For most of the 20th century, comics were regarded as a simplistic medium catering to children. But in 1986, three comics were released that revolutionised the field: the first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust narrative Maus, Frank Miller’s gritty Batman tale The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. And it is the last of these three which is arguably the most sophisticated superhero comic ever written.

Watchmen takes place in an alternate history, and is primarily set in the 1980s. It is a world in which Richard Nixon is still president, the Cold War has escalated to the brink of Armageddon, and the presence of superheroes has impacted the society, technology and politics of the United States and the globe.

There are a number of intertwined storylines, but the main strand follows several costumed vigilantes as they seek to unravel a conspiracy after one of their members, named The Comedian, is mysteriously killed.

The investigation is led by Rorschach, a violent psychopathic loner who refused to retire when vigilantes had been outlawed some years earlier. He is convinced that a plot is afoot to do away with masked heroes, and tries to warn his associates — amongst whom are the paunchy Nite Owl, the godlike and emotionally distant Doctor Manhattan, his feisty girlfriend Silk Spectre, and the wealthy businessman Ozymandias.

Superhero comics might serve a mythical need of society, but what ideas are they actually imparting? And how did the Watchmen series attempt to upend all of it? Kabir Babar does a deep dive into the ideas of its creator and of comics history itself…

Rorschach’s theory begins to seem plausible when Doctor Manhattan, the only superhero to actually possess any superpowers, temporarily exiles himself to Mars after being accused of spreading cancer to his acquaintances. An assassin tries to kill Ozymandias; and Rorschach himself is framed for murder.

 An example of how neighbouring panels set in different time frames comment on each other
An example of how neighbouring panels set in different time frames comment on each other

Rorschach is eventually sprung from prison by his friend Nite Owl, and the two of them discover that their old colleague Ozymandias is the architect of a monstrous conspiracy. Believing that the only thing that can unite the warring nations of earth is an external threat, Ozymandias stages an alien invasion of the city of New York that kills millions; shortly thereafter, the US and USSR end their discord and unite to face the phantom menace that Ozymandias has created.

Before leaving to confront Ozymandias, Rorschach quietly mails his journal to the right-wing newspaper New Frontiersman, in which he has recorded his investigations and suspicions. When he and the other heroes finally face Ozymandias, it is revealed that it was Ozymandias himself who staged his own assassination attempt in order to deflect suspicion; he also murdered The Comedian when the latter had discovered Ozymandias’ schemes.

Most of the heroes, initially outraged at these murderous machinations, feel that they have no choice but to remain silent when it appears that Ozymandias’ plans for world peace have come to fruition, but Rorschach refuses to compromise. He is killed by Doctor Manhattan, who then leaves Earth for other challenges.

Nite Owl and Silk Spectre retire, leaving Ozymandias to continue with his programme to strengthen the peace he has engineered (and benefit from it financially). The final panels of the comic show an employee of the New Frontiersman reaching for filler material in a crank file, to which Rorschach’s journal has been relegated.

For decades, Moore has been critical of the American superhero comics industry and its “mass-produced rubbish”. In his eyes, most comics are mere clones of the pioneering efforts of years past and lack original ideas, because their writers are just reading other comics and not drawing from myriad sources or from life itself.

 As newspapers and graffiti herald the legal end of masked vigilantes, Rorschach calmly continues his mission of punishing who he thinks is “guilty”
As newspapers and graffiti herald the legal end of masked vigilantes, Rorschach calmly continues his mission of punishing who he thinks is “guilty”

As such, the majority of comics have little relevance to the real world. And because they are regarded as just another form of entertainment — as a “pumpkin patch to grow movie franchises” as Moore says in Lance Parkin’s Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore — there is little attempt to produce a transformative work of art which can influence an individual or society.

Instead, comics are dominated by clichéd, racist and misogynistic “boys’ locker room power fantasies” (‘Alan Moore: Miracle Man’ in Mile High Futures, Vol 3, No 12) which usually end with crude fisticuffs. “Almost every comic book on the stands is an extended narrative about nothing other than violence,” says Moore in the 2007 documentary Comics Britannia. “A person dressing up in a mask and going around beating up criminals is a vigilante psychopath. That’s what Batman is, in essence.”

For Moore, someone like Greta Thunberg is a real hero, a view similar to that of Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons: “There probably are people out there in the community who do do heroic things, but who don’t dress up, who don’t announce themselves. Now I think that would probably be my definition of a real-life superhero.”

Geoff Johns, a writer of comics and producer of superhero films, once declared that, “Just as the Greeks had their mythology, we have ours: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and all the other superheroes.”

