While many will know me as a dedicated reader of X-Men, some will find it surprising to learn that it is Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins’ beautifully executed Watchmen that stands as one of the most profound readings of my life. Moore’s noir story falls between a critical vivisection of the dark underbelly of heroism and a parody of a society in which individuals must hide behind masks. Ultimately, it asks the question, in a world where heroes are retired by superheroes, “Who watches the Watchmen?”
The graphic novel originated from a collection of characters acquired by DC Comics. The story rejected by DC for making the characters unusable in a longterm capacity, Moore ventured out on his own. The story follows a group of second generation heroes, Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach after the killing of their former teammate the Comedian. The story jumps between this generation of heroes and the Comedian’s previous team, the Minutemen.
The story pulls no punches and one is left wondering if Moore’s existence is surrounded in misery or if he is a brave soul willing to dive head first into the depravity of mankind. Moore creates a setting in which people need to done masks in an effort to maintain some sense of security in a world gone mad. But it’s not the gangs, thugs, or bottom feeders that Moore dissects to reveal the darkness contained within.
The Comedian is past his prime, a drunken veteran with a sad retirement surrounding him. His death begins an investigation that brings together former heroes retired thanks to the superhuman Dr. Manhattan. This forces us to see heroes as ourselves, average people. In the movie, Rorschach opens with the line:
…all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll look down and whisper “No.”
From this line forward, we know Rorschach is by all means looking down on society, finding himself above it, a lofty perch among the gods. We see aspects of Batman split between Rorschach, a man willing to do anything to find justice, fueled by his understanding that the world is a dark place and thus requiring him to be darker, and Nite Owl, an individual who only experiences his manhood when surrounded by gadgets and clothed within a cowl and mask. Rorschach also embraces an aspect of Superman often forgotten in comics. Rorschach, despite wearing a mask is not a secret identity, but the true face of the brutal, often times psychopathic hero, it is only when he removes his face, we are left seeing his secret identity and alter ego, the mentally unstable Walter Kovacs.
Meanwhile we’re given Dr. Manhattan, a man so powerful he is able to perceive himself throughout time and alter matter to his heart’s content. This godly man, on the brink of transcending his mortal self is only grounded by his former hero love, Silk Spectre II. As their relationship goes awry, Dr. Manhattan detaches from mankind, unable to connect with them on any level. With this disconnection, we begin to see how superheroes, or even heroes stand outside the norms of mankind and how in their self-righteousness determine the fate of those they swear to protect.
Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl are the two most grounded characters in the novel, but neither of them are without their flaws. Spectre harbors a damaged relationship with her mother, more so as they fight due to the daughter unwilling to understand her mother’s sympathies surrounding the Comedian, a man who raped her. Bred to take her mom’s place, she only becomes more fragile as she discovers she is the product of rape. Even Nite Owl, who, by putting on his hood and returning to his life as a vigilante causes his mentor to be killed. These two heroes only find themselves capable of being themselves once they have returned to their costumes, and much like Rorschach, they are left asking themselves which version of themselves is the secret identity.
Moore may waste no time initiating the story, but he does spend plenty of time delving into the characters. The Watchmen is incredibly dense and at times I found it less like a graphic novel, and more like a traditional high school English book. The characters in more stagnant pages will delve into dialogue, expressing themselves pondering philosophical questions about why they partake in this lifestyle. The storyline of who killed the Comedian becomes secondary and is mostly used as a storytelling device. The true story comes from the questions we constantly ask ourselves about these heroes. Who are they? Why do they fight crime? Why wear masks? What do they fear? Love? Why do they believe they know right from wrong?
Ozymandias is the character we see the least throughout the development of the novel. We understand his near perfect on every level, from Olympic athlete to incredible intellect, he drips of perfection. But much like Dr. Manhattan, his ability to see the bigger picture is at the expense of his empathy for mankind. While Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are the extremes, we watch the characters in the middle of the spectrum push themselves in one direction or the other. Ozymandias seeks superiority through detachment. Spectre and Nite Owl struggle to maintain the middle.
We ultimately discover the plot has been conceived by Ozymandias in an attempt to produce an unspeakable evil in which the world can unite and rally against. In the comics it’s a Cthulhu type monster and in the movie it’s Dr. Manhattan and the threat of nuclear annihilation. While we are left seeing him as a villain, we also ask ourselves if unifying the world was worth sacrificing millions? In the movie he says the lives of a few outweighs saving the many, and in this, we find Moore’s continued theme of, “Who watches the Watchmen?”
As the reader, we walk away from the yellow covered graphic novel with a sense of disgust. Moore forces us to ponder the heroes we so desperately seek to connect with and question their motives. Can Superman do what’s best for mankind if he himself is not human? Does the motivations of Batman justify him killing? Can either of them create their own rules? As they protect those beneath them, we’re left asking ourselves, with these Gods amongst men, do they serve us? We may walk away from the novel in disgust, but we’re branded with a single thought every time we stand in awe of the heroics performed in a comic: Who watches the Watchmen?