Tuesday, March 23, 2010


By Alan Moore

Who watches the watchers? Watchmen takes place in an alternate 1985 (one year after George Orwell’s iconic anno domini), amid a kind of societal schizophrenia that is both twisted and completely rational. Watchmen is about the essential disconnection between morality and pragmatism. On the one hand we have the characters and situations of Watchmen, and on the other, we have preconceived notions about how super heroes are supposed to think and behave. Super heroes are supposed to be moral, virtuous paragons fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Alan Moore has a field day ramming that Titanic boatload of tropes into an iceberg of moral relativism, and the result is brutally ironic.

In Watchmen, super heroes are decidedly non-super. Only Rorshach has the values one associates with super heroes—he cares about the truth and about justice while all about him, super heroes are making closed-door deals, making political alliances, looking the other way when convenient, and allowing the hard truths to go unexposed. Richard Nixon, that paragon of pragmatism for whom the ends always justified the means, is still president in his fourth term. He is the perfect symbol of what Moore’s worldview intends to convey. This is a world of shadow dealings, of obfuscation and cover-up, of lies and innuendo, of muddy waters.

Alan Moore’s literary style here contains multilayered brilliance, with as many facets as the Koh-i-noor diamond (not the Hope—there’s no hope in this universe). Rorshach is aptly named for the famous psychiatrist who created the inkblot test as a window on the subconscious. In one of the best scenes of the film, Rorshach takes the inkblot test, his verbal responses betraying no hint of the profound agonies underlying each image as they raise memories of murder, mayhem, and injustice. Thus, Rorshach’s uncompromising commitment to his values becomes a dark obsession, rather than a mission.

Rorshach becomes like a Super-Ego, unable to compromise. He finally is unable to accept a world which has no absolutes. Watchmen is Rorshach’s dark night of the soul. He is experiencing an existential crisis throughout the story as he uncovers more evidence of greed, ambition, cruelty, avarice, larceny, sadism. He cannot see any beauty in humanity nor in the world. And in this world, ruled over by the Prince of Paranoia, Richard M. Nixon, there’s very little beauty to be seen. For Rorshach, though, beauty can be an idea, or even simply an ideal. But as the story unfolds, each of those underpinnings to the meaning of his existence is pulled away until oblivion remains as the only antidote to uncompromising agony.

The golden age of comics is the backdrop for this dark take on the realms of Camus and Kafka. Golden age superheroes have a multitude of problems with sexuality, relationships, addiction, and codes of honor which are at best mutable. Even their costumes seem embarrassingly ill-fitting. As “enemies of communism” super heroes are shown fighting (and winning) the Vietnam war. “God exists and he is American,” crows the scientist who helped create Dr. Manhattan, the ice-blue ambivalent supreme being which has evolved beyond “super” to “godlike” powers. In one scene, we are treated to the spectacle of the Viet-cong doing humiliating obeisance to Dr. Manhattan and worshipping him as a god, something the powers that be desired more than the lives of the 50,000 American troops they discarded in the attempt to make that fantasy a reality.

The Watchmen bring the idea or ideals of superheroes squarely into conflict with the world as it is, exposing comic book superheroes to be the psychological stand-ins we use them for—fantasies for making the world “right”, that there is an agency out there somewhere, that in karmic terms, looks after us, and repays right with right and evil with evil. Moore exposes that mind-set for the infantile moral pap it is. He at once ennobles and destroys the entire genre of comic books. As a work of art, it is sui generis, a attempt to deconstruct the entire genre, and turn it on its head. At this, Moore succeeds. The story, with its nihilistic ending, captures the notion that big ideas don’t change the world. In fact, nobody can change the world. You can only change your relationship to it, and that requires sacrifice, and yes, compromise. There are no absolutes. We swim without fins in a relativistic soup and all we can do is love one another.