Reading the Watchmen

Introduction

WatchmenWhen I was an undergraduate, more years ago than I care to think, it was that time of legends when Alan Moore’s Watchmen was hitting the streets.  Ah to have been alive at such a time, to drink that heady drink fresh from the fountain.  Not that I did, of course, for I was a terrible, stuck up snob and looked down on comics of all forms.  I did high art.

Well, twenty years later things have moved on, Alan Moore’s beard is even longer and now I read comics, so I finally see what the fuss was about.  Because the thing is, though I disdained comics myself, a number of my acquaintances did not, and they all got terribly excited about Watchmen, wearing smiley badge tee-shirts and so on and so forth.  They treated it almost as something cultic, to be known only to the elite.

Now, looking back on that time, this strikes me as faintly odd, for, unless I am mistaken, Moore’s message in Watchmen is very far from being one of elitism.  Indeed he seems to be arguing, with some force and persuasiveness, that self-appointed elites are not, on the whole a good thing, even if their action may be well intentioned.  And so my acquaintances were just as wrong-headedly arrogant as I, only at least I had the excuse of ignorance, whereas they had actually (or so they claimed) read Watchmen and utterly failed to understand Moore’s scarcely subtly presented message.

The appeal of Watchmen

So what would make a young, and possible somewhat insecure, individual think that Watchmen is an endorsement of the idea of an elite?  Well, it seems clear that you have to go into reading it with the attitude that it’s about superheroes, and superheroes are good, so obviously what the main characters do must be good.  Of course, in order to sustain this belief, you have to set aside the fact that out of the six Watchmen, two are neurotic nonentities, one has allowed himself to come to the belief that because he is different from other people therefore he is better than them, one suffers from delusions of grandeur to an almost pathological extent, and the other two are psychopaths.  But they’re superheroes: it’s okay to be a psychopath if you’re a superhero.

Next one has to look at the terrifying arrogance of Doc Manhattan and Ozymandias, icy in the one case and insane in the other, and think not ‘they’re monsters’ but, ‘yes, they are my role model, I too know that I am better than everyone else, and in a well-regulated society I should be running the show.’  And from that initial premise, which is, let us be honest, rather tempting if you’re young and drunk and feel somewhat uncertain about your place in the world,  to the next step of concluding that, yes, cold-bloodedly killing three million people in order to avert a nuclear war is really neat, even if you, er, forgot to check in advance whether any of those involved agreed with you.  And it must be more than tempting to look at Doc Manhattan and say ‘he is a god, I want to be like him’ rather than ‘he is a madman who has wilfully killed his humanity’.

And, of course, Rorschach is terribly cool, isn’t he?  After all, loads of people think that A Clockwork Orange is cool, because it’s, like, full of this really sexy ultraviolence.  And the fact that, if you read the novel all the way through, instead of jumping straight to the rape scene, you discover that it’s about redemption and art and all the other motives so common in Burgess’ writing, is neither here nor there.  In Watchmen the terrifying thing about Rorschach is not his ferocity or his violence, though they are pretty frightening; it is the fact that he is a terrible, terrible psychopath, and yet he is the only character still alive when the story starts who is capable of seeing that Ozymandias’ grand plan to govern the world from the shadows is simply unacceptable, while the others, who treat him as being not quite nice, fall in with it.

Rescuing Moore from his fans

What I want to do here is to understand just how misguided this point of view is.  And I’m going to start, somewhat elliptically, by making some comments about the rather pedestrian Infinite Crisis on Infinite Earths.  Now, I have no intention of discussing the manifest demerits of this piece as a work of fiction, but want to focus on its rather illuminating parallels with Watchmen.

Infinite Crisis on Infinite Earths

The basic plot (if such it can be called) runs something like this.  In DC Comics’ former crisis sage, Crisis on Infinite Earths, a whole load of parallel universes that had existed ended up being collapsed together or destroyed.  In Infinite Crisis, four survivors from this holocaust have looked on the surviving Earth (that is, the one we live on) and decided that it’s a pretty rotten place.  People are filled with fear and hate, criminals and maniacs run riot, war is everywhere and, well, basically, no-one seems to care very much.  And they think that’s bad.   Because on their worlds everything had been spiffing.  So they decide the only thing to do is to restore those Earths and get rid of the nasty  one we happen to live on.  Because everyone will be happier.  Honest.  And then there’s a lot of very confused scenes of people shouting at one another and hitting one another and zooming about, and eventually, well, something or other happens and good triumphs.

So, the motivation of the four survivors is exactly the same as that of Ozymandias in Watchmen: things are not as they should be.  And their conclusion is the same: it is time for men of good will to take action to rescue people from themselves.  But now, this is where the two narratives diverge massively.  You see, in Infinite Crisis you’re meant to feel that the four survivors are more or less sympathetic, and that basically their motive is noble, even if the execution goes badly wrong.  I know this, because the preface by the Senior Editor of DC Comics told me so.  So, basically we’re meant to feel that it is a noble thing to decide on behalf of several billion people that they would be much better off living their lives according to your plan.  In other words, we are meant to endorse a self-appointed elite who take it upon themselves to tell everyone how to live.  Exactly how this differs from fascism, I really don’t know.

