For most of the genre’s existence the superhero story represented almost the peak of escapism.
Superheroes were perfect, often inhuman figures who lived in worlds alien to our own. Even those without powers, like Batman and Iron Man, were possessed of genius and determination well beyond any real person. For generations the genre remained the favorite of children and teenagers.
Then these kids grew up, started thinking about the complexity of the world, and took their superheroes with them. One such reader was Alan Moore, who as a child growing up in the poorest area of England’s Northampton found an escape in American comics. As an adult Moore embraced the medium and provided it with a sophisticated, literary approach, earning numerous awards and eventually becoming the medium’s most celebrated writer with such books as V for Vendetta, From Hell, Swamp Thing, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Moore’s books are most noted for their complex nature. He’s the James Joyce of the comic book medium, only thankfully more prolific. And Watchmen, whose long-anticipated film-adaptation opens Friday, is Moore’s Ulysses, his most popular and important book. It’s also the only comic to appear on the Time list of 100 greatest novels.
Because Moore’s work embraces the reality of a complex world, the fact that Moore identifies as an anarchist and has political opinions that fall well within the Left (as this Salon interview demonstrates) is unlikely to detract from a centrist or a conservative’s appreciation of his work and the upcoming film. Moore also intentionally tried to avoid a clear cut message in Watchmen, saying:
We tried to set up four or five radically opposing ways of seeing the world and let the readers figure it out for themselves; let them make a moral decision for once in their miserable lives! Too many writers go for that “baby bird” moralizing, where your audience just sits there with their beaks open and you just cram regurgitated morals down their throat. … What we wanted to do was show all of these people, warts and all. Show that even the worst of them had something going for them, and even the best of them had their flaws.
Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985 in which the presence of superheroes has given the United States an edge in the Cold War. On its side the US has Doctor Manhattan, a glowing, blue man with all but limitless power. Doctor Manhattan was formerly part of a costumed hero team that featured such members as the Comedian, Rorschach, Ozymandias, Nite Owl, and the team’s only female, the Silk Spectre. Within the characters of the team, who are the novel’s central figures, we see numerous political ideologies in conflict.
The story begins with the mysterious murder of the Comedian, a character Moore admits was inspired by G. Gordon Liddy. The Comedian is a cigar-chomping, muscled tough guy whose comic models can be seen in such characters as The Peacemaker and Nick Fury. When a 1977 law bans costumed adventurers the Comedian becomes one of two government-sponsored heroes. In the first issue of Watchmen, Dan Dreiberg, the now-retired Nite Owl says, “I heard he’d been working for the government since ’77, knocking over Marxist republics in South America.” At one point we see that the Comedian was responsible for rescuing the hostages in the Iran Hostage Crisis. The Comedian is representative of the Cold Warrior, aggressively supporting government force in confronting evil at home and abroad.
These clues about possible motives for the killing of the Comedian are mulled over by Rorschach, his former teammate and a costumed hero who continues his crime-fighting, regardless of the law. Rorschach is the protagonist of Watchmen and his investigation of who murdered the Comedian will drive the plot. Politically he’s inspired by such Steve Ditko comic creations as Mr. A. and The Question. Ditko is an Ayn Rand devotee who expressed his interpretation of her philosophy in his comics. Moore, who personally disagreed with the politics, still found the characters and ideas exciting.
Rorschach is without question the book’s coolest character. He appears in a dirty trench coat and wears a white fabric over his face with continually shifting black splotches. This black/white pattern is symbolic of the character’s world view. Rorschach abhors moral relativism and divides the world into clear definitions of right and wrong. He sees it as his role to oppose evil, pursue his vision of justice, and deliver his “retribution.” He sympathizes with the Comedian’s conservatism and patriotism but parts ways when it comes to government. He’s the book’s libertarian. Two other philosophical strains that pervade the character are an inability to compromise and a tendency toward conspiracy-thinking. These two traits will serve him well over the course of the book as sometimes conspiracies do exist and often one should not compromise with evil.
The superhero genre has a propensity for a world-saving mentality and Watchmen is no different. In the character of Ozymandias we see the leftist desire to unite, save, and redeem the world. (The character more than reveals himself when he slurs the Comedian as a “Nazi,” as leftists are known to label conservatives.) Ozymandias thinks of himself as the most intelligent man in the world and sees it as his duty to radically solve the problem of the Cold War. In doing so he’s willing to go so far in this pursuit that he’ll sacrifice innocent people and anyone strong enough to stand in his way.
Amidst these left-right conflicts another philosophy hovers in the background, seemingly transcending them. In the character of the super-powered Dr. Manhattan Moore gives us a man who lives Quantum Theory the way physicists talk of it. The book’s fourth chapter, “Watchmaker,” focuses on Dr. Manhattan’s origin and perspective. We see how Dr. Manhattan perceives time in a nonlinear fashion. The past, present, and future are all happening simultaneously for him, represented by comic panels telling the character’s story by continually jumping back and forth from year to year. The ideologies of Rorschach, the Comedian, and Ozymandias are all irrelevant to Dr. Manhattan. His power and perspective isolate him from humanity and it’s up to his former lover, the Silk Spectre, to try and persuade him to intervene. She contributes the emotional, feminine component to this already boiling ideological stew.
When Alan Moore wrote Watchmen he did intend for something of an anti-Reagan critique. How was he attacking a figure so beloved by the conservative movement? The profoundly amusing answer is in a way that those on the Right should embrace. Amidst the book’s complex themes and multiple world views there actually is a fairly coherent message that does emerge in the style Moore chose to fashion his characters: we should not trust people to save us. Moore was critiquing the very idea of superheroes. He thought we should not look to superheroes to protect us and fix our problems for the simple reason that such figures are just as human as we are. In his depiction of costumed adventurers with neuroses and problems Moore embraces one of the central philosophical truths of conservatism: people are flawed. And so we should be cautious in granting them the power to change, “improve,” or police the world.
The book’s superheroes are analogous to our politicians. Moore’s principle attack on Reagan was to say that Americans should not look to him as a heroic god who’s going to fix everything. Politicians are not heroes we can trust and embrace. They’re human and thus no better than the rest of us. And that message is an important one to remember at the dawn of the Obama administration, especially for the President’s supporters. It’s fine to like or support a politician and his policies. What’s not acceptable is to get so wrapped up in defending your president against the constant wave of attacks against him that you begin seeing him as The One Who Will Save Us.
So will this rich thematic tapestry make it to the screen on March 6? Or will Moore’s vision be perverted into an atrocity on par with that of his second film adaptation, “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”?
When we consider the film’s director, Zack Snyder, and his previous film, “300,” we get an answer that inspires some confidence. “300” was also based off of a comic book and the style employed by Snyder was to all but use the book’s pages as storyboards. His method was to be as faithful to the comic as possible. It’s also worth noting that one of the most vocal supporters of “300” was the conservative author Victor Davis Hanson, whose thoughts on it can be read here and here. While many viewers may have missed it amidst all the ultra-violence and beheadings, “300” did have a philosophical component.
This approach of zealous loyalty toward the source material worked for “300,” a film that generated $456 million worldwide and became a new cult classic. If there’s any other comic book that can match such success it’s one as intellectually challenging and exciting as Watchmen.