Published May 27, 2019
Watchmen is almost impossibly substantive. If I were to harken a comparison between it and another work, I suppose the closest would be Moby-Dick, not so much in terms of themes or plot but in terms of the sheer breath both exhale forth in the mastery of their respective mediums. It’s for this reason that Watchmen seems such an insurmountable task to review in a traditional sense. The work is frankly beyond any such effort that attempts to lay it before one’s feet feels a truly daunting task, and so I willingly consign myself to the futility of doing so much in favor of simply declaring why the work is so important. In that spirit, let it be known that Watchmen represents the most succinct and authoritative indictment of modernity yet conceived.
The term “post-modern” gets tossed around a lot, though not nearly as much in the last year or so due to the degree by which it became a shameful meme in itself – something we have the unfailing dorks of the Intellectual Dark Web to thank for – though, that is precisely what Watchmen is. In the truest sense, what was written by Moore was a critique of the traditional notion of a hero. The 12-issue comic serves as an upending of the superhero genre, itself almost synonymous with comic books by the time of the graphic novel’s publication. The idea of a perfectly moral, all-powerful hero with a positive character arc never rears its head in Watchmen. All of the vigilantes in this story are mentally ill or damaged, the world moves on without them, they do little to nothing to influence the greater events, and none of their actions affect a single traditional moral outcome in the entire story. They are pedestrians, patrons. The futility implicit in the plot of the book bleeds into every corner of its pages. The Doomsday Clock ticks on, independent from the woes of its masked denizens. Nite Owl is handsomely rich with no purpose for his wealth or crime-fighting contraptions. Rorschach has earned the fear of the entire city, but has become too single-focused to see the greater evil. The Comedian is a hopeless nihilist whose cynicism only cracks when his purpose is made obsolete. Dr. Manhattan is a god amongst men, but comes to understand himself as little more than a “puppet who can see the strings.” In conventional hero comics, the characters are agents by which the plot is thrust into action, but in Watchmen, they exist as observers seemingly condemned to the same sense of powerlessness that any normal person feels when put up against the immutable rhythms of the world.
Moore has stated that his intention with Watchmen was to make a realistic superhero comic. To write Watchmen required Moore to understand the joke latent in an era otherwise possessed with the threat of nuclear war. The recurring motif of the smiley face is his constant reminder to the reader just how dry the universe likes its comedy. To be realistic means to understand the impossibility of design, leadership and heroism. In this sense, it is the character of Ozymandias who serves as both the book’s most and least realistic character, as well as its only genuine superhero. Ozymandias is the only character capable of superhuman-like abilities, and the only one who has the will to use them to impose himself on the world. Yet, the reader is meant to be disgusted by this. Ozymandias’s absurd and inexplicable feats of strength and intellect are exactly what the readership had come to expect in a traditional superhero by the time of Watchmen’s publishing, and in the context of the story, these abilities seem to be sorely out of place. Further so, the moral conclusions he comes to are revolting in a primally human sense.
Ozymandias’s talents and heroic image are subverted by his callous sociopathy and malignant narcissism. He commercializes his identity, and actively encouraging the shameless profiteering of heroism as a brand. Adrien Veidt is a consequentialist who understands that if humanity is to survive, all of the principles traditionally used to define it must be violated. Humanity itself must be invalidated to be saved, and out of the rubble will be its replacement, built upon the bedrock Adrien has crafted. He is the superhero humanity would have if superheroes ever existed. Of course, as discussed in a previous piece regarding Clown World, the joke is always on the patron for participating. For all of Adrien’s scheming, what seems to him to be apparent success is belied by his status as a mere man as opposed to the hero he wishes to be. Whether or not Rorschach’s journal is published by The New Frontiersman is up to the reader’s interpretation, but assuming the theme of life being one big cosmic joke wasn’t just thrown in there for Moore’s own amusement, the implication is clear: Veidt was the butt of the joke, something Dr. Manhattan seemed to understand well by his departure from the story.
On the note of Manhattan, it would be keen to point out the obvious if only for the purpose of investigating the character further, but he is what the uninitiated would assume is the true superhero of the story. Despite being the only character in the book with something akin to real superpowers, Manhattan is not a superhero. In fact, he may be the furthest character from that role, and yet seems the most sympathetic. He arguably lacks more agency in the plot than any other major character, and has an extreme reluctance to use his powers for the purpose of entangling himself with human affairs. Manhattan is the character the naive human brain would like to pin all their hopes on for saving the world, and indeed the Nixon-run government does, but he has no interest in maintaining this purpose. Manhattan’s schizoid personality has become especially pronounced by the events of the book. The toll taken on his emotional intelligence by the sheer litany of ways his body and consciousness can interact with a world he now sees as a subatomic sandbox has subsequently caused him to disengage almost completely from humans. Manhattan is different, and his difference makes it impossible to communicate the depths of his comprehension of the world to the others that inhabit it. Beyond this, he simply does not care to.
