Comic books have long held the fascination of young and adult alike. Their social commentary on politics and cultural integration of societies along with their charismatic protagonists pitted against the forces of evil become a gateway into self-reflection – whether or not that self be a person or a government. In Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Watchmen such policy questions and the ambiguity of evil come to the forefront of the story.
The Watchmen is a graphic novel with takes place in the United States in the 1980’s but facts about history have changed in order to give the reader a more amoral society: Nixon is still president, America won the Vietnam War and the future looks like a bright place full of peace thanks to Dr.
Manhattan’s element introducing new engineering feats to even new fabrics (as seen with Rorschach’s mask that had once been a lady’s dress).
All of these elements combine to enlighten the reader and to cause them to question a static government whose lines of good and evil are nonexistence in the face of progress as Moore stated in 1986, “[I] was consciously trying to do something that would make people feel uneasy.
” (Stewart Synchronicity and Symmetry 1987). This paper will seek to develop an analysis of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel including commentary from other sources that will support and deny the brilliance of this novel and its social commentary on American culture.
Alan Moore presents the reader with passages throughout his text which aid the reader in subplots of his story. Some sections are dedicated to Nite Owl while others are dedicated to the tragedy of a pirate shipwrecked in Tales of the Black Freighter. The point of these small diversions from the main story is to give the reader a more comprehensive look into the morals of the story at hand.
Moore is giving his readers an idea about heroes and their obligations to justice paired with their personal identities as Singh states, And we meet the protagonists, each with his or her own set of personal demons – including the amoral Edward Blake/The Comedian (a character about whom I would have liked to learn more) whose death sets the plot in motion and the two erstwhile Nite Owls who meet on Saturdays to reminisce about glories past.
The only character in the book who actually has supernormal powers is Dr Manhattan/Jonathan Osterman, who developed extraordinary control over matter following a laboratory accident. While the classic superhero comic might have used Dr Manhattan to great effect in action scenes, his function here is different: he serves as a dispassionate observer/commenter on human affairs.
(Of course, he is also being used as a weapon by the US – a dubious move, since his very presence in the world encourages the possibility of mutually assured destruction. ) (Singh How Superheroes Fade 2006). Through Moore’s writing the reader discovers that the hero’s battle for justice is being underwritten by the government, especially with the enforcement of the Keene Act: An act which requires masked avengers to give the public their true identity. While some heroes do in fact acquiesce to this new law (i.
e. the Silk Spectre/Laurie Juspeczyk, and Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt) or not (Rorschach/Walter Kovacs), or simply retire (the second Nite Owl/Daniel Dreiberg) the fact that the government is requiring for their heroes to divulge their identity and thereby become more of a target to their enemies is part of that running dialogue of government policies that serve no purpose, and definitely no good purpose that Moore was adamant about writing into his story.
This idea about heroes begets the ideas about Greek and Roman culture (indeed many comic book heroes have their origins with ancient gods and goddesses) and with this connotation comes another Greek route: That of a hero’s flaw as Bradford Wright writes about Moore’s concept of the graphic novel that The Watchmen is, “Moore’s obituary for the concept of heroes in general and superheroes in particular. ” (Wright 272).
There is one hero in this story which allows for the bending of good into the realm of evil to play a dynamic role in the book: Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt seeks to become like Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great conquered the known world- and he did this in order to unite the world and thereby eliminate opposition and evil. In Adrian’s mind, in order to become a great hero he must accomplish a united world in order to have global peace. Thus, he decides to fake a global threat in the form of an alien attack toward the close of the novel.
This attack succeeds in uniting the United States with Russia and other leaders (remember this was a time when the Cold War was a serious issue, and even though Moore chose to change the face of the president for his graphic novel, the impending doom of the world is something he still kept in as a fact for his story). As most heroes have flaws, Ozymandias’ flaw may be considered to be his ego – for he wants to be greater than his own personal hero Alexander the Great. Tragic heroes begin their stories with aplomb of luck, or ego, or a rosy view of the world.
