The third issue of Watchmen escalates the stakes of the plot set forward in the first issue. Up to this point, Rorschach has been operating under the assumption that someone is targeting superheroes, but the scale of this kind of scheme hasn’t seemed particularly grandiose. Murder is foul stuff, but it’s entirely possible that it could be a personal vendetta. With this issue, we see how Jon Osterman, Dr. Manhattan, the only actually superpowered person in this reality is targeted, and we’re given a sense of how serious this plot could end up being.
We’ve had glimpses up to this point of background details about Watchmen‘s world that indicate how different it is from our own. In the 1985 of Watchmen, Nixon was never forced to resign the presidency (he’s actually managed to get re-elected multiple times), the Soviet Union isn’t on the brink of economic collapse (Cold War tensions are remarkably high), and America has continued to push its luck on the global stage. These events are all implied to be the result of the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan’s work as American operatives (though never stated explicitly, it’s reasonable to assume that much of the Comedian’s work was to cover up Nixon’s dirty dealings; Dr. Manhattan’s powers are such that he’s become a key part of America’s global defense against the Soviets). The purpose of this set up is to explore the implications of how the existence of superheroes actually would influence events in the real world (one of the pervasive absurdities of the superhero genre is that superheroes exist in a world that’s very much like our own, but they never have any impact on society outside of their own fantastic adventures); what Moore and Gibbons imagine is a pretty bleak picture where the equilibrium of the Cold War never came about because America had a persistent edge, preventing both sides from choosing to de-escalate for fear of the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.
This issue ends with the backlash that comes from America losing the keystone of its global power structure. We start with the introduction of a pair of characters that Moore is going to revisit regularly throughout the series: the news vendor and the Black teenager who passes the time reading comics by the vendor’s shop. We get the sense quickly that the news vendor is a bit of a blowhard, but he’s generally a benign figure. He’s polite to the doomsayer that we’ve seen pop up in each issue, and though he grumbles about the teen reading comics without paying for them, he never chases the boy off (you get the sense that he’s just happy to have some regular company). The news vendor mentions that one of the local magazines, the Nova Express, is holding its edition until the evening; from there we jump to the offices of Nova Express where a woman, Janey Slater, is giving an interview about her history with Jon Osterman and her recent diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. It happens that on this same day, Osterman is scheduled to give a live television interview, which gets interrupted by a reporter from Nova Express, Doug Roth, breaking the news that there appears to be a link between close association with Osterman and the development of virulent cancer. Everyone seizes on this story and presses Osterman on it until in frustration he sends them all away (he can do that) and exiles himself to Mars. The issue closes with the news vendor getting the evening edition of the New York Gazette which announces on the front page that the Soviets are advancing into Afghanistan following Dr. Manhattan’s disappearance.
Whatever’s going on, it’s clear that it’s meant to have worldwide implications. What’s most interesting about this issue though is that while you have scenes flashing back and forth between Jon’s evening and Laurie Juspeczyk and Dan Dreiberg’s (Laurie walks out on Jon after she discovers that he’s been working on an experiment at the same time he was attempting to have a threesome with her and a copy of himself–he can do that too–and ends up spending the evening catching up with Dan by way of beating up a gang of would-be muggers), the emotional core of the issue is with the news vendor and the teen. Alan Moore’s said multiple times over the course of his career that he thinks superheroes are an immature story genre; his contempt for the concept comes through here, but it’s counterbalanced by the presentation of these normal people who don’t really have any control whatsoever over the situation. Superheroes do things that should have massive, often catastrophic consequences for other people, but it’s rarely addressed. Moore makes a point, beginning with this issue, that the things superheroes do would really impact normal folks.
And that’s essentially the theme of this issue. Forces that are outside the control of most people in the world shape our lives constantly. The only thing left available to us is the determination to try to be kind to one another when we realize we’re all that each other has.