Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rewinding Watchmen

I recently reread Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It was my third time reading it and I was struck again by the complexity of the story and the attention to detail in the art. I was still slightly unhappy with the ending (more on that below) but I still find the work to be tremendously rewarding. As with any great work of such detail and depth there are new things to be discovered with each new reading.

This time around I was particularly interested in the notion of Watchmen as a deconstruction of the superhero genre. The problem was I didn't completely understand what deconstruction meant. I thought it had to do with exposing the inherent flaws in a genre. That by deconstructing something you lay bare its inner workings and thereby prove the falseness of it. As I read Watchmen I expected the very idea of superheroes and masked adventurers to be implicitly (if not explicitly) destroyed. But that didn't happen. Instead, Watchmen asks the reader to accept cliché and believe in formula. One has to "buy in" to the idea of superheroes in order for Watchmen to work. I realized, then, that I had been confusing deconstruction with destruction. Watchmen is not designed to destroy the superhero. It is doing something else entirely. But even after my third reading I didn't know what that was.

I started casting about for some analytical writing about Watchmen that might offer some clarity. I looked at Watchmen and Philosophy but (on an admittedly brief perusal) it didn't seem to have the depth I wanted. Then I found "Deconstructing the Hero" by Iain Thomson (a chapter in Comics as Philosophy edited by Jeff McLaughlin) and was pleasantly surprised. Thomson provides a keen and penetrating critique of Watchmen that put the book in a better perspective for me. Here's what Thomson says about deconstruction:

"[Alan] Moore seems instinctively to know . . . that one of the most powerful deconstructive strategies involves provisionally accepting an idea, thesis, position, or world-view, then working from inside it to extend it beyond its limits until it eventually is made to collapse under its own weight. Watchmen deconstructs the hero by developing its heroes . . . to the point where the reader comes to understand that these fantasies, realized, become nightmares." (p.106)

What Thomson shows is that Alan Moore was up to much more than simply debunking the trappings of the superhero genre (the secret identities, costumes, gadgets, and fortresses of solitude). In Watchmen Moore is not interested in merely saying, "superheroes are impossible;" he and the reader already know that. What Moore does is tackle the fantasy of superheroes. He attempts to prove false the idea of "hero as savior."

Moore takes the reality of costumed vigilantes and superbeings to its logical conclusion. What would a world be like where civilians anonymously fought crime? What would happen if a "superman" could sway the course of geopolitical events? Would this be a better world than our own? Watchmen explicitly answers, "No."

It is clear from reading Watchmen that the world has become a dystopia, a place of despair and dismay. Rather than solve problems, heroes (and superhero) have made matters worse. People fear vigilantes and look to the police for order. When the police go on strike, the government outlaws masked crime-fighters. Any costumed hero that the government does allow is co-opted and ultimately used against the population (the Comedian). A right-wing state emerges. The United States' dependence on the superhero (Dr. Manhattan) for protection escalates international tension and increases the likelihood of all-out war between the superpowers. Another "hero" (Ozymandias) attempts to resolve these problems by launching a scheme that, though it kills millions of people, succeeds at (temporarily) relieving the aggressive tensions between the nuclear powers.

Watchmen posits that this "nightmare" world emerges from the "fantasy" of the superhero. It is a world where conflicts become magnified rather than removed, where safety is even more tenuous than it was before the advent of heroes. And this, Thomson so clearly shows, is how Watchmen deconstructs the superhero genre.

Now I get it. Maybe I was just dense or ill-informed before, but my appreciation of Watchmen has grown appreciably since reading Thomson's superb essay. I highly recommend it.

Still, the essay did little to help me feel better about the ending of Watchmen. If anything it called into further contrast the inherent weakness of Watchmen's conclusion.

**Major Spoilers Ahead! Warning!**

Ever since my first reading of Watchmen (back in 1987) I was disappointed by the ending. I remember the anticipation for that final issue. It was the climax of something significant. (Most readers knew at the time, before the series had concluded, that Watchmen was a major work.) And then there was the last issue, number twelve. Everything had been leading up to this.

