Moore and Gibbons designed Watchmen to showcase the unique qualities of the comics medium and to highlight its particular strengths. In a 1986 interview, Moore said, "What I'd like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating", and emphasized this by stressing the differences between comics and film. Moore said that Watchmen was designed to be read "four or five times," with some links and allusions only becoming apparent to the reader after several readings. Dave Gibbons notes that, "[a]s it progressed, Watchmen became much more about the telling than the tale itself. The main thrust of the story essentially hinges on what is called a macguffin, a gimmick ... So really the plot itself is of no great consequence ... it just really isn't the most interesting thing about Watchmen. As we actually came to tell the tale, that's where the real creativity came in."
Gibbons said he deliberately constructed the visual look of Watchmen so that each page would be identifiable as part of that particular series and "not some other comic book". He made a concerted effort to draw the characters in a manner different than that commonly seen in comics. The artist tried to draw the series with "a particular weight of line, using a hard, stiff pen that didn't have much modulation in terms of thick and thin" which he hoped "would differentiate it from the usual lush, fluid kind of comic book line". In a 2009 interview, Moore recalled that he took advantage of Gibbons' training as a former surveyor for "including incredible amounts of detail in every tiny panel, so we could choreograph every little thing". Gibbons described the series as "a comic about comics". Gibbons felt that "Alan is more concerned with the social implications of [the presence of super-heroes] and I've gotten involved in the technical implications." The story's alternate world setting allowed Gibbons to change details of the American landscape, such as adding electric cars, slightly different buildings, and spark hydrants instead of fire hydrants, which Moore said, "perhaps gives the American readership a chance in some ways to see their own culture as an outsider would". Gibbons noted that the setting was liberating for him because he did not have to rely primarily on reference books.
Colorist John Higgins used a template that was "moodier" and favored secondary colors. Moore stated that he had also "always loved John's coloring, but always associated him with being an airbrush colorist", which Moore was not fond of; Higgins subsequently decided to color Watchmen in European-style flat color. Moore noted that the artist paid particular attention to lighting and subtle color changes; in issue six, Higgins began with "warm and cheerful" colors and throughout the issue gradually made it darker to give the story a dark and bleak feeling.
Structurally, certain aspects of Watchmen deviated from the norm in comic books at the time, particularly the panel layout and the coloring. Instead of panels of various sizes, the creators divided each page into a nine-panel grid. Gibbons favored the nine-panel grid system due to its "authority". Moore accepted the use of the nine-panel grid format, which "gave him a level of control over the storytelling he hadn't had previously", according to Gibbons. "There was this element of the pacing and visual impact that he could now predict and use to dramatic effect." Bhob Stewart of The Comics Journal mentioned to Gibbons in 1987, that the page layouts recalled those of EC Comics, in addition to the art itself, which Stewart felt particularly echoed that of John Severin. Gibbons agreed that the echoing of the EC-style layouts "was a very deliberate thing", although his inspiration was rather Harvey Kurtzman, but it was altered enough to give the series a unique look. The artist also cited Steve Ditko's work on early issues of The Amazing Spider-Man as an influence, as well as Doctor Strange, where "even at his most psychedelic [he] would still keep a pretty straight page layout".
The cover of each issue serves as the first panel to the story. Gibbons said, "The cover of the Watchmen is in the real world and looks quite real, but it's starting to turn into a comic book, a portal to another dimension." The covers were designed as close-ups that focused on a single detail with no human elements present. The creators on occasion experimented with the layout of the issue contents. Gibbons drew issue five, titled "Fearful Symmetry", so the first page mirrors the last (in terms of frame disposition), with the following pages mirroring each other before the center-spread is (broadly) symmetrical in layout.
The end of each issue, with the exception of issue twelve, contains supplemental prose pieces written by Moore. Among the contents are fictional book chapters, letters, reports, and articles written by various Watchmen characters. DC had trouble selling ad space in issues of Watchmen, which left an extra eight to nine pages per issue. DC planned to insert house ads and a longer letters column to fill the space, but editor Len Wein felt this would be unfair to anyone who wrote in during the last four issues of the series. He decided to use the extra pages to fill out the series' backstory. Moore said, "By the time we got around to issue #3, #4, and so on, we thought that the book looked nice without a letters page. It looks less like a comic book, so we stuck with it."
