NOTE: Because this work was originally released in separate issues, the page count resets at the start of each chapter. Direct quotations will therefore be cited as “Chapter X, page Y.” I will also be discussing spoilers, so keep that in mind if you have not read this work.
There are some stories that resonate across years and generations. Not because they depict universal themes and experiences that anyone can relate to — quite the opposite, in some cases. Sometimes a story comes along that captures the fears and tensions of the era it was created in, and because history repeats itself, future readers can see the fears of their generation reflected there as well. This, I think, is why Watchmen is coming back.
Not that Watchmen ever really went away. Since its original 12-issue run in 1986 and 1987, the story created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons has held a venerated position in the canon of modern comic books. Together with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it’s often called the starting point for the Dark Age of Comics. It’s a Hugo Award winner and ended up on TIME Magazine’s 100 Best Novels list, the only graphic novel to do so. This year is the tenth anniversary of Zack Snyder’s film adaptation, which merits a whole other discussion about the difficulties of translating great comic books into movies. But what got me thinking about Watchmen — why I finally got around to reading it and why I’m writing this article — is the upcoming TV series on HBO.
I first got interested in the Watchmen show for a somewhat selfish reason (it takes place in my hometown, which I’m excited to see depicted on film, even though it’s guaranteed to be an unflattering portrait). But the real noteworthy part is that it’s not going to be just another adaptation of the original novel. Instead it looks like it’s going to be a sequel set in the present day. And the more you think about it, the more sense that makes, because there are a lot of things about Watchmen that are still relevant in our world even after thirty-two years. Reading the novel in 2019, I was a bit shocked that much of what it had to say about the 1980s — particularly civil unrest, political division and Cold War anxiety — felt eerily familiar. And that’s not getting into how thoroughly it twists and deconstructs the tropes of superhero stories. To be honest, the current status of heroes in pop culture makes Watchmen‘s return all the more exciting. In a world dominated by the Marvel and DC films, which have long abandoned any pretense of realism, a great Watchmen story has the potential to be just as radical now as it was in 1986.
Everything Is Awful
To explain what sets Watchmen apart from standard comic book fare, I first want to establish its basic premise. For the uninitiated, Watchmen takes place in an alternate reality where the first comic appearances of Superman, Batman, etc. in the late 1930s inspired many people to take up hero identities and fight crime in real life. But unlike their fictional counterparts, these folks are not endowed with any great abilities. That brings us to the first major point of divergence from the norm: with only one exception, none of the heroes in Watchmen possess any real superpowers. In fact, they aren’t even called superheroes. The book refers to them as costumed heroes or masked adventurers or vigilantes. And they’re all just human — physically fit, of course, and some having above-average intelligence — but human nonetheless.
So why do they fight? What spurs an ordinary person to don the identity of a hero? Rarely out of a desire to do good, as we expect from our modern heroes. In Watchmen, it’s usually for a fundamentally selfish reason. Some do it for an ego boost. Some are just rich and bored. One thinks crime-fighting will help her modeling career. Some just want to hurt and kill others without consequence. And one was just made up as a bank mascot. We’re not exactly dealing with the Avengers here.
Moore and Gibbons provide a fascinating look at the long-term effects of this vigilante activity, not only on the alternate history but on the characters themselves. Never in the Watchmen world does being a vigilante or hero make society better. By the year 1985, almost fifty years after the first costumed heroes appear, the United States is well on its way into Orwell Land thanks to their influence. Richard Nixon is in his fifth term as President, Woodward and Bernstein having been murdered at the hands of a nasty fellow calling himself The Comedian (more on him later). The Vietnam War was a success, encouraging America to become more aggressive towards the Soviets abroad and the counterculture protests at home. Cold War tensions are heightened thanks to the tactical and scientific advantages that superheroes have given the American government. And the superheroes themselves are doing nothing to stop all this.
I think we’ve gotten used to the idea that the superheroes we see on screen can be trusted to help the people in their world and make that world better. They can be flawed, self-centered, all that good stuff, but when times get tough, they’ll always do the right thing, even if the people around them are ordering them not to. Captain America in the MCU films is one of the best modern examples of this: we continually see him refusing to stand aside in the face of injustice or become a puppet for corrupt leaders. There are several moments early on in Watchmen, however, that not only question this idea but challenge it outright. In the second chapter, we flash back to the 1960s for a few pages. A first-generation hero, Captain Metropolis, has called the newly emerging second wave of heroes together for a meeting. They ought to form a team and fight crime together, he says, but no one seems too interested.
