Issue #5 of Watchmen gets back to the story on Earth. While Jon Osterman is busy reminiscing on Mars, we go back to follow Rorschach as he furthers his investigation into the “mask killer” theory.
In discussing the ways that Moore and Gibbons designed Watchmen to be a story that highlights the narrative features of the comics medium, I think of two specific issues that highlight this idea most effectively. The first was issue #4 “Watchmaker,” and the second is this one. The plot outline for this chapter is extremely simple; Rorschach visits Edgar Jacobi, Moloch, to get more information about the list of people that Edward Blake found (Rorschach suspects the list is connected with the smear performed on Osterman back in issue #3), then he spends a day resting before returning to Jacobi’s apartment the next night where he’s ambushed and captured by the police. In the intervening day we see an attempt on Adrian Veidt’s life, Dan Dreiberg invites Laurie Juspeczyk to stay with him following her eviction from the military base, and an assortment of everyday people (including the detectives investigating Edward Blake’s murder and the news vendor) react to the news that the Soviets have become more aggressive following Osterman’s disappearance.
What’s interesting about the structure of this plot is how Moore and Gibbons design the sequence of events to have a parallel structure in the first and second halves of the issue. Each scene in the first fourteen pages has a corresponding scene in the last fourteen that completes the arc set up there along with mirrored key images (some of my favorite examples are a couple panels looking at Rorschach’s mask from his perspective and a pair of panels showcasing Dreiberg looking longingly at Juspeczyk in front of a mirror with her back turned to him). These are pairings that only become apparent when you look at the issue nonlinearly instead of reading the story straight through.
The intricacies of the layout aren’t just restricted to the symmetry of the issue. Gibbons excels at doing match cuts between scenes, but in this issue he’s relentless about it. Every scene ends with a panel that’s immediately echoed by the first panel of the following scene. He and Moore are working extra hard to build thematic connections between the mystery that Rorschach’s busying himself with, the steadily growing dread of another world war that the regular folks are feeling while they try to go on with their lives, the insecurities that Dreiberg and Juspeczyk are navigating as castoffs, and the comics story about the sailor trying to get home after being marooned (this subplot was introduced in issue #3; the boy warming himself at the charging station by the news stand is reading a pirate comic which has scenes spliced in as a meta-commentary on the events of the series). As the story approaches its inflection point (you know things have to get significantly worse soon, as we’re almost to the halfway point of the story), Moore and Gibbons are pushing to build their main theme: that everyone is just trying to get by in a world that seems to be spiraling further and further out of their control. Pretty much the only person who isn’t having this reaction is Rorschach (he ponders unironically in his journal, “Is everyone but me going mad?”); we’ll get more into his character in the next issue, but this one gives us some insight into Rorschach’s perspective on other people. He refuses to surrender to anything that’s outside his control (the closing scene where he’s cornered by the police shows him improvising a variety of ways to stave them off while he tries to escape, even as they push him farther into an inescapable situation), and this persistence of will leads him to treat even the most hopeless scenarios as though he can overcome them. It’s Rorschach’s most admirable trait, though he’s also perhaps the most deranged of the main cast.
This derangement gets confirmed even further at the end of this issue when the police catch Rorschach, and he’s unmasked as the doomsayer who has been wandering around since the first issue. Rorschach lives in a world that’s perpetually on the brink of destruction, so perhaps his levelheadedness in this issue stems from simple desensitization (in issue #3 he comments to the news vendor that the world is going to end, and when the vendor replies that the world hasn’t ended the following day he remarks that Dr. Manhattan’s disappearance suggests otherwise). Rorschach has expected doom for so long that he’s well past the point of needing to process events in the same way that the other characters do.