An incredible piece of writing, the themes and ideas in “Watchmen” (1987) by Alan Moore (with art by Dave Gibbons) linger long after its pages are closed. It is about the despair of an alternative world’s America, where terrifying and corrupt right-wing politics, headed up by President Nixon, are fuelling an escalating Cold War, and a few, now outlawed, “costumes” have changed the world and made it more defensive and suspicious. People on the streets are full of hate and fear, and every man is at seemingly at fault – and the well-meaning heroes of former years have recognised the pointlessness of their past work; indeed, they have even escalated the approaching international crisis through their involvement in the brutal war in Vietnam (in this world the US won) and during riots in the 1970s. Within this environment the alienated crime-fighters, in hiding, now have to come to terms with the problems in society, and the book follows their very human stories, as they struggle to find an appropriate response to widespread social problems and the approaching threat of Armageddon. This world is seedy, violent, corrupted at every level – and I warn you, it does not make light reading – a total change of pace from mainstream American superhero comics which have an unrealistic emphasis on idyllic relationships and present a world where heroism usually wins and people always have hope*.
With a big-budget movie adaptation in the works, and its enduring praise from critics, it is tempting to focus on the many aspects that make “Watchmen” so good and involving, without analysing the messages behind each of the multilayered twelve chapters, which is what I would like to do in the rest of this article. Whether the characters speak of the lack of love in the world and the need for change, or whether they turn their fears into evil aggression against the vulnerable, whether they, like Janey, long for exclusive love and warmth in their relationships, or whether they remain detached from society, treating people “like shadows in the fog” (Jon) or like disgusting “human cockroaches” (Rorschach), their stories are interwoven to create a picture of humanity’s heights and depths, and people make widely different judgements about these acts within the book, without a unified answer to these questions of morality. Indeed, as I will show, the novel suggests that there is no unified answer at all.
One fascinating character is Jon, or “Dr Manhattan”, a striking blue man, who comes to symbolise the nearest thing to a god in “Watchmen”. He is indestructible, seemingly eternal, able to create anything out of thin air, and the security of America in its time of crisis. He is able to do all that he wills, without any limitation. But he was formed like this, as a god, by accident, and seems to have no greatly beneficial purpose on Earth, even being manipulated by governments as he has become uninterested in the outcome. He observes humans distantly, even his long-time partner, Laurie, seeing no reason to invest in them or care for them. As the intelligent businessman Veidt explains, Jon has no political bias as it would be as if he were choosing between black ants and red ants.
What a terrible sort of god this is, who only eventually sides with human beings because of his perception that they are intellectually so fascinating and improbable, so fragile yet determined to survive; he humours mankind because they are, in the godless world of “Watchmen”, an interesting phenomenon to arise out of nothing. Here the worldview of writer Moore shines through a little clearer – Jon spiritualises the phenomenon of human life by calling each person a “miracle”, creating an uplifting sense of hope at the end of Chapter IX, but he merely uses the word as he sees that people are randomly made and deeply unpredictable, rather than because they are capable of great good or evil, the crowning piece of Creation made by the Christian God.
This lack of appreciation of humanity’s moral value according to a system of absolute values is also evident in the stories of other characters. Rorschach, who lives by his own moral code while condemning others, is an interesting example. Frequent excerpts from his journal establish this key character’s narrative voice, whose serious cynicism about the world does not prevent him from determining to expose the truth (“Down there…somebody knows” – Chapter I) or from killing to maintain his own idea of justice.
Clad in a classic Marlowe detective hat and raincoat, Rorschach also wears a mask which he considers his true “face”. A character whose state of mind is scrutinised in the book, psychology is even highlighted by his mask, which is white with black marks which resemble Rorschach inkblot tests. He likes it because the two colours change shape but never mix to become grey, reflecting his ruthless sense of order which does not allow for shades of grey. His worldview is suggested in the opening panels of the book: “This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.” In the tradition of the American private eye who, often through violence, plays the part of the shining knight in the midst of a corrupt and ruined society, Rorschach despises the world: “The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown […] all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper ‘no’.” (Chapter I.)
This kind of disgust for perpetrators of evil of all kinds is palpable throughout his journal, and when, in Chapter VI, we get a greater insight into his psychological state, we realise there he has a better grasp of the true problem with society than others in “Watchmen”: the problem is the men and women who live in it. Dr Malcolm Long, who visits Rorschach in prison, tries to convince him that “life isn’t like that. The world isn’t like that” – but he himself is so affected by Rorschach’s life story, that he is left at the end of the chapter, transfixed by the idea that there is no meaning in life or any great hope outside of ourselves: “We are alone. There is nothing else.” In the last few panels, as Dr Long stares at another inkblot, he refers to the same “empty meaningless blackness” behind that picture that Rorschach sees behind all of existence: “The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever. And we are alone. … Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion. … It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.”** Such a bleak outlook is strong in “Watchmen”, and is it telling that a highly successful humanist positive psychologist converts to Rorschach’s position, in the long run – recognising that man’s own effort is all they have in that universe to save them. Rorschach, keeping busy by fighting crime and imposing his own strict sense of order, recognises that there is no real good or evil in such a world, saying it is “morally blank”, and there is “no meaning save what we choose to impose” – and so his own position is on the verge of real despair***.
Finally I want to briefly note that the important experiences which transform key characters are left for the readers to make their own judgements, and I find them to be questionable in their realism and their morality. Dan Dreiberg is given hope through the company and sexual attentions of Laurie, which help him to realise he no longer has to be impotent and can work for the better of society (sex [very graphic] becomes a source of new life for the characters, and a focus of feelings of worth). Rorschach has a semi-spiritual transformation from his old identity to the crime-fighter, by coming to the understanding of an evil act before him and taking revenge, while Veidt is inspired on a pilgrimage by a drug-induced vision that he could better the wisdom of past world leaders. Jon, as we have seen, is helped to see that life is unique, and finally determines to go and create life himself. The things these have in common is the confidence that each character comes to have in him or herself – taking action for the better of society can help and fulfils their longings, whereas passivity in such a world of hardship is just a sign that they have “gone soft”, as Rorschach would put it. Tackling situations in the world will not bring permanent solutions but can bring some happiness in the midst of a dark world – as hinted at with the quotation on the final page: “It would be a stronger world, a stronger loving world, to die in.” (John Cole.)
*Such ideology in the real world collapses without real basis for hope, which is only found in Christ: men and women are really more like those that populate “Watchmen” – they are selfish, hate, mug, rape, conceal things and plot all kinds of evil, they search for meaning and purpose in new relationships and initiatives or withdrawal from society. The ambiguous end to the novel does not provide the real salvation for humanity that is needed, that only those who know Jesus can really have when He deals with the evil in our hearts.
**Moore acknowledges the Neitzsche influence here, including the quotation at the end of the chapter: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.”
***As a side note, when Rorschach himself is obliterated at the end, it is by his own half-betrayal of his constructed morality. It is ambiguous, but in urging his own destruction to prevent his act of exposing the truth about the conspiracy, and in his evident distress, which cause him to remove his hat and “face”, we perhaps finally see him lose confidence in his own sense of order. He is destroyed by being unable to follow his own constructed path with a clear conscience.