Entirely in Your Hands

The Search for Authority in Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Who guards the guardians themselves? [1]
— Decimus Junis Juvenal, Satura VI

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.

Dr. Manhattan

Friedrich Nietzsche

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 book's final panel

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?

Cited Sources

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.

[1] Translation Mine

Truth in the Gutter

Metonymy and Memory in Spiegelman’s Maus

Figure 1

Art Spiegelman ushers us into the second chapter of the second volume of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale with a visual pun. The title page contains mice, their partially-anthropomorphized mouths agape with torment, their eyes round with terror, surrounded by flames or gas (Fig. 1). The title, hand-drawn in Teutonic block letters, reads “Auschwitz: (Time Flies).” The “S” is bent and angular as in the Nazi logo. These letters hang above the image, and blend with it in conceptual (if not emotional) harmony. It could be a movie poster for our tacitly agreed-upon, collective narrative of the holocaust, with its cast of stock characters, images, and icons. But around the image—violating it, contaminating it—buzz drawings of flies (the “flies of time,” perhaps). They are the size they would be in our world, the wr­iter’s world, and they crawl over the image, over the blank space around the image, partially obscuring the genteel “Chapter Two” above it. They remind us that the text is a superimposition of the author’s own memories, experiences, and biases over the memories of his father. While the words are Vladek’s, the pictures are Spiegelman’s triply-mediated account of those words. The flies become a metonymy for many things at once: the corruption of memory by time; the rank, guilt-poisoned writer’s block preventing Spiegelman from completing the second volume; and the contamination of our culturally-ingrained holocaust iconography, which, the novel seems to suggest, we must carefully protect from becoming prurient melodrama instead of what it is—sacred cultural and personal truth.

Figure 2

Spiegelman inoculates against this corruption with his triple-narrative strategy—a strategy unique to comics. Through deliberate artificiality, he replaces brittle fact with lush Truth; not the surface truth of raw data, but the invisible Truth (in the Romantic sense) at the core of those data. The first narrative is Vladek’s recollection of the Holocaust. It is harrowing, largely chronological, and often recognizable in its iconography. The second, existing interstitially within the first, and often out of sequence, is Spiegelman’s record of obtaining his father’s story. His father in this narrative layer, unlike the hero of the Holocaust narrative, is domineering, difficult, manipulative, selfish, and sometimes cruel. At times, Spiegelman must wrest the narrative from his father’s clutches (clutches so strong that Vladek, who never throws anything away, has destroyed his wife’s journals—the only thing that could contradict his account of events). It could be a dirty business, to coopt someone’s greatest trauma and repurpose it to one’s own ends, but Spiegelman always fesses up, makes the theft transparent, creating a narrative tier that, while casting doubt on the accuracy of his father’s memory, serves not to contradict Vladek but to allow more than one reality to exist at once—to gently expose the fallibility and limitations of memory. In Figure 2, Spiegelman draws two tiers of time. The first, on the right side of the page, records a present-day conversation between Artie and his father in which Vladek recounts marching out of Auschwitz. On the left-hand side of the page, Spiegelman draws the marching prisoners, and includes an orchestra in the background, a fact about which he has read in other accounts of the camps. His father protests: “From the gate guards took us over to the workshop. How could it be there an orchestra?” (Spiegelman 54). Spiegelman grumbles that the facts are well-documented, but concedes by redrawing the march in a panel right below the first, filling in the orchestra’s space with marching prisoners. But the reader can see the tips of the instruments in the background. The ghost of the orchestra is still nestled there: Spiegelman keeps it as one amid a palimpsest of memories. In this way, he includes both his father’s lower-case “t” truth, and the lower-case truth of other survivor’s documented histories. In image form, these two truths, which should contradict one another, instead coalesce. Together, through the imperfection of each, they show that we can approach a capital “T” Truth, however asymptotically. And Spiegelman both complicates and resolves these interwoven tales with his third tier of narrative representation; a metanarrative that exists outside the story—outside of time itself.

In Understanding Comics, one of the most approachable textbooks on semiotics ever written, Scott McCloud tells us that simplified images, with detail stripped away, have a singular power to represent ideas rather than forms. He remarks that:

By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts. Through traditional realism, the comics artist can portray the world without… and through the cartoon the world within (McCloud 41).

