The superhero genre was created when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster imagined a bullet-proof crime fighter from another planet. The genre took another step when Stan Lee wondered how a teenager with the proportionate strength of a spider would deal with the challenges of adolescence. With The Watchmen, Alan Moore pushes the genre even further. What happens when superheroes wrestle with a morally ambiguous world? Deal with mental illness and depression? Grow old? How does the world react to a hero who is seemingly omnipotent? What are the social, political and cultural ramifications of heroes in tights?
Following these issues to their ultimate end is what makes The Watchmen classic. The multiple plots and the endless allusions make for dense reading, but they are done well. The authors understand the conventions of the medium, and they stretch them. They create a world that is rich and textured.
That being said, the graphic novel is very dated. I can understand why the movie didn’t do well at the box office. The market in 2009 for movies about an alternative 1985 in which Richard Nixon is still president must be pretty small. In the book, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war dominate ever page. The ever present threat of death and destruction pushes society to the point of neurosis. The Watchmen outlines the transition from the moral clarity of the early superheroes to nihilistic confusion.
This descent is probably what bothers me most. The underlying assumption of the book is that there is no purpose or meaning in life. All of the major characters accept this worldview without question. Each responds to the nihilism in his or her own way.
The Comedian sees justice as a sick joke masking a reality of violence and power. He embodies the joke as an American hero while at the same time he kills, rapes and destroys without thought. Winning, it has been said, is a great disinfectant, and the Comedian wants to be on the winning side.
Rorschach suggests that our world is like the random inkblots of his namesake. The only meaning is what we impose upon life. For example, when Nite Owl II expresses remorse at the death of a friend, Rorschach concocts a theory of who killed him. Rorschach hopes that Nite Owl II can take comfort from his theory and the revenge to which it inevitably leads. He himself sees conspiracies everywhere, and he embraces the meaning that he has created without any doubt. His cruelty comes from his own manufactured certitude.
Dr. Manhattan is the closest thing to a supreme being in the book. Although his knowledge and power has no limits, he can’t understand humanity. For him, the world is relative without meaning. The future is pre-determined. Even his emotional responses are part of a script that he has been handed. His ability and power is merely a tool in the hands of others. He does not have the moral freedom to act on his own. For example, he cannot stop the JFK assignation, or the Comedian’s murder in Vietnam of someone in cold blood.
Ozymandius is the existentialist. He wishes to create meaning and shape reality to fit his new world. Like other political messiahs, the nobility of his aims excuses a million crimes. He is willing to slaughter others to usher in a new age of peace and prosperity. Although the book seems to embrace his final solution to the crisis of nuclear holocaust, doubts remain. Even his name, Ozymandius, reminds one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem which suggests that ultimately the mighty do fall.
NITE OWL II AND SILK SPECTRE II
Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II are harder to classify. On the one hand, they have the closest connection to the superheroes of the past. After all, their names and history have been handed to them. On the other hand, they are products of this nihilistic world. Hence, there is a quick acceptance of the horrific compromise that they are handed at the end of the book. Both attempt to hold the chaos of the world at bay.
Like the snow globe she discovers as a girl, Silk Spectre II seeks a safe place where time moves slower. She finds solace in relationships. She seeks friendship, family ties, and lovers. As the world comes crashing around her, she needs others.
In contrast, Nite Owl II tries to strike a balance between the mechanistic and the meaningful. At the end of chapter seven, Nite Owl II’s secret identity writes eloquently about holding onto the poetry of birds while remaining committed to the scientific and the material. He is a romantic.
Nonetheless, no one in the novel stands for an objective reality. As the Comedian demonstrates, fighting for truth, justice and the American way is laughable. God is dead, yet the novel does not celebrate. There is something sorrowful and regrettable that moral clarity has no foundation or basis. In one of the last scenes of the book, a group of New Yorkers try to do the right thing by intervening when an argument gets out of control. All are slaughtered in a monstrous act of random violence. We lament their deaths and their pointless desire to help their neighbor.
While The Watchmen is persuasive and effective, I can’t accept this view of reality. When accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner said,
“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”Faulkner’s words seem to damn the entire world of The Watchmen.