“Specialized law enforcement is standing still,” he says. “Crime isn’t. New social evils emerge every day: promiscuity, drugs, campus subversion, you name it!” (chapter 2 page 10)
He’s got a map of the United States with all these phrases attached to it, along with ones like “riots,” “anti-war demos” and “black unrest.” To really drive the point home, we then take another detour to the late 1970s and see several heroes violently breaking up a street protest. They don’t really care about investigating the causes of social ills and why people are upset: their priority is maintaining the status quo, using unjust methods if necessary. They are tools of suppression, not liberation. Most superhero activity has been banned by 1985 because the general public hates these people so much, and they’re not wrong to do so.
And looming above everyone’s heads, of course, is the threat of nuclear war. It’s more than just a possibility for these characters, it’s something inevitable that no one is ready to face. Characters will pay lip service to the idea of starting an open conflict with the Soviets, but when faced with news that the Cold War is heating up, all they can do is react with horror and resignation.
Lost Without Your Face
Back to the superheroes for a while. What have superheroics done for the heroes themselves? One of their own sums it up pretty well.
Why are so few of us left active, healthy and without personality disorders? The first Nite Owl runs an auto-repair shop. The first Silk Spectre is a bloated, aging whore, dying in a Californian rest resort. Captain Metropolis was decapitated in a car crash back in ’74. Mothman’s in an asylum up in Maine. The Silhouette retired in disgrace, murdered six weeks later by a minor adversary seeking revenge. Dollar Bill got shot. Hooded Justice went missing in ’55. The Comedian is dead.Chapter 1, page 19
Those are the words of one Walter Kovacs, better known to his peers and to readers as the infamous Rorschach. And while he isn’t in any position to be lecturing about personality disorders, he does have something of a point here. Heroes in the Watchmen world end up either dead or worse, with no exceptions. That’s because the life of a hero may begin as a noble calling, but inevitably it turns into a destructive, all-consuming addiction. It lures you in and twists you up: people who may have had good intentions at first begin to lose their souls, and people who were never good at all get so much worse. Just look at Edward Blake, AKA The Comedian. Without his mask and costume, he’s just a murderous thug who lives for inflicting terror on others. As a superhero, he can do whatever he wants as long as it’s in the service of the establishment, and he’ll be praised for it.
Perhaps the most tragic part of superheroics in Watchmen is this: you can never really leave it behind. You don’t just retire from being a hero. Either you end up as a splatter on the ground, or you delude yourself into thinking you left that life behind. An ongoing theme in the story is the characters’ inability to function without their alternate identities. Rorschach is the most blatantly sick in this regard. He doesn’t think of himself as Walter or Mr. Kovacs, he’s just Rorschach. He refers to his ink-blot mask as “my face”, and he goes ballistic when it’s forcibly removed from him. But the other heroes, most of whom appear sane enough on the surface, display this same sickness. Two of the protagonists, Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Jupiter, frequently look down on Rorschach’s mindset while failing to recognize that they can’t function as normal civilians either. Having fought crime under the monikers of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, they were forced into retirement by government legislation, and they’re emotionally adrift without villains to fight. They can’t be emotionally vulnerable or intimate with each other without their costumes. There’s a visual moment that I think explains this best: Dan has a surreal dream sequence which involves him and Laurie tearing off their skin to reveal their costumes underneath, as though said costumes are their true identities.
And then there’s the sad fate of Hollis Mason, the first hero to operate under the Nite Owl moniker. He’s one of the few heroes who comes off as genuinely altruistic, and the only one to have a happy retirement — at first glance. In reality, he never quite gives up his superhero days. His apartment is filled with trophies and memorabilia of himself, and he spends most evenings drinking and reminiscing with his successor Dan. He lives in a world of nostalgia. And that nostalgia is what symbolically kills him: he’s murdered on Halloween night by a gang of delinquents, his head bashed in with one of his own trophies. It’s a shocking moment that reinforces the grim inevitability of the superhero life in Watchmen. Someday, one way or another, it will kill you.
