Watchmen by Moore, Alan & Dave Gibbons, 1986

Watchmen by Moore, Alan & Dave Gibbons - Book cover from

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It's easy for me to see that comic books don't get very much respect in literary circles. Not even in SF literary circles, and considering that SF is still the dark horse of the language arts, that confuses me. It just seems that stories told with pictures and speech bubbles get less respect in traditional literary circles simply because they have pictures and bubbles. As far as I can tell however, there is nothing at all wrong with many of the stories. Take Sandman, by Neil Gaiman for example. In 1991 one issue of that very popular comic book (#19, A Midsummer Night's Dream) was nominated for and actually won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction. The members of the board of the World Fantasy Convention were so shocked that a comic book could win their prestigious award, and so determined to keep this heresy from occurring ever again, that the very next day they changed the rules so that a comic book never again could even be entered into the competition. I cannot imagine a story better suited to depict the real attitudes that publishers, critics and scholars have about comic books/graphic novels. And despite the fact that there are increasing numbers of stories published in this medium every year, I do not see things changing much in the future. But....that will not stop me, of course, from bringing you reports on the ones that I like. Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, is in my opinion one of the very best that this sub-genre has to offer. It is the story of several emotionally damaged superheroes who soldier on after the forced dismantling of their team despite the fact that for all but two of them, maybe three, nobody needs them anymore.

Before I really get into this review, I think it only fair to mention that not much of it is going to make sense unless you have read the book. This thing really is a masterpiece of modern literature, despite the fact that it is one of the most complex things that is out there. Usually the hard-to-achieve combination of simplicity and depth is what sells me on a work. This one defines that standard due entirely to Moore's skills. But because of that, I really find it difficult to do this thing justice. So my advice is to read it first, then come back to this review. Now, that being said I think I can do a passable job at deconstructing this monster and communicating what it is exactly I like about it. Let's start with the characters, because I think that has to be the single best element that this work has to offer.

The anchor for the entire story seems to be a sociopath named Rorschach; a former member of a team of superheroes who were forcibly disbanded after the passage of legislation clamping down on vigilantism. Rorschach has no abilities save for a genius level intellect and intimate knowledge of the criminal mind. He is an excellent detective as well, and enters the story after the murder of another hero of highly questionable morals named Blake. Rorschach theorized after Blake's murder that someone is trying to kill "masks," or heroes, and the investigation of the mask-killer set the tone for most of the action throughout the entire story. Rorschach was a brutally effective hound who had no problem with torturing the innocent and the guilty alike for information. He was most wounded by his own childhood abandonment by his prostitute mother. He grew up hard and learned very early in his life how to fight and win, and how to hide his true thoughts. He developed a very strong sense of right and what is wrong, and subscribed to a morally absolute world view. It is this quality in Rorschach against which the rest of the characters are measured. Moore casts as Rorschach's opposite another character named Dr. Manhattan, a post-human creature with real super powers who had absolute control of matter on a sub-atomic level and was a walking abrogation of everything that Einstein had to say. Manhattan saw the future more absolutely and clearly than you and I see the present, and thus serves as a deterministic foil to Rorschach's objectivism. Certainly not in the middle, but not too far outside the midway point between the poles anchored by Rorschach and Manhattan was Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, an athletic and hyper-intelligent businessman who had cultivated the fame he earned as a masked hero into a multi-billion dollar corporation that seemed to own just about everything in the United States.

How exactly Veidt saw his purpose was somewhat unclear. One of the major subplots in this book involved Manhattan, who was essentially a living nuclear bomb. He acquired his powers in the 1950's and since then had vastly tilted the balance of the Cold War towards the American's favor. Manhattan was for all practical purposes an omniscient, omnipotent god, and one of the obvious but unspoken questions in the early part of the book was "what happens when Manhattan gets tired of us mere mortals and leaves us for the what the rest of the universe has to offer?" Without going into too much spoiling detail, that is exactly what happened here, though not as you might imagine. In advance of this Veidt had engineered a false doomsday plot that was straight out of Lovecraft. It would eventually to kill millions, but was carefully crafted so that it also may give all humans on Earth, Soviets and Americans alike, good reason to collaborate against a perceived extra-dimensional threat. Veidt's spoken motivations were nothing but honorable. Moore gives enough to make even the least skeptical wonder if his motivations were financial instead of altruistic. But whatever the various characters outlook and differences, Moore managed to completely redraw the battle lines once the real conflict was made apparent.

