Clocks and watches are used throughout Watchmen to provide symbolism on many layers. Clocks can often be seen in the background of panels, but they are also sometimes mentioned in the text. The title of the series is itself a reference. Although the word "watchman" usually refers to a guard, i.e. "one who watches", and is used in this context in the series in the phrase "Who Watches the Watchmen?", it can also mean "one who makes watches" or even "one who is a watch". In a similar way, the name of the superhero group the Minutemen can refer both to the elite militiamen that fought during the American Revolution and to the minute hand of a clock.
Broken clocks are also a common motif, in which the hands are frozen at the moment of some important event.
- Main article: Doomsday Clock
The most obvious references to clocks and watches are the appearances of the Doomsday Clock that appear on the cover and last page of each issue. These clocks, ticking down one minute per issue until they reach midnight at issue 12, represent the constant motion towards an ending (midnight) or terrible catastrophe.
Throughout the series, clocks that appear in the background often display the hour 11:55. Some of such instances are:
- The Crimebusters meeting.
- II: When the Comedian attempts to rape Sally Jupiter.
- IV: When Dr. Manhattan and Laurie are seen walking in 1985
- VI: When Gloria Long talks to Malcolm Long, and later when they sleep.
- VIII: When Hollis Mason is killed (Halloween)
- XI: When Veidt dons first time his Ozymandias costume, and later when he watches the JFK assassination.
The Persistence of Memory, a famous painting by Salvador Dalí that features melting clocks, hangs in the home that Jon Osterman and Janey Slater shared between 1963 and 1966 (Chapter IV, p18). It is unclear whether this is meant to be the original painting or a replica. The clocks are thought to represent Einstein's theory that time is relative and not immutable.