If there’s one thing that superhero comics and movies love to do when they’re trying to be dark, it’s doing a twisted interpretation of the Superman mythos. I suppose when you have a character who’s known throughout pop culture as the ultimate good guy, you’d start to wonder what would happen if he went bad. So we have stories like Superman: Red Son, Superman: The Dark Side, Injustice: Gods Among Us and several others, along with stories using Superman-inspired characters like the recent film Brightburn. What if this being with the powers of a god didn’t stand for truth, justice and the American way? In the spirit of playing with the tropes of classic superheroes, Watchmen takes on this idea in its own unique fashion. What it comes up with is quite different from the usual “bad Superman” plotline, but just as fascinating and thought-provoking.
I mentioned way back at the start how Watchmen is distinct from many other superhero narratives because its heroes don’t have powers, with one notable exception. It’s time to meet that exception. In 1959, nuclear physicist Jonathan Osterman is disintegrated in a freak accident at a research base. But he’s not dead: now gifted with the ability to control atomic and subatomic particles, he returns to Earth in a newly constructed body. His existence is revealed to the world early in 1960, and he is quickly taken under the wing of the US government, which renames him Dr. Manhattan.
One thing I really love about Watchmen is how vividly it imagines the political and cultural reactions to an event like this. It’s a lot more nuanced and poignant than the likes of, say, Batman v Superman. Or even in a Marvel movie, for that matter. There are no grandiose statements about killing a false god or optimism at the idea of finding others like him. No one ever really gets used to the idea of him. There’s just awe and fear and hopelessness.
The arrival of Dr. Manhattan would make the terms “masked hero” and “costumed adventurer” as obsolete as the persons they described…It was the dawn of the Super-Hero.
The idea of a being who could walk through walls, move from one place to another without covering the intervening distance and re-arrange things completely without a single thought was flat-out impossible…Once accepted as reality, however, such things became no easier to digest. If you accept that floating rifle parts are real you also have to somehow accept that everything you’ve ever known to be a fact is probably untrue.
While this was hard to define precisely, if I had to boil it down into three words, those words would be, “We’ve been replaced.” I’m not just talking about the non-powered costumed hero fraternity here…while masked vigilantes had certainly been made obsolete, so in a sense had every other living organism on the planet.Chapter 3, page 31
When news of this being’s phenomenal genesis was first released to the world, a certain phrase was used…over and over again: “The superman exists and he’s American.”
I never said that…what I said was “God exists and he’s American.” If that statement starts to chill you after a couple of moments’ consideration, then don’t be alarmed. A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane.Chapter 4, page 31
Here is what makes Superman not all that scary, at least to me: while he may be an all-powerful alien, he is (in most incarnations) culturally and psychologically human. He thinks like a human, he has human morals and values. Underneath all the pomp and circumstance, he’s still Clark Kent. On the other side of the coin, then, is Dr. Manhattan. What we’re dealing with here is a human who gradually loses the ability to act, think or feel like one and has no interest in doing so. Now imagine that this is the most powerful being in the known universe and the only factor standing between us and nuclear annihilation. Starting to feel that intense and crushing religious terror yet?
Because of his powers, Dr. Manhattan perceives time and space on a level that’s incomprehensible to normal people. There is no past, present or future to him, because he experiences them all simultaneously. He sees people and things as their components and functions, not as a whole. As a consequence of this, human life means less and less to him as time goes on. He has no problem with blowing up people in Vietnam on behalf of the American government, nor does he raise a finger to prevent the Comedian from shooting a pregnant woman in front of him. The way he experiences the world also does quite the number on his personal autonomy and his respect (or lack thereof) for the autonomy of other people. He makes decisions and forces decisions on the people around him simply because he knows that they will happen. It’s what compels him to romantically pursue Laurie Jupiter when she’s fifteen years and he’s in his 30s. It’s the reason he practically kidnaps her late into the book and takes her to Mars — briefly forgetting that she needs to breathe — because he knew that they would meet there to argue over the fate of humanity. Something which, at this point, he doesn’t even care about. His every move is part of an endless play that’s comprehensible only to him.
What I think Dr. Manhattan illustrates, and how he plays with the Superman archetype, is the horror of power without empathy. He isn’t a threat just because of what he can do, it’s because unimaginable power is in the hands of someone who finds Earth and humanity so inconsequential. He isn’t on the side of one nation in particular or even the world as a whole. He is on his own side, and no one knows what the hell that actually means.
Look Down and Whisper “No”
Watchmen — specifically the character of Rorschach — has what are probably the most famous opening lines in the history of comics:
Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.
