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Didn't expect to like it, but it deserves its reputation
on March 9, 2004
Having long heard Watchmen's praises, I resisted reading it because I dislike the late 80's and 90's ultraviolent comics, and I assumed Watchmen to be the quintessential comic of this type. I've finally read it, and I was wrong. It deserves its reputation. Violence serves theme and plot without being exploitative.
SPOILER: I'll discuss the story's ending. I'll also compare Watchmen to other works, such as Kingdom Come.
I think Watchmen is basically a condemnation of ubermensch theory (Nietzsche's idea that "supermen" are entitled to violate society's moral laws, imposing their will on those "inferior" to themselves. Hitler infamously used the theory to justify Nazism. I concede I am no expert on Nietzsche.), and an accusation that superhero stories endorse this philosophy by lionizing vigilantes. Watchmen also attacks the genre's simplistic good vs. evil morality.
Only one character has "superpowers" to justify claims of superiority, yet Dr. Manhattan takes too little interest in human affairs to want to control others. On the contrary, he lets himself be used as a tool, hoping to retain his humanity by pleasing people. Yet he's now too detached to morally judge his orders, becoming a living military weapon. Apparently, desire for power over others is for mortals living among mortals--like Ozymandias, the archetypal Aryan "superman": a blonde, blue-eyed, physically perfect, supremely brilliant, self-made billionaire.
Achieving peace through slaughter, Ozymandias, like his hero Alexander, embodies Nietzsche's belief that ends justify means. If paradise is attainable through atrocities, as Nazi and Soviet propaganda claimed, is it worth it? And, once the eggs are broken, should one reap the benefits of the sin? (I ask this sitting comfortably in California, stolen first from Native Americans, then from Mexico.)
Rorschach--Watchmen's brutal, uncompromising conscience--says no, and his journal seems to give him the last word. Yet Rorschach tortures for information, sometimes needlessly. Besides, his winning may mean Armageddon.
In keeping with a thought experiment in Nietzsche's worldview, Watchmen's universe is an apparently godless one, as stated by several characters. Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov justifies murder through Neitzschean arguments, but then feels remorse and, through this reluctant acceptance of higher morality, comes to believe in God. C.S. Lewis's arguments in favor of God's existence hinge on morality's independence of human preference. Watchmen's ending is too ambiguous for any divinely transcendent morality or providence to be clear to the characters or reader. As a Christian, I acknowledge the realism of this ambiguity, for even assuming that God exists and His will constitutes absolute morality, His moral intent is rarely as discernable in real life as in melodramas (the classic example of divine inscrutibility being Job's sufferings in the Bible). As Hollis Mason says in chapter 3, "Real life is messy, inconsistent, and it's seldom when anything really gets resolved."
I like Watchmen--but fear I now better understand why the genre degenerated following its publication. It's a damning attack on superheroes, yet publishers couldn't stop printing their bread and butter, so self-indictment pervaded superhero books of the following years as they struggled with Moore's accusations. Also, as Neil Gaiman observes in his introduction to Busiek's "Astro City: Confessions," the easiest "riff" of both Watchmen and Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" for hacks to steal was darkness, not depth.
There are other reasons for the so-called "Iron Age's" violent nihilism besides Watchmen and DKR's influence. Such trends were already growing in early 80's comics. DC had ravaged almost its entire stock of characters in 1985's "Crisis on Infinite Earths." There was also the need to satisfy reader bloodlust once the maligned Comics Code, for better or for worse, became a rubber stamp. Universally recognized characters synonymous with virtue in the public imagination became brutal, wrathful, petty--and if heroes became jerks, villains became the most lurid sadists imaginable. This culminated in the near-plotless splatterpunk and exploitative sadism of the early Image Comics. "Good vs. evil" became "merely evil vs. nauseatingly evil." Moore expressed dismay that things took the direction they did in those years.
Watchmen's theme is: if Nietzsche were right, as superhero comics claim, that would be terrible. It took a decade for superhero writers to rebut this accusation. Their answer came in Waid and Ross's "Kingdom Come" and was: We never claimed Nietzsche was right--the essence of superheroes is that the stronger someone is, the LESS excuse he has to abuse the weak, and the greater his obligation to them. (As Stan Lee wrote years earlier: "With great power there must also come--great responsibility!" Or, as Moore himself has Superman say in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, "Nobody has the right to kill... not [even] Superman. Especially not Superman!") KC portrays a higher morality--indeed, a God-given one, delivered through the mortal Norman McCay. Perhaps it requires divine perspective to see that an ant who can shatter mountains is no better or worse than his fellow ants. Unlike Watchmen, but like most superhero comics, most of KC's characters have "powers"--flight, invulnerability, etc.--differentiating them from general humanity in a way that even bullet-catching Ozymandias is not. Yet they're not blessed/burdened with near godhood like Dr. Manhattan (staggeringly powerful even by superhero standards, Manhattan perceives all moments simultaneously, and creates and destroys life at will. He has no common reference with humans.). Powerful, yet mortal, they have no more free license to sin than anyone. Probably less. KC portrays a world which needs to relearn this, just as the comics industry needed to relearn it. (One shortcoming: unlike Watchmen, KC isn't self-contained. It assumes reader familiarity with Superman, Batman, etc. and with ultraviolent comics. )
KC and Watchmen bookend the Iron Age. Watchmen unintentionally (I say unintentionally because Moore apparently laments the fact) helped begin it, and KC helped end it.
Yet despite spawning these trends, Watchmen itself is breathtaking, complex literature which takes masterful advantage of comics' visual medium.
Warning: This is not an acceptable comic for children. An R-rated story with lots of sex and violence, Watchmen is a story for grown-ups.