Figure 3

Spiegelman leverages this phenomenon throughout the novel by rendering different races and nationalities as different animals, and by creating the world in simple, blocky, crosshatched line drawings. But nowhere do we see this effect used to such perfection as in Spiegelman’s third tier, in which he creates a pure “world within,” and lets it both interact with the world outside and exist free of it. The flies, which are now operating on numerous levels through visual pun, follow us from Chapter 2’s title page into the chapter itself, as does the assertion that “Time Flies…” We are confronted with the artist, slumped over his drafting table. He isn’t a mouse, but a man in a mouse mask (for to expose the artificiality of the storytelling is a classic metanarrative strategy). Flies circle around him, and after a few panels we pan back to see that the drafting table rests on a pile of emaciated human/mouse bodies (fig. 3). The flies have become a triple metonymy—for the passing of time, for artistic stagnation, and for the feeling Artie has that his book has defiled the dead. We have reached a narrative level that exists outside of temporal logic: this is an artist visually grappling with interior demons in the purely sensory space where emotions intersect with ideas. He gives us a unique front-row seat to someone else’s timeless reservoir of identity, the place in which we wrestle with and invent ourselves, and this space can best be explored through the tension between words and images. The words here give one set of data—we learn Vladek has died, that several years have elapsed since the publication of the first volume of Maus, and that it was a critical and commercial success—but combined with the images we see an entirely different data set: we see an identity ripped asunder; a success that feels like murder; a profound guilt that the author has profited from his family’s tragedy. Such conceptual tripling isn’t accomplishable with words alone. Only the interplay of images and words can weave so many layers together.

Spiegelman elbows in on truth by braiding these multiple localized and highly personal narratives together, including his own. French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard would approve. It is what, in “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,” he calls “small narrative.” He offers “small narrative” as an antidote to “grand narrative,” or history-by-consensus, which tends to calcify into overly-simplistic tropes of good and evil, written and maintained by the victors (or survivors) of any given conflict. He insists that:

Consensus has become an outmoded and suspect value… We must thus arrive at an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus… it must be local, in other words, agreed upon by its present players and subject to eventual cancellation… limited in space and time (Lyotard 504).

Figure 4

Spiegelman fights the over-simplification of the past through, paradoxically, simplification: his images are metaphoric and metonymic—they are, in other words, so simple they are patently “untrue.” Men are not mice; we do not live in a sketchy black-and-white world; and the swarms of reporters stepping over the dead bodies in Spiegelman’s apartment amidst buzzing flies are there only in Artie’s imagination (Fig. 4). In the same image, these reporters, who cheapen and trivialize the war in their quest for profit, lob their solicitations at a masked Artie, while he shrinks and shrinks until he is child-sized, emitting an infant’s “WAH!” This is not strict verisimilitude, we all know, but we also see how it gets at something deeper, something that exists on a purely experiential level, and that collapses the strict hierarchy we like to maintain between “history” and “emotion.” Simplified forms, as McCloud notes, illustrate the complexity of the concepts.

Spiegelman is wise to use the comics form to tell his threefold tale: comics offer what other mediums can’t, in that the reader becomes a collaborator. McCloud makes much of what he terms the “gutter,” or the space between the panels in a cartoon, as a space where readers commit “closure.” “Comics panels fracture both time and space,” he says, “offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality” (McCloud 67). What better way to reconstruct a shared Truth than to make the reader complicit by asking her to add her own interpretations to a story at risk of becoming clichéd by concensus? McCloud remarks that comics is, “…a medium where the audience is a willing and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change” (65). If the project is to present multiple, local, Lyotardian “small narratives” in order to patchwork facts and feelings into a unified (if sometimes contradictory) history, the best way to do so is to make the reader an aider and abettor. History, in our postmodern world, must be apprehended in aggregate, not by consensus, or we risk corrupting it, and the most honest way of getting at it is asking us all to participate. This is our story, Spiegelman seems to say—all of our history. The Truth, in other words, is hidden in the gutter, among the flies.

Works Cited

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996. 481-513.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1993.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus, A Survivor’s Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began. Pantheon Books. 1991.