The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, 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…”Chapter 1, page 1
There’s a bit more to the speech, but that’s the part everyone quotes. It’s vivid in its description and disturbing in its sentiment, and it quickly establishes the speaker as someone you probably don’t want to hang around with.
Contrary to what some people might think, you aren’t supposed to like or admire Rorschach. He’s a violent, unstable individual. He’s got serious issues with women, minorities, pretty much everyone he runs into. Heroes and villains alike live in fear of him, and for good reason. He’s a nasty piece of work.
But about halfway through the book, you start to learn more about his backstory and motivations. You realize that he’s seen some truly horrible things, and you start to understand why he is the way he is. And some part of you thinks that maybe, just maybe, he could be right.
In Chapter 7, Dan has a nightmare about witnessing a nuclear explosion. Afterwards, he says this to Laurie:
It’s this war, this feeling that it’s unavoidable. It makes me feel so powerless. So impotent…I can just feel this anxiety, this terror bearing down…Chapter 7, pages 19-20
While reading this book, that particular passage jumped out at me. It was written in response to the nuclear paranoia of the 1980s, but it could just as easily be said by someone living in 2019. In 1985, the Doomsday Clock was set at three minutes to midnight. In this year and in 2018, it’s been set at two minutes. Think about that for a minute: not only are we back to where we were for much of the 80s, it’s getting slightly worse. And we’re made constantly aware of it, too. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle has been blasting us with a near-constant stream of negativity. Everywhere we look, it’s all about wars and climate change and a populace that’s increasingly divided by politics. The situations at home and abroad feel too complex to comprehend and too broken to ever fix. So when the characters in Watchmen talk about feeling scared and powerless and angry, I can get some sense of what they’re talking about. It’s hard not to feel the same way.
That feeling is key to what I think is the allure of Rorschach, the temptation to rage against the world and write humanity off as a lost cause that deserves to die. It’s the “no power and no empathy” response.
The “power without empathy” response is symbolized by Dr. Manhattan. When his hope runs out, he simply leaves Earth altogether. He’s content to abandon the world and humanity because he has the privilege of being able to turn his back on them and survive. It’s like if the world’s most powerful businessmen and scientists got on a spaceship for another world and left the rest of us to die along with Earth. Did Moore and Gibbons intend on this interpretation? Perhaps not, but they weren’t writing in the era of Blue Moon and SpaceX.
So we’ve talked about power without empathy, as well as neither power nor empathy. What about power with empathy? Surely that’s better, right?
That’s how you end up with Adrian Veidt, AKA Ozymandias. A superhero-turned-businessman who has made a successful franchise out of his old persona, he’s arguably as powerful as a normal human can get in the Watchmen universe. At first he seems like a pretty decent guy: a philanthropist, a champion of innovation, someone who wants to make the world a better place. Veidt certainly thinks of himself in these terms. He can see the impending nuclear disaster just like everyone else, but he’s unique in that he is convinced it can be averted. The world can be saved, and he wants to be the one to save it, no matter how many people end up as collateral damage.
As those familiar with Watchmen will know, Veidt is eventually revealed as the true villain of the piece. The Americans and Soviets need a mutual enemy to stop their fighting, and he’s going to give them one by faking a catastrophic alien attack on New York. He’s been killing or otherwise disposing of anyone who who might disrupt his plans, including Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian. In many ways, he’s the perfect mastermind antagonist. He carefully covers his tracks, he’s always one step ahead of the heroes, and he’s made sure that his plans will go forward no matter what happens to him. Because this isn’t about wealth or fame or taking over the world. This is a man doing what he honestly believes is the right thing.
I know people think me callous, but I’ve made myself feel every death. By day I imagine endless faces. By night…It isn’t significant. What’s significant is that I know. I know I’ve struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity…but someone had to take the weight of that awful, necessary crime.Chapter 12, page 27
That’s the face of power with empathy: loving the world so much that you traumatize it for its own good. And everything which comes afterwards — the urgency of keeping the true narrative secret, Manhattan’s cryptic statement that “nothing ever ends,” the final image of a blood-drenched Doomsday Clock set to midnight — implies that it won’t work out anyway. After all, what is Ozymandias but a broken statue in the midst of a ruined empire?
So, that’s power with empathy, power without empathy, and no power with no empathy. At last we come to empathy without power.
The Real Heroes
If somebody were to ask me who I think the true hero of Watchmen is, I would have an immediate and confident response: “Dr. Malcolm Long.” I would probably get a few odd looks for stating this opinion, even from fans of the book. Long isn’t a superhero, or even one of the main characters. He only appears in two chapters of the book. How important could he actually be?
