There’s one major revelation in this issue and a whole mess of good character development for Rorschach and Nite Owl. We learn here that Adrian Veidt, who’s been only a marginal presence since the beginning of the series (he might actually have appeared less at this point than Edward Blake, and he’s dead) is the mastermind behind the mask killer plot, and that there’s a whole lot more of something going on. Veidt’s absence throughout has felt somewhat conspicuous given his dramatic introduction in the series’s first issue (he gets equal space with the other five main characters). Veidt’s remained mostly a mystery; all we’re really told about him is that he got into the superhero scene at a young age and then somehow leveraged his success there into creating a massive business empire. In comparison to the rest of the cast of Watchmen, he seems on the outside to be a generally well-adjusted individual.
In hindsight, it should have been obvious that he would end up being the “villain” of the story. The entire mask killer plot, as Rorschach and Nite Owl discuss in this issue, is a bizarre and highly theatrical conspiracy that doesn’t make a lot of sense unless it’s being executed by someone who has long been part of the superhero community. We’re still not yet privy to precisely why Veidt has orchestrated everything (that will be clarified in the next issue), but what we can ascertain so far is that he absolutely has a flair for the grandiose. The machinations hinted at here with a brief scene showing all the missing scientists and artists who were mentioned in the copy from the New Frontiersman included at the end of issue #8 meeting their end in a fiery explosion at sea suggest something far more elaborate than simple revenge. That all of Veidt’s time on panel here is devoted to him analyzing the global trends in order to figure out how to invest his money in the future shows that he’s thinking on a very complex level (though it also betrays the possibility that there’s a profit motive involved here as well). Whatever the case, we now know who the antagonist is, and it’s just a matter of time before Moore and Gibbons lay all their cards on the table.
More important than Adrian Veidt is the impending sense of doom that this issue is meant to convey. The issue opens with a sequence of President Nixon and Vice President Ford retreating to a secure location where they can monitor the movements of the Soviets in anticipation of nuclear war, and it maintains that tone of barely contained panic with frequent cuts back to the now familiar street corner where the news vendor is fretting over things far beyond his control while the young boy closes in on the end of the pirate story that has echoed themes of the primary story since its introduction in issue #3. Things are spiraling into chaos, and everyone is aware of it even if they want desperately to deny it (this feeling is most sharply captured when the news vendor berates a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are out proselytizing in anticipation of an apocalypse; their Watchtower magazine is a nice subtle nod to the inspiration of the issue’s title and themes, “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan). Things look bad, and everyone knows it.
The focus characters for this issue are Nite Owl and Rorschach, and we get to see them carry out an investigation over two days that leads them to figure out that Veidt is the person they need to go see to get to the bottom of everything. In the whole of Watchmen, this issue probably feels the most like a traditional superhero story. Rorschach and Nite Owl do some detective work, bicker over how one should best go about doing detective work, and bond over mutual nostalgia for their younger days. If you don’t look too closely at the seams of the scenario, it feels like a really fun bit of adventure; naturally that doesn’t last too long since you have details like Rorschach’s reveling in brutality to gather information and Nite Owl’s abuse of an innocent barfly upon hearing of Hollis Mason’s murder. These men are engaging in a grand fantasy against the backdrop of a world that has bigger problems than some supervillain’s revenge plot, and the way they both casually wreck the lives of the people that get in their way is jarring. The only saving grace for both men is that they do have moments of self awareness as they go about their adventure. Nite Owl notes the absurdity of pursuing the mask killer plot while everyone else waits on World War III, and Rorschach has one fleeting moment of mercy when he chooses to skip humiliating his landlady in front of her children who are unaware that she is doing sex work to earn money. It’s reassuring, however briefly, that our heroes are aware their work is most likely a farce. Like everyone else we see in this issue, they’re ultimately just trying to fill the time with anything that will take their mind off how powerless they are.
In our penultimate issue, we’ll finally get to know more about Adrian Veidt and his master plan. It’s a doozy.