|— Desolation Row by Bob Dylan|
At Midnight, All the Agents... is the first chapter in the twelve-chapter series Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. It was released on September 1985 and later reprinted in March 2000 as a 'Millennium Edition Reprint' that was sold for $2.50 instead of the standard $1.50.
- See also: Rorschach's journal.
While a man hoses a large pool of blood off of a city sidewalk, Rorschach reflects that this city and its criminals fear him. They could follow in the footsteps of good men like his father or President Harry S. Truman, but instead they choose to live in filth and follow advice of liberals and smooth talkers. Someday, it will be too late for all of them. They’ll ask Rorschach to save them then, but he’ll refuse.
Detectives Steven Fine and Joe Bourquin look through Edward Blake’s apartment, a man who was recently murdered when an intruder threw him through the window of his high-rise apartment. In a brief flashback, Blake wears a smiley-face badge as he’s thrown through the window. A drop of his blood splatters across it. One of the detectives suspects it was a simple breaking and entering job, but the other is skeptical. Photos of Blake show that he is huge, like a weightlifter, and covered in scars. In his apartment, there’s a picture of him shaking Vice-President Gerald Ford’s hand—it seems he was some sort of American “diplomat.”
The detectives decide to continue their investigation discreetly so that “masked avengers” don’t get involved. One of them remarks that the Keene Act of 1977 outlawed most vigilantes, but Rorschach is still out in the streets, acting on his own, and he’s crazy. As the two detectives make their way out of the building, a doomsayer stands in the street, holding a sign that says, “The end is nigh.”
Later that night Rorschach enters Blake's apartment by shooting his grappling hook gun from the street up into the apartment's shattered window. He searches through the drawers and closet to find a hidden switch that opens up a compartment with a large assortment of items, including a silenced MAC-10 machine gun, a combat knife, a leather costume, and a picture of him with a group of costumed adventurers. Rorschach realizes that Eddie Blake was the true identity of the legendary masked adventurer, the Comedian.
Later that evening, Dan Dreiberg is visiting Hollis Mason at the latter's home above Mason's Auto Repairs in what Dreiberg calls a "late night beer session." They reminisce about their past days as heroes—they are both now retired. Hollis jokes that Daniel was the better Nite Owl of the the two of them. Daniel says it’s nearly midnight, so he should get going, but thanks Hollis for sharing a beer with him each week and catching up. He walks to his own apartment to find Rorschach has already broken in and was helping himself to cold beans.
Daniel seems shocked and nervous to find Rorschach there. Rorschach tosses him Blake’s blood-smeared smiley-face badge and tells him it belonged to the Comedian; someone threw him out his window. Daniel asks if they can talk in the basement, where they’ll be less exposed. The two men descend into a large, dusty room full of equipment covered in sheets. Daniel asks if the Comedian’s death might be a political assassination, since the United States government had him overthrowing South American Marxist governments since 1977.
Rorschach thinks it’s more likely that someone is killing “costumed heroes.” He mentions that Hollis said some critical things about the Comedian in his book, but Daniel says he’s wrong to think Hollis could be involved. Having warned Daniel, Rorschach starts to leave through a secret tunnel. Daniel says he misses the good old days, when they were partners. As he leaves, Rorschach snubs Daniel for quitting hero work. Daniel sits on a box, staring at the smiley-face badge. Next to him, a costume decorated like an owl hangs in an open locker.
Rorschach sleeps through the day and sets off at night, reflecting on how much he hates the filthy people in this city. Rorschach wants information on the Comedian’s death, so he goes to a bar called Happy Harry's Bar & Grill. The bartender is terrified to see him and pleads with him not to kill anyone tonight. When a man named Steve makes a snide remark behind Rorschach’s back, Rorschach grabs him and starts breaking his fingers one at a time, demanding information on Blake’s murder. The other patrons are horrified but have no information. The lack of progress makes Rorschach “slightly depressed,” so he leaves the “human cockroaches” alone to go visit a “better class of person.”
Rorschach speaks with Adrian Veidt in Veidt’s office and penthouse apartment. Veidt is surprised to hear of the Comedian’s death but wonders if it could have been a political assassination. Rorschach thinks this unlikely, since no country would dare challenge America while they have Doctor Manhattan on their side. Veidt thinks the Comedian was “practically a Nazi,” but Rorschach defends the Comedian’s honor, arguing that he never retired, never cashed in on his reputation or sold action figures of himself like the ones Veidt has of himself strewn about his desk. Veidt defends himself, saying he chose to retire of his own will, two years before the police strike and Keene Act demanded it. Bitter toward Veidt, Rorschach leaves, rappelling out of a high window.