Most of Dr. Long’s role in the story happens in Chapter 6, which puts the focus on Rorschach. By this point, Rorschach has been captured by the authorities and sent to prison to await trial. Dr. Long is the psychologist who takes his case, thinking he can be rehabilitated. The world and its people, he says, aren’t dark and cruel like Rorschach believes.
But as he spends more time with Rorschach, his perspective is the one that starts changing. Rorschach tell him of the heinous crimes he’s witnessed that shaped him into who he is: an abusive mother, a woman murdered in broad daylight, a six-year-old girl kidnapped and killed and fed to dogs. Dr. Long’s own mental condition starts to deteriorate. His relationship with his wife falls apart. His journal entries become more choppy and disoriented, mirroring Rorschach’s speaking style. By the end of the chapter, he’s begun to see the world as Rorschach does.
I sat on the bed. I looked at the Rorschach blot. I tried to pretend it looked like a spreading tree, shadows pooled beneath it, but it didn’t.
It looked more like a dead cat I once found, the fat, glistening grubs writhing blindly, squirming over each other, frantically tunneling away from the light. But even that is avoiding the real horror.
The horror is this: in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness.
We are alone. There is nothing else.Chapter 6, page 28
I thought that was supposed to be the end of Dr. Long. I thought he was only in the story so Rorschach could break someone just by talking to them, by showing the power of his nihilism.
But that’s not the end. Dr. Long reappears in Chapter 11, walking aimlessly through the streets of New York. His wife approaches him, open to reconciliation, but he gets distracted by the sight of a couple having a fight nearby. His wife demands that he stay out of it, that he only pay attention to her instead, and this is how he responds:
Gloria, please. I have to. In a world like this…I mean, it’s all we can do, try to help each other. It’s all that means anything. I’m sorry…it’s the world. I can’t run from it.Chapter 11, page 20
Here is a man without any real power over the world, super or otherwise. He’s isolated, he’s depressed, he has every reason to follow Rorschach’s example and turn his back on the world. But he doesn’t. He refutes in no uncertain terms the idea that we should ignore human suffering, and he steps in to help. Not behind a mask, but as himself.
Not far away sits a newspaper stand, which we’ve seen in almost every chapter up to this point. The man who runs it is accompanied by a young boy who stops by to read the comics. They’ve been heckling each other throughout the story, but at this moment, the old man comes to a realization that triggers a shift between them.
That’s why there’s this commotion all the time, this conflict. People don’t connect with each other. It’s like, you been coming here weeks, readin’ that junk over an’ over, an’ yet we ain’t exactly close…what’s your name? Whaddaya doin’ here?Chapter 11, page 23
These two moments are easy to overlook, especially considering the massive tragedy that happens just pages later. But to me, they encapsulate the true heart and soul of Watchmen. The so-called heroes are unable to prevent the destruction of the world, despite — or because of — all the power at their disposal. Their power only corrupts them and harms the people around them; it’s useless. The real glimmers of change come instead from the ordinary people, those who look at the world and decide that trying to be a good person is the least they can do. It’s a small action, but it still makes a difference. And it shows that empathy, not power, is the key to healing the world — something that the superheroes could never understand.
That, I think, is why Watchmen is still so important after almost thirty years. It’s all too easy to let the negativity of the world poison you, as Rorschach does. It’s easy to follow the example of Dr. Manhattan and take off for a place you think you’ll be safe, whether that’s Mars or Canada. But the braver choice, the one we all have the ability to make, is to stand your ground and say “I want to do what I can to improve the world.”
For a book that everyone associates with the Dark Age of Comics, that’s pretty bright.
By now, I hope you can see why I’m excited about Watchmen making its big return and why I think it’s such a unique story. In a world inundated with tales of inter-dimensional stakes and extraordinary individuals deciding the world’s fate, it’s not afraid to tackle real-world issues and focus on normal, relatable people. It strips the heroes of their glamour and exposes them as the damaged, dangerous people they are, and it points to ordinary human kindness as the key to making a real difference in the world.
Hopefully the makers of the new TV show will be able to capture some of the original story’s power: we’ll see when it comes out this October. But the fact it’s getting made at all is a testament to the endurance of what Moore and Gibbons created. No matter what comes next, you can’t take that away.