And the ending was a letdown.

It was not a major disappointment. The issue still delivered plenty of surprises and satisfying (and logical) denouements for all of the characters. There was just something about that giant alien squid that didn't sit right.

If you are still reading this then you probably know how Watchmen ends. Ozymandias launches his master plan by simulating an alien invasion of earth. He teleports what appears to be a giant alien being (a horrific, Lovecraftian "squid") into the heart of Manhattan thereby causing the death of millions of people. The "squid" has also died, apparently due to its botched inter-dimensional manifestation. Still, the "invasion" causes the world's super powers (re: the USSR and the USA) to cease hostilities and to unite against a perceived common enemy.

This plan recalls a similar plot point in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven. There, George Orr—whose dreams can alter reality—is made to dream an end to war on Earth. He dreams of an alien invasion, thereby providing a common enemy for all warring nations. Unlike the aliens in The Lathe of Heaven, however, the alien in Watchmen is fake—and dead. Yet somehow it still has a profound effect on the world's nuclear foes. The USSR (which until now has been aggressively at war in Afghanistan) announces an immediate end to hostilities. A summit in Geneva is called. The world is unified. And it only took a few hours.

The ending of Watchmen seems too simple for such a complex work. I have always wondered why the Soviet Union would so quickly accept the premise of an alien invasion. It seems more likely that a hostile USSR, suspicious of an angry, belligerent West (this is the USA under Nixon, recall) and frightened for so long by Dr. Manhattan, would take advantage of the confusion in the USA (which is obviously vulnerable) to further its aggressions. But they don't. They accept the alien as real and seek peace with the USA. Ozymandias has succeeded and Earth is saved.

It's all too easy and too quick. In so many ways Ozymandias' plan could have backfired. He was depending on the belief in—and fear of—an alien monster to bring peace to Earth. This is unfortunate because for all that Watchmen is, for all the clever and deft ways it "deconstructs" the genre, it still relies on a gimmick in its final act. If Watchmen posits that the extraordinary and unworldly (the superhero) inevitably leads to dystopia, how can it expect us to believe that something equally extraordinary (alien invasion) could bring unity and peace? It is an unfortunate contradiction.

Of course, Watchmen does not have a definitive and tidy ending. Tellingly, Dr. Manhattan's last words are, "Nothing ever ends," leaving Ozymandias to question the success of his plan. Rorschach's journal, which contains Ozymandias' secret, is on the verge of publication. The story, therefore, remains open. Given the nature of the Watchmen universe the "happy ending" may be fleeting. There is a looming potential for darker times to come.

So, while the ending to Watchmen is weak, it remains only a minor flaw in a major work. There is just enough ambiguity ("Nothing ever ends") to argue that Watchmen succeeds despite its flaws. To me, it remains a great work of art. Each reading proves that it is one of the most important and profound comic series of all time.


  1. Interesting - I've always seen the 'simplicity' of Veidt's plan as being like Alexander's solution to the Gordian Knot; crude, but effective.
    For me, the big letdown in Chapter 12 is the bullet-catching; pretty much comes from nowhere, and it didn't really work for me!
    Mind you, after the cliffhanger of Chapter 11, the final chapter was always going to be hard to follow...
    Hello from London, by the way - old-time reader of WIP (had a letter published in one issue, I seem to recall), and good to see your writing is freely available again!

  2. John,

    Thanks for the nice words. I forgot about the bullet catching. I think Moore was trying to establish Ozymandias as an "almost-Superman" (what better way than catching a bullet) to make him seem more threatening. (Don't forget, he killed the Comedian, and took down Rorschach and Night Owl in a matter of moments.)

    I must say I am very excited about the film. I know they changed the ending slightly. I may be in the minority in thinking that this change could be an improvement. We'll see.

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