The Search for Authority in Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen
The question Just who are the watchmen? sounds facile when asked of Dave Gibbons’ and Alan Moore’s graphic masterpiece Watchmen. The superheroes, of course: this is, after all, a comic book. But a closer examination of the title, like so much else in the book, reveals its complexity. The reader sees the Juvenal quote scrawled on walls and storefronts in virtually every chapter of the novel, diegetically referring to the masked vigilantes. But then it finally appears in epigraph (epitaph?) alone on the final page, after the world has been “saved” by its masked heroes. Neither generational cadre of superheroes calls itself “The Watchmen” (the older generation dub themselves “The Minutemen;” the younger group, ridiculously, “The Crimebusters”). The book’s epigraph, taken from the Tower Commission Report (post facto even from the standpoint of the book’s publication), places the question unsettlingly into our world. The characters, too, seem alarmed at the intrusion of the “real” world into their comic book universe, where morality is meant to be a simple choice; where good prevails, evil is thwarted, due to the drive, determination, and cooperation of the heroes. The moral framework of the protagonists is as unwavering as it should be in the superhero genre. The problem is they don’t share the same moral framework, and thus find themselves embroiled in a battle royale of warring philosophies—not the dialectic of good and evil we all expect from comics, but in the messy and godless way it plays out in the world around us—between and among the “good guys.” Ozymandias embodies utilitarian principles; Rorschach is a deontologist, exercising the categorical imperative; and Dr. Manhattan becomes a kind of reductio ad absurdum Übermensch—but at the novel’s heart lies the unsettled and, by all measures unsettlable, question of authority: who gives authority to the watchmen, who polices them, and, more unsettlingly still, who, at the end of the day, at the end of the story, are the watchmen?
Extra-diegetically, the watchmen are almost certainly not the superheroes. The novel’s “winner,” “savior,” “villain,” as you like, is Ozymandias, the superhero moniker of Adrian Veidt, a man of almost superhuman intelligence and physical prowess, possessed of an ego to match. The only thing distinguishing him from a supervillain is that instead of seeking world domination when he destroys New York City via a lab-manufactured monster, he is seeking (no, really) world peace. Veidt successfully staves off nuclear war between terrestrial enemies by forcing warring nations to unite against a common alien enemy. He doesn’t even want credit in the traditional sense; he’s satisfied to quietly pull the strings from the sidelines. His actions are utilitarian in the extreme, in that they enact, perfectly, “the greatest good for the greatest number:” he kills a few million to save billions. His maniacal self-aggrandizement, however, complicates beyond repair our sympathies. He delivers a protracted, two-chapter speech about his plot, first to his dead servants and then to other masked comrades (his servants he kills, along with the others who know his machinations; his comrades he spares only because he has stalemated them into silence). This speech, too, compromises his heroism, for the simple reason that, per the comics trope, prideful oration is commonly (and hubristically) delivered by villains. Instead of a comeuppance at the close of the speech, as the trope would have it, Ozymandias reveals that his plan already happened: “I’m not a republic serial villain,” he says in response to the threat of being stopped, “Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting the outcome?” (Moore & Gibbons 375). Some readers might be sympathetic to the ends-justify-the-means philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but the comics conventions curtail the sympathy of such readers for Veidt.