Moore acknowledges that comics do serve a mythical need of society, but maintains that superheroes are “vulgar” and “commercial” creations; he regards their effect on popular culture as embarrassing and worrying.

“While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their 12- or 13-year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs,” adds a tribute site.

 The Manichaean Rorschach
The Manichaean Rorschach

“Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with a numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum.

“I would also remark that, save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race.”

Moore set out to change the comics field with Watchmen, both thematically and technically. The characters, while adhering to certain tropes, were nevertheless multifaceted in their psychology. The macho Comedian, who attempts to rape one of his colleagues and doesn’t blink at shooting dead a woman pregnant with his baby, blubbers like a child when he discovers the immensity of Ozymandias’ plot.

Doctor Manhattan is more concerned with the nature of time and space than his own girlfriend. Nite Owl, who initially harboured a “schoolkid’s fantasy” that being a vigilante would be like “joining the knights of the round table; being part of a fellowship of legendary beings”, comes to recognise that “it’s all crap dressed up with a lot of flash and thunder.”

Paunchy and sexually impotent in retirement, the Nite Owl only regains some potency when he dons his costume after a long hiatus and engages in acts of heroism — which is akin to Rorschach, who seemingly, in his own mind only, becomes himself when he dons his mask. Some of the vigilantes from an earlier era have decidedly unheroic fates: one of them is committed to a mental institution after a prolonged period of alcoholism; another dies after being shot when his cloak gets trapped in a revolving door. Needless to say, these are not the conventional deaths that superheroes experience — if they even die at all.

 Ozymandias stands triumphant in front of a painting of his idol Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot
Ozymandias stands triumphant in front of a painting of his idol Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot

In its format and design, Watchmen was unusual compared to what had come before it. The cover did not display a busy action scene, and had the title running up the side. Sound effects, captions and motion lines were virtually absent. Instead of the traditional bright primary colours, the colour palette was subtler, and became darker in tone as the content became more bleak.

Speech balloons were drawn differently depending on the time period. The intricate narrative incorporates flashbacks, overlapping dialogue, multiple stories within the same panel, and scenes retold from different perspectives. There is even a comic within the comic, a separate tale set in an earlier century, and whose art reflects an older process of comic book printing.

The panel layout of one issue was symmetrical to echo the discussion of symmetry in that issue. Another issue featured many mirrors, paralleling the reflective nature of that issue. As for the story itself, it is an alternate history which incorporates a detective story with elements of romance, war and science fiction. It ranges from the satirical to the grim, from the fantastic to the realistic, from the mundane to the profound.

It quotes from a diverse range of figures, from Bob Dylan and Albert Einstein to Friedrich Nietszsche and the Bible. Most chapters end with a selection of documents tangentially related to the main story, ranging from a treatise on ornithology to psychiatric reports. Indeed, Watchmen is a comic that bears repeated study, with subtleties and leitmotifs that can only be picked up on a second or later reading.

As a self-declared anarchist, Moore is sceptical of governments and elites, and his ideas about power appear in several of his works, including Watchmen. Politicians and others in positions of power are often shown as incompetent, and none more so than those who hold the most power. The superheroes are wrong as often as they are right, and events are rarely in their control. And even the intrigues of the most ostensibly intelligent of them — Ozymandias — are doubtful.

At the end of the comic, he asks Doctor Manhattan if it will all work out in the end. Manhattan responds cryptically: “‘In the end?’ Nothing ends […] Nothing ever ends.” He then disappears, leaving Ozymandias perplexed and seemingly worried. For Ozymandias seems not to realise that the fruits of his conspiracy cannot last forever. As Percy Bysshe Shelley suggested in his poem “Ozymandias”, time puts an end to all the works of man. Watchmen’s Ozymandias, despite taking the name of a pharaoh, seems to have forgotten this fact.

And the final panel of the comic hints that his plan might yet be undone, and his forced peace temporary; which makes his killing of millions to save millions an absurd blip in history. In the final analysis, Ozymandias, with his advanced resources and dozens of television screens feeding him information, can no more predict the future than the plodding old newspaper vendor who brags of his purported ability to see the connections between global events.

The brutal Rorschach, with fascistic leanings and dialogue based on the writings of the serial killer David Berkowitz, is as certain in his convictions as Ozymandias. But instead of inducing pity or revulsion, he became the most admired character amongst readers. Dave Gibbons, whose contribution to the comic’s themes was substantial, put him in the same category as Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher, i.e. as someone who was appealing because of his lack of moral ambiguity.