Rorschach feels disgusted after meeting with Veidt and thinks he is “pampered,” “liberal,” and “shallow,” perhaps a “homosexual.” He mentally runs through a list of all the old heroes, all of whom are now retired (which Rorschach mentions with disgust), living in obscurity, or dead, except for two who live at the Rockefeller Military Research Center. Rorschach decides to visit them and warn them about the murder.
Rorschach finds Laurie Juspeczyk and Doctor Manhattan in the large military facility. Laurie is not happy to see Rorschach and mentions that he’s wanted by the police. Rorschach tells them of Edward Blake’s murder, but Manhattan—shrinking down to human size—tells him that since he and the Comedian are the only heroes employed by the government, he was already informed. Manhattan recalls that the CIA suspects the Libyans were responsible for Blake's death, but isn't concerned himself, explaining that he sees life and death as "unquantifiable abstracts." Laurie is not sad to hear that Blake died. She says the man was a monster who tried to rape her mother, as Hollis wrote in his book. Rorschach blows off the event as a patriot’s “moral lapse,” which infuriates Laurie. Manhattan, whom Laurie calls Jon, tells Rorschach he must leave, and teleports him outside into an empty field.
Back in the military station, the confrontation with Rorschach still bothers Laurie—she thinks Rorschach is “sick inside his mind.” Jon is doing something with a complicated machine. Laurie tells Jon that she needs a night out and asks him if he’d mind if she asked Dan Dreiberg out for a drink. Jon says he doesn’t mind, since he is too preoccupied with his science experiments; he doesn’t even look up. Laurie calls Daniel and arranges to go out with him later that night.
Rorschach walks the New York City streets, reflecting on how no one seems to care that the Comedian was murdered. Rorschach thinks war is coming and millions will die soon, and wonders if one man’s death means anything in the midst of it. He decides that it must—there are good people and evil people, and evil must be punished “even in the face of Armageddon.” There are so many who deserve punishment and so little time to deliver it.
Laurie and Daniel have dinner and drinks together at Rafael's. Laurie insists on paying for the meal, stating that if the government insists on her being a “kept woman” for their best weapon, they can afford to pay for dinner now and then. The pair leave and walk out to a rooftop garden, reminiscing about their old hero days. Laurie thinks that dressing up in costumes and running around was a stupid way to spend their youth, and that the Keene Act was the best thing for them. Daniel lightly agrees. They swap stories and laugh a bit, remarking that there seems to be less laughter around lately.
- Eddie Blake/Comedian
- Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II
- Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias
- Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan
- Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II
- Hollis Mason
- Steven Fine
- Joe Bourquin
- Happy Harry
- New York City, New York
- Vietnam (newspaper)
- Russia (mentioned)
- South America (mentioned)
- India (poster)
- California (mentioned)
- Nepenthe Gardens (mentioned)
- Maine (mentioned)
- Overlook Asylum (mentioned)
- Poland (mentioned)
- Libya (mentioned)
- Police Strike of 1977 (Mentioned)
- Rorschach's Journal
- Comedian's Badge
- Keene Act
- KT-28 (Mentioned)
- Methaqualone (Mentioned)
- Mmeltdowns (Advertisement)
- Grappling Hook Gun
- Comedian's Costume
- Under the Hood
- Heinz Baked Beans
- Nite Owl's Costume
- Ozymandias Action Figures
- Knot-Tops (mentioned)
- Minutemen (picture)
- Pale Horse (graffiti and clothing)
- United States Congress (mentioned)
- Veidt Enterprises
- New York Gazette
- Central Intelligence Agency (mentioned)
- Krystalnacht (graffiti)
- Gerald Ford (picture)
- Captain Metropolis (picture)
- Dollar Bill (picture)
- Hooded Justice (picture)
- Mothman (picture)
- Silhouette (picture)
- Silk Spectre (picture)
- Rorschach's Landlady
- Screaming Skull
- Captain Axis
- Richard Nixon (picture)
- Captain Carnage
The most notable of the early symbolism is Comedian's badge, which can be seen soaked in blood on the front cover. This motif can be seen on the first page of the first issue, just the same as the last page of the last issue. It was worn by the Comedian who Rorschach claimed "understood. Treated it like a joke, but he understood," when referring to society and the way people were. The motif, with its smiling face soaked in blood, has always served as the joke not able to be seen by most.