Manhattan is the story’s resident tragic character. He possesses the answers to the universe, but absolute knowledge of these mysteries makes him expectedly dull and pessimistic. He interprets time as simultaneous, and so no single event compels meaning as all are seemingly predetermined. What Manhattan offers that no superhero comic book character had offered to readers before was the question of “why”. Why exercise power? For what purpose? Why are people worth saving? Of course, humor reaches even the dullest of blue bipedal light bulbs, and the comedy of “thermodynamic miracles” reignites the spark of empathy in Manhattan’s barely-human mind once again. If Ozymandias is the superhero that would exist had they ever come into vogue, Manhattan is the character with superpowers that would exist if ever such a thing were possible. They serve as examples of a Nietzschean perspective of moral archetypes, Ozymandias the Master and Manhattan the Overman. The former attempts to impose his presence and morality on the world, the latter attempts tirelessly and even fruitlessly to rise above it.
The Comedian likewise exists as something of a subversion of the genre, though for less obvious ways than the other two. In all likelihood, the Comedian was the most difficult character for Moore to write. As a character whose greatest contributions to the book’s story largely happen in flashbacks, the Comedian serves innately well as means by which to scrutinize modern history. Edward Blake’s presence throughout the book is marked by disdain for the world he inhabits. He trots the globe, participating in America’s wars and killing its political enemies with perverse glee. If anything, Blake seems to be attempting to invert the relationship between himself and Clown World. He chooses to be, as Rorschach noted, a parody of the 20th century. Faced with the hopelessness of meaningful change, Blake’s stands in meaningful contradistinction to the conventional superhero, instead seeming to endeavor in spite of it. Blake wants to play along with the joke, he wants to be in on it. In fact, Blake ultimately exists as a character that cares too much, and pretends not to. To make an identity of nihilism as a response to a world devoid of direction does more to signal the humanity of his character than dispel it. But there is no being in on the joke in Clown World. Blake, like everyone who tries to play the game, becomes part of it. Of all of the characters in Watchmen, it is these three in particular that do more to transform the genre than any of the others. These characters exist to bring to the forefront of the reader’s mind the prevailing idea Moore has of the type of “heroes” that would be created by the insanity of a grey, “rudderless” existence. Ozymandias, Manhattan, and the Comedian serve as reminders that they are subject to the universe the same as any man, and that the universe has no time for superheroes.
In terms of the comic book medium on the whole, nothing else even comes close to Watchmen. Comics are ultimately a market inundated with a higher volume of abject trash culture than any other entertainment medium has to offer. As brilliant as Watchmen is, it has nary any competition to speak of. In a medium filled to the brim with cape shit, it only seems fitting that the best work among them is the only one that is reasonably self-aware. Despite this, Watchmen is immensely respectful to the medium. The comic is glaringly traditional in its construction. A box format for panels is used. Speech bubbles confer dialogue, much of it narration or expository. Symmetry is used gracefully page-to-page. What stands out are Moore and Gibbon’s deliberations at mirroring opposing pages. Higgins’s use of an atypical color palette, relying heavily on secondary colors was a risky European-style gamble, but paid off. Gibbons uses hard lines on everything he draws, making it doubly imperative to ensure the importance of each and everything shown on the page, as it can quickly become overburdened by such explicit detail. Panels frequently work together to create an entire canvas, as if it were a single picture. The comic continues to hold the trophy for the greatest example of time travel storytelling yet conveyed, utilizing panels as windows for Dr. Manhattan to walk though as he skips between his past, present, and future. Grand vistas of death and destruction are all drawn perfectly in focus in the beginning of the 12th chapter, so as to convey every disturbing facet of detail the way that a camera could not capture and an eye could not otherwise see. A B-plot, itself contained inside an in-universe comic book, is constantly invoked throughout the story to provide perspective on the book’s subtext, a technique that would have felt utterly disjointed and confusing in a film or novel. The reason for the comic’s unrivaled supremacy is precisely because it is perfectly a comic. It, in its truest essence, cannot be Watchmen in any other form. Watchmen is so important because it is not something that can exist outside its original conception. It is endless, yet constrained to the intentional design it was attributed from the very beginning. A perfect inversion.