Who Watches the Watchmen? Someone Who Knows their Secrets
General comic book theory decrees that superheroes are supposed use their powers for good - protect those who are not fortunate enough to be blessed with the ability to defy gravity or have superhuman strength or see-through vision. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s 1987 graphic novel, Watchmen (DC Comics) is no ordinary comic and the heroes don’t exactly hold themselves to the highest moral standards. Taking place in an alternate version of 1980s New York City, the super group, The Minutemen passes the torch to their protégés, The Watchmen, who take over aiding US operations in the Vietnam War. With all of the movements, protests, and civil unrest taking place between the 70s and 80s, The Watchmen are met with significantly more animosity than from the citizens of New York, leading to the passing of The Keene Act, calling for super heroes to relinquish their masks. Most are forced into early retirement and one into vigilante-status - the journal-keeping rogue and narrator, Rorschach.
Rorschach tends to avoid nouns or adjectives, “So many questions… Answers soon,” and begins the nior graphic novel with an eloquent and unsettling monologue about the debauchery he witnesses committed by citizens who fail at hiding their evils, “This city is afraid of me... I have seen its true face. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’... And I'll look down and whisper ‘No.’”
But what we soon realize is that our heroes might not be any better than those who despise them, leaving us questioning whose side should we be on in the first place. Rorschach is a psychopath, brutally taking the law into his own hands, while his old teammate, the Comedian, (Edward Morgan Blake) is a drunken, womanizing murderer who finds humor in the darkest of moments. “It’s all just a joke,” the Comedian chuckles before a pivital moment of violence. Rorschach wants his other pals, Daniel Dreiberg, aka Night Owl II (think Batman but brown owls instead of black bats) and scantily-clad Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk) to come out of retirement and help him solve a case. Oh, and on top of that, the United States is in the midst of a nuclear cold war with the Soviet Union. It doesn’t help ease the tension that Spectre’s boyfriend, Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman), is now literally a walking atom bomb.
After a classic comic-booky accident rearranges his molecular structure, Osterman gains God-like existence - his body is chiseled blue and glowing with radiation - at the expense of his humanity. Unable to connect with Laurie or other real people, Manhattan ascends to Mars to avoid the speck in the universe we know as civilization. “I am tired of this world, these people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.” Manhattan coldly remarks to the galaxy. And not even the world’s smartest man, Ozymandious, (Adrian Veidt) can get Manhattan to tap into his human side. Ozymandious also delivers the graphic novel’s best linein seven simple words.
But despite The Comedian’s cryptic retort, Watchmen is no joke. This anti-hero story is an intricate and multi-layered graphic novel that examines the decisions one might make with extinction looming, through a stimulating visual experience and philosophical dialogue. Every topic is touched on, from war and politics to classism and sex, which makes these characters real instead of just caricatures in latex and spandex costumes.
Artist Dave Gibbons utilizes multiple panels on each page to keep the actions of the characters moving fluidly, and colorist John Higgins keeps things simple but detailed, with a core arsenal of reds, yellows, and purples to illustrate New York City in pre-nuclear anxiety. The multiple levels of the comic panels are equally matched by the storytelling. A young boy in Watchmen, oblivious to the main characters, is reading a comic called Tales of the Black Freighter. At first it’s quite confusing and you wonder why you’re forced to read a comic within the comic, but by the end of the tale you appreciate the poetic context it adds to the central story. And, recurring visuals like The Comedian’s bloodstained smiley face pin and the looming Doomsday clock add to the juxtapositions of the witty banter between Rorschach and his friends and foes.
Rorschach is the bad guy in the eyes of the law, but he’s the bad guy we root for, even if his methods of interrogation are questionable, at best. Who watches the Watchmen? Perhaps it’s the citizens who loathe them, or the government, or one of their own, even. That’s for you to find out. Either way, Rorschach is hell bent on getting there with you. “Not even in the face of Armageddon,” he spews. “Never compromise.”