Now on to point two.  In Infinite Crisis, what is really quite startling is the complete absence of, well, ordinary people.  All these superheroes are supposedly interested in the well-being of humanity, but all they really seem to care about is themselves.  There is no feeling at all for the actual impact of all the destruction and mayhem unleashed by the characters in the book.  Indeed, ordinary people only really appear as objects of the manipulation of a crazed computer, and are treated as cannon fodder by the heroes.  So, to reiterate, all the heroes are fighting over the destiny of humanity, and whether or not to try to make things better for them, and yet ordinary humanity is never given a voice.  This is a very curious lack.

Watchmen

Need I say that Moore doesn’t exactly share Infinite Crisis‘ rosy view of men of good will.  Now, of course, he’s an artist and an anarchist, so he doesn’t hit us over the head and tell us what to think.  Rather than giving us a nice, neat tidy conclusion where good triumphs and everyone’s happy, we get an appallingly bleak vision where the only two people who have the moral courage to say that people as a whole should be allowed to ruin their lives if they want to have been neatly disposed of, and the men of goodwill are left feeling that they’ve done a good job, really.  And that’s it.  Orwell’s boot is stamping on the face forever, with only the faintest glimmer of hope in the final frame of the final page.  Humanity, unknowing, allows itself to be fooled into sheep-like submission to an invisible tyrant far more terrifying than the ostensible psychopaths he has had killed, the more so because he knows everything he does is for the best.  But then, so do the rulers of Britain in V for Vendetta (which has another wonderfully Mooreian open ending, with not a single resolution in sight).  Moore, oddly enough, does not see the prospect of having superheroes decide our destiny for us as being particularly cheerful.

Moore also grounds his story.  We don’t just see Rorschach as a frightening man of power, deadly in battle with a strict sense of morality.  We see the amazing impact he has on his prison psychiatrist, forcing the man to see past his own illusions as a man of good will.  Does he not do good, after all, by making criminals docile?  Who needs to address the cause of their humanity.  We see his moral regeneration as he is shocked out of his complaisance and into an understanding of the true need for (as Phil Dick would have put it) caritas as opposed to good will.  And then, just as this amazing revolution is about to achieve its goal, he is blotted out by the blind good will of Ozymandias, who doesn’t care about people as individuals at all; all he cares about is the survival of the species (in this he is rather reminiscent of Professor Weston in Out of the Silent Planet).

You see, Ozymandias is like the heroes of Infinite Crisis; he professes care for people, but avoids them if he can.  Moore, however, continually forces us to connect with them, showing us the ongoing, banal, life of the newspaper-seller and he young man reading the Tale of the Black Freighter.  And sure, this is irrelevant, or at least not directly relevant, and we could have had more cool scenes of the Watchmen fighting one another, but without it we would not have the understanding of the monstrousness of Ozymandias’ deeds, because we would not have become acquainted with some of the individuals whom he coldly snuffs out in pursuit of his greater goal.  Not to mention that we would not have seen Moore’s parallel commentary on the Watchmen’s actions.

The fans

I cannot help but suspect that my acquaintances would really, had they admitted to it, have been happier with Watchmen had it been more like Infinite Crisis, for that is basically what they converted it into.  My guess is that they skipped over the Tale of the Black Freighter sections of Watchmen, and were rather disappointed that we never really got much in the way of big fights.  But that they basically approve of Ozymandias, because they saw themselves as the men of good will.

The existence of narratives like Infinite Crisis, and the fact that commentators are not queueing up to denounce them as proto-fascism makes it quite clear that the problem is partly with the comic-reading audience.  At least part of it goes to comics for escapism in the same way that some go to mad romance stories for escapism.  That is to say, not in search of fantastic stories that will move them and spur their imaginations, but more as a way of allowing them to forget their problems and pretend that there is a better way, that in fact the world is stupid, and that there really is an elite (of whom they naturally are a part – isn’t it interesting, by the way, that people who claim to recall past lives are always Marie Antoinette, and not a starving sans culottes?).  And that one day, the truth will be recognised, and they will take their place of leadership.

The thing is, you see, you can fool most of the people most of the time.  We need only look at the lunacy of contemporary art to see how fashion can make apparently sensible people fall for the most ludicrous, meretricious garbage and claim it as genius.  Any of us who is out of tune with our increasingly shallow times must feel somehow alienated by all this.  But our test lies in how we react.  If we become Rorschach, and do our best to make things better, but fundamentally accept that if people want to be stupid, then that is their choice, we are on the right track.  But if we become Ozymandias or the Infinite Crisis crew, convinced of our own superiority, then we can only harm ourselves.  And potentially others too.

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