Moore had a less charitable view as to why Rorschach became so popular — he felt that an unhygienic vigilante with no girlfriend would actually be identifiable to comics fans. Many readers seem to have missed these points. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the right-wing American senator Ted Cruz mentioned Rorschach as one of his favourite superheroes, failing to understand that Rorschach is not meant to be either super or heroic.

“All comics are political,” says Moore in Roger Sabin’s Adult Comics: An Introduction, and the connection between superheroes and authoritarianism has been made by numerous commentators over the decades.

The folklorist Gershon Legman once wrote that Superman invests “violence with righteousness and prestige […] the Superman formula is essentially lynching.[…] Instead of teaching obedience to law, Superman glorifies the ‘right’ of the individual to take that law into his own hands.” He peddles a “philosophy of ‘hooded justice’ in no way distinguishable from that of Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan.”

Moore himself traces the masked superhero to the infamous (and enormously successful) 1915 silent American film The Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). “All you need to know about capes and masks in American superhero comics can be learned by a close viewing of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation,” he said in an interview with Russia Today. “That is where it all comes from. We don’t have a tradition of masked heroes, really, anywhere else in the world apart from America.”

The Birth of a Nation was a pioneering milestone of cinema, and quite controversial for its positive depiction of the KKK. The Klan had its origins in the 19th century in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and enjoyed a resurgence in the wake of Griffith’s film. Believing governments and police forces to be soft or corrupt, they took it upon themselves to dispense hooded justice.

The Klan would often use brutality to illegally police the towns in which they had a strong presence, and to enforce their racist ideology against Jews, African-Americans, Roman Catholics, and anyone else who did not conform to their ideas of moral decency. Uppity African-Americans would be whipped, unfaithful spouses flogged. Others who felt the wrath of the Klan included union organisers, communists, divorcees, sellers of liquor and people who played cards on Sunday. Punishments ranged from beatings and castration to branding and murder.

At its peak in the 1920s, the Klan had millions of members and many more supporters. They were regarded as valiant and chivalrous in many quarters. Fortunately, the Klan was inept and excessive in its approach, and eventually numerous states passed anti-mask laws to curb their activities.

The violence of the Klansmen may have faded, but their fictional counterparts are as popular as ever. But even if we grant that violent and authoritarian superhero comics are modern mythologies that are distant descendants of the stories of the ancients, it nevertheless raises some questions. Are there no better myths for the modern democratic age? What does admiration of “vigilante psychopaths” say about the avid readers cheering them on? And to what extent do comics shape the political and intellectual development of children?

There are no simple answers to such questions but, ironically, Moore himself once stated that he derived his morals more from comics than from his teachers and peers. While he seems no worse for it, he was clearly dissatisfied with the typical output. So, despite acknowledging the inability of the superhero comic format to tell meaningful stories, he tried to produce something more sophisticated for future comics readers.

By his own admission, he attempted to present unorthodox and complex ideas to children in an accessible form. This dedication to making intelligent thought-provoking comics resulted in V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing and From Hell, entertaining comics with commentary on politics, the environment and history.

But Moore’s desire to develop Watchmen as a “super-hero Moby Dick” did not have the effect that Moore had hoped for. Instead of inspiring a new and thoughtful way of creating comics, it induced a darker turn in the medium, as if somehow Watchmen’s only imitable attribute was its grimness. Moore disapproved of this nihilistic bent in comics, and indeed believes that people should get over what was “only a bloody comic.”

But here one would respectfully differ with Moore. Whatever his disagreement with the comic industry, Watchmen is here to stay, and rightly so. It was not the first superhero comic to have mature themes, nor the last. And even if we accept Moore’s position that “It doesn’t matter how sophisticated they are, they’re still about men with their underpants over their trousers”, we can nevertheless appreciate Watchmen.

It is a deconstruction of superhero archetypes and a reaffirmation of the power of the comic form. It showcases what only comics can do. And with its meditations on morality and politics, discussions of time and chance, and attention to the structure of the comic itself, the scope and ambition of Watchmen makes it a work of philosophy that, decades later, provides a cultural counterweight to an era dominated by childish superhero films. The final irony is that Watchmen was itself adapted into such a film, one which retains little of what made the original comic so powerful.

Watchmen ends with an epitaph from the report of the Tower Commission, which was formed to investigate illegal American arms sales to Iran during the Reagan era. The report quotes from the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal: “Who watches the watchmen?”

This eternal question must be perennially answered, whether it be in art or life. That the American superhero has its roots in the masked vigilantism of the KKK is arguable, but the parallels are telling. And it is perhaps not a coincidence that in some KKK parades, one could read signs warning onlookers: “Law Violators, We Are Watching You.”

The author is an antiquarian

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 4th, 2022

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