Rorschach and Veidt may have different moral outlooks, but together they stood to defy Manhattan's determinism. In behaving the way that he did Rorsach also contradicted Manhattan's and Veidt's inhumanity; he served as a conservative voice of passion, and that quality alone sets him apart from everyone else. Consider Rorschach's conversation with a prison psychotherapist. He was describing the period in his life when his Rorsach persona dominated his life. A little girl was kidnapped by a pedophile who raped her then killed her and fed her corpse to his dogs. Rorschach was driven to rage by the crime. He captured the pedophile, doused him in fuel, handcuffed him to a hardened steel object, and gave him a hacksaw, telling him it would be quicker to cut his hand off to escape. As he recalled the pedophile's corpse starting to cinder, he recalled to his psychiatrist:

Watched for an hour. Nobody got out. Stood in firelight, sweltering bloodstain on chest like map of violent new continent. Felt cleansed. Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in night. Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone.

We live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, Hellbound as ourselves; go into oblivion. There is nothing else.

Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring into it too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. Its us. Only us.

One of the things that is certain to be apparent on the minds of a first time reader of Watchmen is the sheer density of the story. I do not think that I have ever read another piece that is so heavily self-referential, meaningful on so many levels, and written so very smoothly. Take as one example a particular image that turns up again and again in the book. Its the image of two figures embracing one another, apparently passionately, spray painted in black on various exterior walls in New York City. At once it is obvious that it is just graffiti, but because of all of the other themes and motifs that Moore has written into this story, it has multiple meanings that really play on the perceptions of the reader. In other words, it also invokes Hiroshima as it resembles the inverse outlines visible on that city's walls after the atomic attack there, and therefore foreshadows a threatened all out nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets. Since it is also the opposite color of the outlines left in Japan, it is also symbolic of the reverse effect of Viedt's coming catastrophe. It is heavily reminiscent of the memory that Rorschach has of his abusive, prostitute mother and one of her johns; it mocks the impotence that Dan Dreiberg experienced the first time he tried to sleep with Sally Jupiter (both important supporting characters); and it serves as an internal reversal of the relationship strife that a lesbian couple and the psychologist and his wife were going through and which came to a head at ground zero, in close proximity to one of the outlines. More, it serves as a constant reminder of the most important physical aspect of our lives: Love. As the image appears so many times in the book it also serves as a rather disturbing and vaguely drawn anchor that is capable of aiding the reader in drawing conclusions about the meaning of scenes and panels that surround it, and thus despite the multiple meanings, it is a strong story telling aid.

The central motif of this book is the superman myth, and the conflict that is created by the need to do good. The absolute magic of what Moore has done here is focused on the ways that huge cast of characters individually thinks good should be realized, and what a reasonable cost to achieve it is. What Moore succeeds in realizing here is that radical attempts to do good usually have the effect of segregating the heroes out from the rest of the human pack. Sometimes this is because of awe from the average people, but too often it is because of the hero's guilt over the psychological costs of their actions; at least for the more normative of the heroes out there. But Moore also shows that sometimes those emotions create megalomaniacs that find reinforcement and solace in the achievement of their goals, despite the psychic and, yes, human costs, and the real story does not lay in what they do and why, but what conflict arises over those costs.