Tales of the Black Freighter
Watchmen features a story within a story in the form of Tales of the Black Freighter, a fictional comic book from which scenes appear in issues three, five, eight, ten, and eleven. The fictional comic's story, "Marooned", is read by a youth in New York City. Moore and Gibbons conceived a pirate comic because they reasoned that since the characters of Watchmen experience superheroes in real life, "they probably wouldn't be at all interested in superhero comics." Gibbons suggested a pirate theme, and Moore agreed in part because he is "a big Bertolt Brecht fan": the Black Freighter alludes to the song "Seeräuberjenny" ("Pirate Jenny") from Brecht's Threepenny Opera. Moore theorized that since superheroes existed, and existed as "objects of fear, loathing, and scorn, the main superheroes quickly fell out of popularity in comic books, as we suggest. Mainly, genres like horror, science fiction, and piracy, particularly piracy, became prominent—with EC riding the crest of the wave." Moore felt "the imagery of the whole pirate genre is so rich and dark that it provided a perfect counterpoint to the contemporary world of Watchmen". The writer expanded upon the premise so that its presentation in the story would add subtext and allegory. The supplemental article detailing the fictional history of Tales of the Black Freighter at the end of issue five credits real-life artist Joe Orlando as a major contributor to the series. Moore chose Orlando because he felt that if pirate stories were popular in the Watchmen universe that DC editor Julius Schwartz might have tried to lure the artist over to the company to draw a pirate comic book. Orlando contributed a drawing designed as if it were a page from the fake title to the supplemental piece.
In "Marooned", a young mariner (called "The Sea Captain") journeys to warn his home town of the coming of the Black Freighter, after he survives the destruction of his own ship. He uses the bodies of his dead shipmates as a makeshift raft. When he finally returns home, believing it to be already under the occupation of the Black Freighter's crew, he kills an innocent couple and then attacks his own wife in their darkened home, mistaking her for a pirate. After realizing what he has done, he returns to the sea shore, where he finds that the Black Freighter has not come to claim the town; it has come to claim him. He swims out to sea and climbs aboard the ship. According to Richard Reynold, the mariner is "forced by the urgency of his mission to shed one inhibition after another." Just like Adrian Veidt, he "hopes to stave off disaster by using the dead bodies of his former comrades as a means of reaching his goal". Moore stated that the story of The Black Freighter ends up specifically describing "the story of Adrian Veidt" and that it can also be used as a counterpoint to other parts of the story, such as Rorschach's capture and Dr. Manhattan's self-exile on Mars.
Symbols and imagery
Moore named William S. Burroughs as one of his main influences during the conception of Watchmen. He admired Burroughs' use of "repeated symbols that would become laden with meaning" in Burroughs' only comic strip, "The Unspeakable Mr. Hart", which appeared in the British underground magazine Cyclops. Not every intertextual link in the series was planned by Moore, who remarked that "there's stuff in there Dave had put in that even I only noticed on the sixth or seventh read," while other "things ... turned up in there by accident."
A stained smiley face is a recurring image in the story, appearing in many forms. In The System of Comics, Thierry Groensteen described the symbol as a recurring motif that produces "rhyme and remarkable configurations" by appearing in key segments of Watchmen, notably the first and last pages of the series - spattered with blood on the first, and sauce from a hamburger on the last. Groensteen cites it as one form of the circle shape that appears throughout the story, as a "recurrent geometric motif" and due to its symbolic connotations. Gibbons created a smiley face badge as an element of The Comedian's costume in order to "lighten" the overall design, later adding a splash of blood to the badge to imply his murder. Gibbons said the creators came to regard the blood-stained smiley face as "a symbol for the whole series", noting its resemblance to the Doomsday Clock ticking up to midnight. Moore drew inspiration from psychological tests of behaviorism, explaining that the tests had presented the face as "a symbol of complete innocence". With the addition of a blood splash over the eye, the face's meaning was altered to become simultaneously radical and simple enough for the first issue's cover to avoid human detail. Although most evocations of the central image were created on purpose, others were coincidental. Moore mentioned in particular that "the little plugs on the spark hydrants, if you turn them upside down, you discover a little smiley face".
Other symbols, images and allusion that appeared throughout the series often emerged unexpectedly. Moore mentioned that "[t]he whole thing with Watchmen has just been loads of these little bits of synchronicity popping up all over the place". Gibbons noted an unintended theme was contrasting the mundane and the romantic, citing the separate sex scenes between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre on his couch and then high in the sky on Nite Owl's airship. In a book of the craters and boulders of Mars, Gibbons discovered a photograph of the Galle crater, which resembles a happy face, which they worked into an issue. Moore said, "We found a lot of these things started to generate themselves as if by magic", in particular citing an occasion where they decided to name a lock company the "Gordian Knot Lock Company".