At night, before investigating Eddie Blake's murder, Rorschach picks up the blood stained badge from the gutter. When going to warn Dan Dreiberg about the incident, he gave the badge to Dreiberg who asked 'This little stain, is that bean juice...' to which Rorschach replied 'That's right. Human bean juice.' While talking about back when they were partners, Dreiberg says 'those were great times...whatever happened to them?' to which Rorschach replies 'You quit' and left. Dreiberg is then sitting on a crate next to his costume, staring at the badge. Later, while talking with Laurie Juspeczyk, he sets the badge on the terrace of the rooftop of Rafael's where they're standing. They joke about past villains and Laurie says 'That felt good. There don't seem to be so many laughs around these days.' Dreiberg replies 'Well, what do you expect? The Comedian is dead.'
Starting the trend for the rest of the series, the last page of the issue shows a clock set at approximately 11:48, twelve minutes from midnight. The rest of the page is completely black.
After Rorschach leaves Adrian Veidt's office to warn him about the 'mask killer', it can be seen on his desk, under his Action Figures, a copy of the New York Gazette with the headline 'Nuclear Doomsday Clock stands at five to twelve warn experts'. Set during the time of the Cold War, when fear of nuclear attack haunted American lifestyle, the Doomsday Clock can be seen as a very fitting theme.
"Who Watches the Watchmen?" was a phrase set about before the Keene Act was set in place, which describes the publics anger toward the costumed vigilantes at the time. It was spray-painted on walls across the city, and in this chapter it is first seen as graffiti on the garage door of Mason's Auto Repairs as Dreiberg is walking out from another 'late night beer session' with Hollis, alone and retired. Later, while walking through a graffiti-filled alleyway, Rorschach walks past another one of these symbols.
Pale Horse is a supposed band in the Watchmen reality, and their title derives from the story in the Bible, Revelations vi, 7-8, "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."
As Dreiberg leaves Mason's Auto Repairs, 'Pale Horse' can be seen spray-painted on the side of the stairs, on the garage door below "Who Watches the Watchmen?", and a poster of the band on an alley wall as he walks away. In the same chapter Rorschach walks down an alley where there is a poster that reads 'Madison Square Garden: Pale Horse', which links both of them in a sense as 'Death', bringers of Hell. This relation may be spawned by their partnership, but they are linked together again in the same sense in Chapter X: Two Riders Were Approaching..., titled 'Two Riders Were Approaching...' in which Rorschach and Dreiberg are seen riding alongside each other once again. 'Krystalnacht' was the title of the concert, based on the 'Night of Broken Glass', properly spelled Kristallnacht, a 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom in which residents of Nazi Germany and Austria attacked Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues, killing many Jews and destroying a great deal of property.
Rorschach passes a poster that shows President Nixon, and under him reads 'Four More Years'. Other graffiti that Rorschach passes include an anarchy symbol, as well as a peace sign.
- The phrase "Who Watches the Watchmen?" is first seen spray-painted on the bay door of Hollis Mason's auto-garage (pp. 9). The phrase appears sporadically throughout the series and is popularly recognized as a tagline for the series as a whole.
- In the foreground where Detectives Steven Fine and Joe Bourquin are leaving the apartment building (1:4:3) there is a headline on the newspaper states "Vietnam 51st State: Official!"
- On Hollis Mason's bookshelf, right next to two copies of Under the Hood, is Philip Wylie's science fiction novel Gladiator. The book has been cited as the inspiration for Superman.
- In the foreground during Dan Dreiberg's walk home, two gang members can be seen holding a radio, which plays the song "Neighborhood Threat" by Iggy Pop.
- The can of Heinz baked beans Rorschach is eating (1:10:8) has "58" just visible (likely for "58 varieties"). In the real world the founder of the Heinz corporation decided in 1892 on the tag line "57 varieties" for his products.