Rorschach, the “true” identity of one Walter Kovacs, has a worldview that stands in direct opposition to Veidt’s. He is beholden to a rigid, unflinching moral code, and feels obsessively duty-bound to carry it out. He outlines it in his journal: “There is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this” (Moore & Gibbons 32). In the carrying out of this code, he reasons, he must break a few eggs. Most of the eggs are the fingers of criminals, but he doesn’t balk at taking their lives either. He, like the traditional superhero, is a true Kantian, in that the moral imperative by which he lives is entirely without compromise (Kant 21). But his heroism, like Veidt’s, is compromised— by reality: for who gives any one of us the right to decide what deserves punishment? The social contract forbids such vigilantism, and for good reason: we must make such decisions collectively or risk the arbitrary judgment of others, however mentally unsound (Hector Godfrey, the gruff, right-wing editor of the New Frontiersman quips, significantly, when his assistant Seymour reads him the first few lines of Rorschach’s journal, “Jesus, who’s it from? Son of Sam?” [Moore & Gibbons 338]). When, at the end of the book, Rorschach is asked to go along with Veidt’s plan, he repeats his mantra, though he knows, this time, it is literal: “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise” (Moore & Gibbons 402). He will reveal the plot even at the cost of his own life and the lives of the billions saved from nuclear apocalypse, because for a Kantian, no one man (let alone millions) can ever be a means—humans, in Kant’s moral universe, are all ends in themselves (Kant 21). Rorschach’s stalwart adherence to a code, however perverted, makes him far more of a tragic antihero than Veidt, and the reader pities him when Dr. Manhattan implodes him outside Veidt’s artic lair, Karnak.
In Dr. Manhattan, Moore and Gibbons give us a true superman. Nietzsche might not recognize his Übermensch. But Dr. Manhattan behaves in ways the theoretical Übermensch, taken to its logical conclusion, likely would behave: he is depicted throughout the book as a man locked in a losing battle with his own indifference to human morality, agency, politics, and allegiances. If humanity did evolve, as Nietzsche speculated, into something mentally and physically superior, with the attributes of a god, he might, instead of becoming a ruler of men, become another species entirely, losing interest in men and their small preoccupations. And indeed, after Jon Osterman’s nuclear accident transforms him into Dr. Manhattan, giving him actual superpowers, he acts first as a political tool, aligned, by default, with American interests: he wins the Vietnam war and allows himself to be used to intimidate the rest of the world into submission to America’s will (allowing for a fourth term for Richard Nixon). But, as he can see and understand matter on an atomic level, isn’t beholden to time’s linearity, and is functionally immortal, he loses interest in the petty, violent, short-sighted dramas of human politics and emotions. When asked about Dr. Manhattan’s political allegiance in an interview, Veidt quips: “Which do you prefer, red ants or black ants?” (380). Russians, we assume, are the red ants in his metaphor. Lest we fail to see that this Übermensch is by all measures a god, we see him, in his final moments before leaving earth forever, walking on water, after one of his only smiles—at the sleeping bodies of his former lover in the arms of another (this is the book’s subtle suggestion that human love, frailty, and sympathy are the only causes worth fighting for, putting to shame the lofty abstractions of philosophy). After walking on water, Dr. Manhattan then engages in the following exchange with Veidt:
DR. MANHATTAN: Human affairs cannot be my concern. I’m leaving this galaxy for one less complicated.
VEIDT: But you’d regained interest in human life.
DR. MANHATTAN: Yes, I have. I think perhaps I’ll create some (Moore & Gibbons 409).
After this comes one of the most profound exchanges in the book, when Veidt’s confidence falters, and we see the shortsightedness of his plan (the shortsightedness that curses all mortal beings):
VEIDT: I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.
DR. MANHATTAN: “In the end?” Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends (Moore & Gibbons 409).
That the two are standing in front of an orrery is surely no accident, for earlier in the novel Dr. Manhattan opines that the universe is a “makerless mechanism,” a clockwork that runs without end, bereft of a creator (Moore & Gibbons 138). And here, in front of this clockwork solar system, he decides to become, at last, a watchmaker.