One of the uber-messages of this work however has to do with man's relationship to god, and I used the lowercase "g" here on purpose as the god in question is a man-turned-super-being, Dr. Manhattan. Throughout the entire book the good doctor is referred to as a god, and I'm sure to the eye of any reader, he appears that way. Dr. Manhattan's character has occurred in comic book and SF/fantasy literature before. Most recently he appeared Marvel Comics as the Molecule Man. Like Dr. Manhattan, the Molecule Man was capable of affecting all states of matter on an atomic level. Recognizing the difficulty in depicting the true nature of such a creature Marvel Comics took the easy way out and gave the Molecule Man a few choice mental issues, and portrayed him as a bumbling idiot that but for his ill-thought shenanigans, was capable of destroying the entire planet. Not so in Moore's work. Here Dr. Manhattan is a fully realized super-being, who has the power over life and death. That he is capable of seeing into many dimensions merely suggests that he could conceivably send one to Heaven or Hell as well, but Moore never went there, thankfully. Instead Dr. Manhattan is the real watchman; he guards the world against nuclear Armageddon, only as time goes by, he ceases to be interested in the workings and doings of man and has gradually come to care for humans only for the atomic structures of their flesh, and hardly at all for our sparks of consciousness. I found the whole thing reflective of the mode of withdrawal of western God from the affairs of man, but that too is beside the point.

In Watchmen god was tricked, but this time not by Loki the shape-changer, but by his chameleon-like stand-in. He was tricked by a flesh-and-blood man who quite rightly was the king-of-kings on Earth. Adrian Viedt, Ozymandias, succeeded in exploiting a flaw in god's perception, and before god figured out what was going on, Viedt loosed Hell on Earth. Why did he do this? As a revenge plot? No. To dominate the Earth? Probably not, although he did have some pretty strong economic interests to hold up. Instead Viedt probably did do it out of a sense of altruism. Viedt did it to show mankind that all of their petty squabbles and foibles would add up one day to something cataclysmic. He did it to show mankind that Armageddon is possible. To do it he capitalized on the fact that most everyone in the west had accepted Dr. Manhattan as god, or at the very least his stand-in. He turned the rest of the world against Manhattan by "proving" to them that he was not the super-being the supposed him to be; he tricked mankind and convinced them that god had abandoned them, and would not help them out in the hour of their greatest need. He showed us that we were alone. And in doing that he finally, after thousands and thousands of years, succeeded in driving the guilt-causing and warlike western God out of the minds of man for good. Mankind had no choice after the monster came. The obvious conclusion that mankind reached after being subjected to Viedt's plan was that there was an alien intelligence out there, and as far as we should be concerned, it was us versus them. Mankind needed to find some common ground, and it needed to do it quickly. To do that, in the western mind at least, required a complete paradigm shift. Then, once the god of divisiveness was driven out, all of those eastern inspired images that had only circled around in the background came to the forefront, as Americans and the rest of humanity remade themselves into a collaborative, peaceful and loving society. Think about it. What other possible purpose could a place like Gunga-Diner serve? It might have been named Gunga-Burger for all the real-life possibility that Gunga-Diner had. That restaurant chain was never intended to be taken seriously. Instead it became nothing more than an element of eastern culture that was clearly identifiable and plainly visible that came onto the scene from the background for good once a void was created by the vacation of the western god. At the end of the book when we are shown the Soviet and American flags crossed, we were not being shown an analogy for the S.A.L.T. talks, or glasnost, which is where those images came from. Granted, there were political undertones to that image; The U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. had decided to put aside their squabbles and work together in preparation for what may come. But there was, of course, much, much more to that message. What we were actually being shown was a symbol of the implementation of Eastern thinking in Western lands. I almost wish Moore had used a Tibetan flag instead of a Soviet one, but of course that would not have worked. This is what I believe Moore was trying to say with this book: We need to cast off this catastrophically destructive worldview that causes us to view "the other" as something that needs to be killed, and adopt one that permits the other to live in peace, as long as it is done reciprocally, and in order to do that we need to exorcise ourselves of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The end was not exactly political, although I will grant you that it did smell that way. It was philosophical. It was theological. It was intellectual. It was beautiful.

I've heard the Dali Llama speak before. One thing that he mentioned in the speech that I attended has stuck with me for quite a long time. He said that as westerners it is OK to experiment with eastern thinking and philosophy, but as members of a culture that has not traditionally accepted those values, we should never allow ourselves to become completely immersed in them. I think that he was speaking to certain individuals in the crowd; a few bald Caucasians in orange robes, to be precise. But I have always wondered if he actually meant that it is impossible for us to shuck off our Judeo-Christian heritage. Entre, Messr. Moore, with the countervailing notion.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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