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A scholarly analysis of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ ‘Watchmen’

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As a follow up to my two-part scholarly analysis of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns  (here’s Part I and here’s Part II) I’d like to explore the second of what Sean Carney calls “two towering monoliths that changed the face of the superhero”: Watchmen (1986-87) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. This article is adapted from a paper I presented at the 2009 Midwest Popular Culture Association Conference.

Watchmen, which started its run three months after The Dark Knight Returns (1986) concluded, also presents an alternate reality, one in which Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term in office. As in DKR, superheroes are officially outlawed unless working as government agents and the Cold War features prominently. In Watchmen, the threat of global nuclear war drives Ozymandias to implement an elaborate plot to bring about world peace.

Watchmen asks many of the same questions as DKR, but reaches a different conclusion. One important question, restated by Brent Fishbaugh, is whether “humanity [is] responsible and humane enough to properly use science?” The superheroes in Watchmen, particularly Dr. Manhattan, who gained his powers from a nuclear accident, embody science. Part of society’s rejection of superheroes in the Watchmen universe is due to their connection to advanced and potentially civilization-destroying technology.

Like DKR, the work culminates in a battle—albeit a brief one—between two superheroes, each representing a different view of the role of the superhero in society, “two men symbolizing two ways of seeing, two men for two eyes.” Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan can be viewed as more realistic versions of Batman and Superman, respectively. Like Batman, Rorschach lacks superpowers, but is able to fight crime through a combination of ingenuity and intimidation. Indeed, Iain Thomas refers to Rorschach as “a hypertrophic extension of the Batman archetype.” Geoff Klock sees a direct relationship between “Rorschach’s reactionary, violent, obsessive-loner personality and refusal to compromise” and Batman as written by Miller. Just as Batman feels “the world only make sense when you force it to,” Rorschach holds a nihilistic worldview:

Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose.

But Rorschach goes much farther than even Miller’s Batman, who laments “voices calling me a killer . . . I wish I were.” Rorschach holds no such qualms; he is unwilling to be “soft on scum,” by which he means to “let them live.” While Batman’s idea of law is, in Bryan Dietrich’s view, “simply blurred,” Rorschach’s is “smeared and stained.” Where Batman’s enemies are always breaking free of Arkham Asylum only to be recaptured and recommitted, Rorschach’s enemies do not get the benefit of due process (which violates Peter Coogan’s superhero code because the superhero as executioner effectively wields political power).

(Dave Gibbons/DC Comics)
Dr. Manhattan (Dave Gibbons/DC Comics)

Rorschach’s methods ensure that he would be wanted by the police even if superheroes had not been outlawed. Dr. Manhattan, on the other hand, is the only superhero still operating legally as a government agent. Much like Superman, Dr. Manhattan’s powers far exceed those of even his fellow superheroes. He is also closely identified with the U.S. government, which bestows upon him a name “chosen for the ominous associations it will raise in America’s enemies,” although, like Superman, he is not entirely comfortable with the compromises this relationship requires.

Unlike Superman, however, Dr. Manhattan’s great powers alienate him from humanity. When he hears of the death of his old friend, the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan responds,

A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernable difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?

Dr. Manhattan’s worldview is just as nihilistic as Rorschach’s: “All those generations of struggle, what did they ever achieve?” While Rorschach’s nihilism leads him to develop his own “completely introverted vision of Law,” Dr. Manhattan’s gives him, in Dietrich’s view, an “infinitely recursive and indeterminate” morality.

Alan Moore (photo by Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian)
Alan Moore (photo by Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian)

In Watchmen’s climax, Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan discover that Ozymandias has sacrificed three million people in order to achieve world peace. The superheroes recognize that revealing the plot will destroy the newfound sense of international unity the massacre creates. But Rorschach’s strict (if warped) moral code will not allow him to live a lie: “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” Dr. Manhattan’s relativistic moral outlook allows him to see how this great act of violence can lead to peace. Dr. Manhattan confronts Rorschach, who is going to tell the world of Ozymandias’ actions knowing full well that the other superheroes will stop him. In fact, Rorschach invites his own death:

One more body amongst foundations makes little difference. Well? What are you waiting for? Do it . . . DO IT!

(Dave Gibbons/DC Comics)
Rorschach (Dave Gibbons/DC Comics)

Rorschach has no choice but to sacrifice himself, while Dr. Manhattan has no choice but to kill him. Rorschach, in Roz Kaveney’s eyes, “dies a martyr to the truth, in his own warpedly clever way.”

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