads “The next day, I am reading in the paper of two people who suffered heart attacks upon suddenly finding themselves indoors.” First: “indoors,” not “home.” Doc might have spoken figuratively. Second, it is highly unlikely that all those enraged individuals in front of the White House were thinking of their homes at the moment. Whatever mechanism was involved, it was not telepathy.