I finished reading the graphic novel/trade paperback Watchmen for the first time. I suppose it’s about time, seeing as the movie is coming out (which I won’t see until it comes out on Netflix). The comic people have only been talking about it for decades as one of the best comic series ever produced. Now that I’ve had the experience of reading it, I can finally comment and throw my two cents into the collective reaction. Spoilers follow, so beware, ahhrooo!
For those not in the know, Watchmen is a story about a group of super heroes under the premise, “what if super heroes were real?” It takes place in an authoritarian world, where America won the Vietnam war because of superheroes (well, one really), and Nixon is running for his third term. It’s America versus the Russians, with a nuclear confrontation approaching over Afghanistan. Super heroes who don’t work for the government are not allowed to practice as heroes, and the public more or less hates them.
Into this background comes the story of a number of heroes who have mostly retired or sold out (as it is often believed of the so-called “hippies”). They are getting fat, old, and nostalgic. Someone begins killing or neutralizing them one by one, and an investigation begins. At the center of this is a plot to change the world by a mysterious villain, who wishes to save the world by causing a disaster so horrible the world will have to unite in order to face it. The heroes fail to stop the plot, and become collaborators in a new world order based on fear of a manufactured enemy. Almost sounds prophetic, given this comic came out in the eighties.
I read this book, and I admit it’s done well considering it’s stance. Back then, the dark realism must have seemed really cool back then. I don’t know how well it holds up now, however. It’s too safe, ultimately, skirting the boundaries of super hero comic books but never really crossing over the safety line into where comics need to go now, to be relevant. Now that we’ve arrived at a time that evokes some of the background of the book, the book itself is no longer a warning of a nightmare world to come but a sign of how long things have been stagnant and flat.
I’ll say it again. Comic book heroes are obsolete. The premise being put forth shouldn’t be “what if super heroes were real?”, because that’s the same as “what if super villains were real?” The super villain in Watchmen is a former super hero himself, a reflection of the dark truth that super heroes are becoming power fantasies for the rich and powerful, instead of the weak and oppressed. “I have seen the face of the enemy and the enemy is us.” The premise should be “what if super heroes were real and were still super heroes?” Because super villains exist by default. Can any normal person fight a concentrated system of power by themselves? The super hero is an attempt to manifest the transcendent function in the psyche.
1. The super heroes in Watchmen are all without morals.
All of them have cracked under the strain of being super heroes and become disconnected from normal people, the people they are supposed to be serving.
Dr. Manhattan: Commits war crimes on a vast scale. Does research and development for the military. Manufactures raw materials for big business. Has no empathy with human beings. Never follows his own discoveries of the universe – showing wonder at the thermo-dynamic miracle when it suits him, never following up on his “puppet strings” observation to its logical conclusion, ignoring his one-channel omniscience so he can pursue his “work”. At the end of the story he abandons earth to pursue delusions of godhood. This guy is the biggest moral coward and one-sided nutcase in the story.
The Comedian: Wow, talk about a cynic who has totally cracked. Murders and rapes without remorse. Mocks anyone if they show a shred of moral qualms or decency. But his tough guy act is all a farce – when he finds out the big dude plot, instead of joining in he runs and waits to die.
Rorschach: Psychopath who terrorizes criminals, sometimes torturing them and sometimes killing them. Never once applying to himself the standards he applies to others, a victim of abuse who now abuses others, he dies abandoned by his only “friend”, with his journal presumably about to inspire someone to follow in his footsteps into insanity.
Night Owl: At first, he seems like the only genuine nice guy in the film. Rich dude with lots of cool gadgets, Rorschach’s only “friend”, and no vices or skeletons in his closet (that we know of). He caves in like a pack of cards when the chips are down, however, becoming Miss Jupiter’s next surrogate father, abandoning his “friend” like it was nothing, and agreeing not to reveal the doomsday plot of the villain.
Miss Jupiter: The only female character besides her mother. The military pays her to be Dr. Manhattan’s lover, so he will have a “human connection” and continue to work for the military instead of spacing out and leaving the solar system. After a while she can’t handle Dr. Manhattan’s lack of empathy and leaves him for Night Owl, who shows her at least some affection and a chance to be a co-partner. Unfortunately, she exists pretty much as a satellite character, having no impact on the story at all. Her dialogue with Dr. Manhattan to return and save the earth is wasted – he’s only acting out his watchmaker complex and having her mouth the lines he knows she will make.
Veidt: This disconnected, cuckoo guy is “the world’s smartest man”, taking as his role models Rameses the second and Aleksander the Great (ancient world monarchs, what wonderful role models). He ends up being the super villain, enacting yet another elitist plot to “destroy the world in order to save it”. His idea is that in order to stop the world from blowing itself up, it needs to be unified under a greater threat. He teleports a fake alien monster into Manhattan, causing a psychic shock wave that kills half the city and drives half the survivors insane from nightmares. Great guy. What’s even better is how everyone else but Rorschach buys into this. So Dr. Manhattan kills Rorschach and a new age of fascism begins.