The haunting strains of “Nothing ever ends,” and the imagery that unites the book’s closing with its opening, prompt the reader to reread the book. Rereading Watchmen is crucial to understanding it, so on a fundamental level, Dr. Manhattan is right: even the book, in a sense, doesn’t end. It’s an ouroboros swallowing its own tail. The cyclical impulse causes some of the clockwork pieces, on a second and third read, to fall into place. The book opens with an image of a smiley face, its bilateral symmetry violated by a bloodstain: the pin worn by The Comedian, whose murder sets the book’s events in motion. In text boxes above the images we get Rorschach’s rambling journal. The final scene shows Seymour of The New Frontiersman, reaching toward the “crank pile,” where Rorschach’s journal lies (a journal exposing Veidt’s plan), waiting to be burned. Seymour wears a smiley face shirt, and we watch ketchup spill over the smiley face’s eye in the exact pattern of the book’s opening. We can’t help but wonder whether the book’s events have been told in retrospect by the furthest thing from a hero: Seymour, the chubby, right-wing slob with buck teeth and very little demonstrated agency. Godfrey’s words accompany Seymour’s reaching hand, prompting him to choose from the crank file whatever he wants to run in the magazine: “I leave it entirely in your hands” (Moore & Gibbons 414). Has Seymour been the orchestrator of the book’s omniscient narration? The idea seems implausible, but it’s there in his name—a homophone for “see more” —and yes, if he sees the contents of the journal, he “sees more” than any other living being in the book, whose view of events are partial, contingent, or compromised (even Dr. Manhattan cannot see futures beyond his own, and thus does not anticipate Veidt’s potential failure). His name might also be prompting us, the readers, to “see more” through another read. So, is Seymour, as potential omniscient narrator, a possible Watchman (the “watch-man” or watchmaker who turns the gears of the plot)? Has he already orchestrated the destruction of the world by exposing Veidt’s plan? Or is he one of many cogs?
The superheroes, no Watchmen, are clearly cogs in this clockwork universe. Countries, with their petty policies, are cogs of even less significance (in our world as well as the novel’s world). Even Dr. Manhattan apprehends himself as a cog (though one with the power to uncog himself, should he choose): he tells his ex-girlfriend, “We’re all puppets… I’m just a puppet who can see the strings” (Moore & Gibbons 285). The characters themselves, though they may believe in their own omniscience, are held captive by that most tyrannical of despots: the omniscient narrator. Though each superhero is a storyteller, through journals, monologue, or dialogue, though many narrative frames are layered together, diegetically and meta-diegetically, providing a patchwork of possible truths, the truths are all at the mercy of some mysterious, remarkably literate narrative voice, who titles chapters, chooses epigraphs, and obtains the rights to various copyrighted materials to compile information for us (this narrator is beholden to copyright law, apparently, suggesting that he or she is a diegetic member of the cast). At the novel’s close, Godfrey’s voice says the future is “entirely in your hands.” “Godfrey,” of course, is a homophone for “god” and “free,” no less significant than “Seymour” considering the book’s questions about theology and free will. The final panel before the Juvenal epigraph is the moment at which readers become aware, as they always do on a final page, that they are holding a book, that a book is literally in their hands, and that straightening out the ouroboros of events, untangling the multiple narrative layers, determining which philosophical standpoint is right, or at least the least evil, falls to them. Moreover, the books epigraph reminds us that we live in a world far more nuanced, violent, and ideologically fractious than the book’s tapestry (as referenced by the real-world Iran-Contra allusion). We, then, the readers—the “Seymours,” not the “great men,” in our big, complicated clockworks—are Watchmen, witnessing all our human philosophies fail us on the page (just as they do in real life), and wondering, as we’ve all wondered since Juvenal: who, if not us, is authorized to appoint, watch, or be, the watchmen?
Juvenal, Decimus Junis. Satura VI. The Latin Library, 27 Nov. 2016. http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/juvenal/6.shtml
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals with On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns. 3rd Ed. Tr. James W. Ellington. Hackett, 1981.
Mautner, Thomas. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. Penguin Books, 1998.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Harper Collins, 1993.
Moore, Alan, and David Gibbons. Watchmen. DC Comics, 2004.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Tr. Walter Kaufman. Penguin, 1954.
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