- When Rorschach first visits Dan Dreiberg in his apartment, they discuss possible motives for the murder of Comedian. Dreiberg states: “I heard he had been working for the government since ‘77, knocking over Marxist’s republics in South America…maybe this was a political killing.” The suggestion here is that the Comedian had been a gun for hire by the US government in South America, and may have made many foreign enemies because of it. During the Cold War, political leaders such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara rose to prominence. They were radical, and their ideas about communism scared the U.S. government. As a result, many political assassinations were planned against these Latin American leaders.
- On the building's window sill where Rorschach is standing on is a "Stick with Dick in 84" poster (1:14:4). This is an appeal to vote for Richard Nixon for his fifth term in office as President of the United States, his first term having commenced in January of 1969. This indicates that the 22nd Amendment, which limits the number of times an individual is eligible for election to the office of President of the United States by two terms, had been repealed resulting in Nixon acting as president as of 1985.
- Due to the constant threat of nuclear war, the world of Watchmen is one of permanent malaise among Americans as many of whom have neglected their environment. Because of this, building fall in disrepair, trash and graffiti litter the streets, and new car sales drop. By 1985, the streets are filled with cars manufactured in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
- In front of Happy Harry's (1:14:5) is a newspaper with the headline: "Congress Approves Lunar Silos". This seems to indicate that the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibited weapons of mass destruction in orbit of Earth, either abrogated or never came into effect.
- In Adrian Veidt's office is a poster for his benefit performance for Indian Famine Relief. Veidt gives his televised performance in issue #7.
- On Adrian Veidt's desk is a New York Gazette with the headline, "Nuclear Doomsday Clock Stands at Five to Twelve Warn Experts" and "Geneva Talks: U.S. Refuses to Discuss Dr. Manhattan." The "Geneva Talks" is likely an allusion to the real life Geneva meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Mikhail Gorbachev in November 1985 to discuss the international arms race.
- Gluino, as mentioned by Doctor Manhattan, is the supersymmetric partner of gluon, the exchange for strong force between quarks. Supersymmetry predicts the existence of gluons, and the discovery of a gluino would go a long way toward confirming the theory. In the real world, without the assistance of Manhattan, research continues through the use of the CERN Large Hadron Collider, the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, and other high-energy facilities. "Bestiary" is a scientific vernacular for a listing of the subatomic particles that make up all matter.
- Rorschach's musing that Adrian Veidt is "possibly homosexual," is a sign of the mid-1980's (as of the writing of Watchmen) when American conservatives (such as Rorschach) largely disapproved of homosexuality and even believed the AIDS epidemic, which came to the forefront at that time, was a homosexual disease.
- In Rafael's, there are several fashionable women wearing the knot-top hairstyle, suggesting its pervasiveness; their eye makeup is based on the Eye of Horus, suggesting Adrian Veidt's obsession with Ancient Egypt. In the foreground are two seated men who are an openly gay couple, something rarely seen in upscale straight restaurants in 1985 in the real world.
- Genetic manipulation has resulted in a breed of chicken with four legs, which is a popular meal at restaurants.
- Spaghetti Africaine, as mentioned by Laurie Juspeczyk, is not a specific type of recipe; rather, it is a fanciful name for spaghetti with a sauce featuring African or Creole spices.
- In Under the Hood, Hollis Mason recalls that the fictional characters The Shadow, Doc Savage, and Superman (along with Action Comics #1) influenced him to becoming a costumed adventurer.
- The clock at the end of issue 1 shows 12 minutes before midnight, the same time that is displayed on the front and back covers of the issue. This also reflects the fact that this is the first of 12 issues; each subsequent issue will show the time on its clocks as one minute closer to midnight.
- The song lyric at the end of issue 1 is from Bob Dylan's "Desolation Road", included on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.
Released with the first issue were the first two chapters of Under the Hood, the autobiography of Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl and one of the first masked adventurers. Moore likely included these excerpts to explain why these men would dress up like super-heroes and fight crime by showing how particularly normal of a person Hollis Mason was, and then detailing how he became the Nite Owl.
Chapter I details his relationship with his father and the time he spent in Moe Vernon's auto repair shop. Hollis introduced Moe Vernon to go through with describing the saddest thing he had ever seen. In Chapter II Hollis discusses his grandfather and the absolute values he learned, then about his coming to New York City in which he described his hatred for its people when he first saw them, much like Rorschach throughout this issue. Also contributing to his later crime-fighting behaviors were his work for the New York City police and his love for comic books. The final trigger was the newspaper headline, "Hooded Justice".