Yes, these are “real” super heroes…who also happen to be “real” loonies. Where are the sane or moral “super heroes” as there would be in real life? It’s one-sided, and the audience is cheated of any chance to see what the whole big picture is. Most people don’t notice, because they are too busy fawning over how “realistic” and “cool” the messed up psychos and morally bankrupt characters placed before them are.
2. Normal people are ridiculed and demonized.
Every single normal person in the Watchmen world is a thug, punk, grimy street dweller, disinterested working stiff, cynical jerk, or clueless citizen in need of some educatin’ in the ways of the world. There’s some character development in the form of a newsstand operator and a young boy who reads comics, but the face of “the public” is an extremely negative one, as if they alone were to blame for all the horrors going on in the world.
It’s an elitist worldview, not uncommon of those who regurgitate the stock apologist support of power structures. The “great unwashed mass” cannot tell right from wrong, nor can it make decisions — look at the world, look at all the democracy the people have, and look how they squander it! Well, it’s obvious that an aristocratic super heroic elite must make the decisions for them by staging a catastrophe and shocking everyone into accepting absolute state rule.
All the popular movements of the sixties, which have grown and expanded since then are largely absent, except as scenes of riots and mentions of unrest throughout the country. Granted, it’s a “dark alternate world”, but the premise that people have become mindless rioters is one-sided. None of the heroes ever explains what people are upset about, except that “super heroes are taking over”, based around a police strike. That strikes me as an interesting statement – were super heroes becoming the new state police, and due to protest the power centers were forced to outlaw unsanctioned heroes to maintain power? Whenever the public protests a state act of violence that elites wish to propagate, they take it underground and “covert”. Iran-Contra, anyone?
That means people aren’t the mindless drones portrayed in the story. They have “realistic” self-interest and a desire for “the right thing”. It just isn’t what the “powerful” want. This reveals that the lens of the book is strongly on the side of the super heroes who are themselves privileged aristocrats. We are reading through the point of view of jerks and loonies, and expected to identify with them! How’s that for propaganda and indoctrination? The book you are reading is meant, by means of sleight of hand, to make you sympathetic to the people who own your country and make decisions for you.
3. Time for the Unforgiven of comic book heroes.
I’m not going to go into the convoluted logic of the ending, and how messed up Veidt’s infantile view of how the world works is going to make things worse for normal people. Nor am I going to comment much on Dr. Manhattan’s two-faced viewpoint on the world, collaborating with a plot he knows doesn’t mean anything and abandoning earth to go play god somewhere (or just go irrevocably crazy in the vast emptiness of space without anyone to point out his shadow).
If this is what super heroes really are, one could be tempted to lose faith in heroism or the struggle to better humanity by means of “super powers”, which really means collective powers moving to counteract damaged structures and build systems that actually work. I think the time has come for mainstream comic book writers to admit that what they are writing is meaningless escapism without fun that serves the interests of the rich and powerful, and either confess they are sons of bees whacks churning out industry, or walk away and do something more interesting with their talents. Like, you know, actually cross the line.
The story is over. Super heroes have been shown to be failed idealists like the “hippies”. They tried to change the world and failed. Just keep telling the same old story over and over again thinking you are cool and hip. Too late! The ship has sailed, and we’re all left holding the bag of an art form that has rotted into compost.
Time for a new beginning. The next generation of youngsters growing out of the compost to save us old losers from the dragon that slew us, and make comics count again. Because the truth is, the idealists of the past didn’t fail, they succeeded in softening up the belly of the beast so the next attack run could get set up. Watchmen gets one thing right, with Dr. Manhattan revealing to Veidt that “it never ends”, that Veidt’s “end of history” moment is temporary. The unwashed masses could come back at any time and finish the job, because it is they who hold the “ultimate weapon” of public opinion.
The geeky kid about to pick up the journal is wrong in an objective sense, but in a subjective moment, it’s the image of hope – that the story is not over. Now you get to write what happens next. And if what Dr. Manhattan said about thermo-dynamic miracles is true, then there is a probability that it will end, or begin anew.
Watchmen is a well crafted and enjoyable nightmare world. But if it’s on Time Magazine’s “100 best novels”, I know exactly who Watchmen is serving. Sorry dudes, but with Pluto entering Capricorn, we’re all about to find out just how crazy it can get. The “hippies” are getting their second wind, just like a WWE wrestler who’s been taking a beating for twenty minutes.
Hulkin’ up, fools!