With literature or drama the tragedy of the unmistakable truth found in the character’s own self-realization is typically the denouement. The writer’s tragic heroes have survived in life under false pretences, thus they are doomed to suffer from their one flaw of ego as Iain Thomson writes,”developing its heroes precisely in order to deconstruct the very idea of the hero and so encouraging us to reflect upon its significance from the many different angles of the shards left lying on the ground”.
(Thomson Deconstructing the Hero 101). What is different in Moore’s novel is that Ozymandias doesn’t succumb to his ego – at least not in the written pages of the novel (for Rorschach’s novel does reach the attention of the Frontiersman newspaper and the reader is left to assume its pages will be printed and the truth about the alien hoax will be publicized). Thomson goes on to state “…
develops its heroes precisely in order to ask us if we would not in fact be better off without heroes…[and the story’s deconstruction of the idea of a hero] suggests that perhaps the time for heroes has passed [which further illustrates] this postmodern work from the deconstructions of the hero in the existentialism movement. ” (Thomson 111). Thus, with the hero turned bad guy (for the cause of world peace) and not being punished by the ultimate superhero of the book, Dr. Manhattan, the reader is left wondering Where is justice?
It is this question which spurns on the plots and subplots of the novel. With the Keene Act masked avengers are forced to reveal their identity but The Comedian/Edward Blake does not have to do this as he is an agent for the government. His work for the government is similar to a mercenary soldier – he goes into American occupied territories and takes care of local uprisings. The part of the book dedicated to Blake’s story shows him in Vietnam with a flame thrower killing soldiers. The next scene is of Blake in a bar with a pregnant woman asking him to take of her now that the war is over.
Blake laughs at her and she then grabs a bottle and breaks it then attacks him brutally slashing his face as Reynolds states of Blake’s personality, “[he is] ruthless, cynical, and nihilistic, and yet capable of deeper insights than the others into the role of the costumed hero”(Reynolds 106). The justice of the novel in this scene takes place when Blake takes out his pistol and shoots her in the stomach. The underlining commentary on this scene is further developed as the reader realizes through Blake’s dialogue with Dr.
Manhattan that Manhattan could have turned the gun into anything he wanted, but he didn’t, he simply allowed events to play through. So, the characters’ amoral personalities and their ability to follow their government as soldiers and kill villagers then kill a pregnant woman, or even to allow a pregnant woman to be killed when one could have done something to prevent it, layer the story with what are the definitions of good and evil and these traits applications to men who claim to be fighting for justice.
Does guilt make evil actions less amoral? This is a question which plagues through Moore’s commentary on the government. The United States government sent Dr. Manhattan to annihilate small villages in order for them to surrender to the U. S. all in under the guise of peace as Klock states, “[l]ike Alan Moore’s kenosis, [Veidt] must destroy, then reconstruct, in order to build ‘a unity which would survive him. ‘” (Klock 75). Does a government feel guilt over the thousands that die on the opposition’s side?
And, if they do feel guilt, how does a feeling make recompense for the harm that is done? Indeed, Moore’s novel about ambiguous feelings gives all of the contradictions of the American government (Sabin 165). In the world of graphic novels, the cut and dry interpretation of the hero fighting side by side with its government and government agencies such as cops, it would seem then that the government would become a hero in association with the protagonists of the story.
In Moore’s novel, the reader sees the development of the anti-hero in full climax with the character of The Comedian. The Comedian is a social commentary on how governments, different agencies and countries are a joke – they promise to help the people but when the government sends Blake and Dreiberg to control the rioting in the street all it takes it one person from the crowd to throw a beer bottle at the Archimedes (Nite Owl’s flying device) for Blake to go into the crowd shooting his gun at the people he’s supposed to be protecting.
All throughout the novel Moore has Dave Gibbons illustrate the phrase “Who Watches The Watchmen” written in graffiti all over the city. At this pivotal scene in the novel, when the crowd disperses one lone soul is spray painting this phrase on the side of a building when Blake comes up to them. This is main theme of the graphic novel – who controls the hero when the hero becomes evil? This question comes to a climax with Ozymandias’ character along with (to an extent) Blake’s character.