Peter Sanderson gave the second part of a lecture on “Watchmen” at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) last month, included in his lecture series, “1986: The Year That Changed Comics.” Sanderson is a comics historian and author of many books about comics, as well as a former researcher and editor. CBR News is happy to bring this report from the lecture, taking an indepth look at “Watchmen.”
[ NOTE : Plot elements are discussed, as well as the ending of not just “Watchmen,” but other books as well.]
Sanderson describes Watchmen as a story “about what happens when the superhero concept goes wrong.” As we said last time, he does a wonderful job of showing how “Watchmen” is an examination of the superhero genre. An analysis of the superhero genre came from another MoCCA guest, Peter Coogan, earlier this year when his book was released, “Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre.”
|Peter Sanderson lectures at MoCCA|
“One of the points he makes in his book is that superheroes respond to events; they don’t take proactive roles. They don’t attempt to change the world, or reform the world,” said Sanderson.
So what would be a different superhero approach? Well, aside from “Watchmen,” Sanderson places the story in a canon of comic books, drawing comparisons to other stories from the 1986 series. One such book was “Squadron Supreme” by Mark Gruenwald (originally published as a twelve-issue miniseries), in which superheroes seize control of the government to create a “utopia” of their own making, bringing about a “benign dictatorship.” As the story progresses, the Squadron Supreme end up making many moral compromises in order to bring about their vision and even cause dissension amongst their own ranks. The Batman-like character, Nighthawk, leads a revolution against the superheroes to overthrow their dictator ship.
Aside from a canon of comic books, Sanderson also places “the superhero concept” in a historical context. He goes on to show how the superhero concept is an extension of Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch, a race of supermen. Allusions in “Watchmen” can also be traced to works of great literature like Shakespeare and poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley.
“American comics takes the idea of Nietzsche’s superman and makes him into a servant of ordinary man who lives among them, just as Superman uses the Clark Kent disguise, and who doesn’t impose his will on the rest of society but helps it and protects it,” said Sanderson.
“The rest of the superheroes, except for Rorschach, seem to resign themselves to this outcome, justifying that it is for the greater good. I think it becomes clear that Moore thinks of Veidt as a villain. He places himself above humanity; justifying the killing of millions of people for a higher purpose,” said Sanderson.
“Superman has to expiate this crime by killing himself, at least symbolically, and uses a machine at the Fortress of Solitude to take away his powers as he goes off to spend the rest of his life with Lois, under a new name. He has killed off the Superman identity,” said Sanderson.
“One of the big themes in Moore’s work is of taking responsibility. The heroes take responsibility for their crimes even though they had loftier goals, but Veidt feels no guilt even,” said Sanderson.
Some of the deep themes dealt with in the book can be found throughout the genre; themes of responsibility, power and of course, identity. The secret identity is one of the tropes of the genre that can be used to analyze the human condition, the whole concept of identity. A superhero does not just wear the uniform, but takes on a whole new identity that allows them to do things they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) otherwise do. When Rorschach is unmasked at the end of issue #5 by the police, he said, “No, give me back my face.” The symbol of the Rorschach blot served as his mask and that is what he considers his real face. Sanderson shows how writers of the period were “reevaluating the concept of the secret identity in the superhero genre.” Writers like John Byrne and Frank Miller were “questioning the conventional wisdom about secret identities” in their books, “Man of Steel” and “The Dark Knight Returns.”
“Watchmen” goes even further with Rorschach in that Walter Kovacs sees himself as “Rorschach” completely. He hasm for all intents and purposes, done away with his former identity. Rorschach’s nihilistic view on life figures heavily into how he sees himself, as Sanderson points out. The nihilistic, bleak view of life contends with a more optimistic, hopeful view concurrent with the ideals of the superhero, setting up an ideological division that underscores the whole series. In the following issue, Rorschach has a series of psychiatric sessions with Dr. Long in which he expounds his dark philosophy on life.
The superhero “motif” plays an important role in “Watchmen” also, as we see with Rorschach in issue #6, the cover filled with a Rorschach blot. And in the text piece at the end of issue #7, Nite Owl’s motif figures heavily into the imagery and allusion Moore utilizes to show us how the superhero costume can be more than just a disguise for the superhero, as Sanderson points out. The text piece is an article written by Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl) about the history of owl imagery in Egyptian and Greek mythology.
“The superhero motif is important here, because a superhero donning a costume becomes larger than life, much life a shaman wearing an animal mask who takes on the qualities of that animal or animal-god. Just like Batman takes on the qualities of a bat; he is more than human; he is a bat in human form. And Nite Owl takes on some of the qualities of an owl,” said Sanderson.
“On the surface, he’s saying there is something lacking in ornithology if you’re just counting bird feathers or the underside of a bird’s wing, but if like the Egyptians or the Greeks, you can see the wisdom of the owl, this bird of prey, it becomes more than a hobby, it becomes a passion. You can go further and see this as a metaphor for superheroes,” said Sanderson.
In issue #9, Dr. Manhattan and Laurie Juspeczyk have a debate on the moon, where Dr. Manhattan has exiled himself, taking up two ideological viewpoints which run throughout the story; between the dark, nihilistic view of life and a more positive, romantic view. Though he’s an all-powerful being, he is contrasts sharply with the Superman-type hero and has ceased to care for humans or for anything. Laurie tries to sway him to return to earth. As Sanderson points out, this type of debate is familiar to long-time comic readers.
The scene between them is reminiscent of a scene between Silver Surfer and Alicia Masters in the classic “Fantastic Four” story, “The Galactus Trilogy,” by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. What follows is a reversal of roles as Dr. Manhattan gets Laurie to confront the truth about her father, The Comedian. Then, it is Laurie who sees life “as one big joke” just like her father, meaningless. Dr. Manhattan realizes at this point that life is the “thermodynamic miracle” he’s been looking for, and that each human life is unique. Everything that led to the creation of Laurie was part of a chain of events “with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible.”
“Dr. Manhattan has chosen to take a different ideological viewpoint than Rorschach’s and unlike Rorschach, who sees no pattern, he sees a pattern in the creation of life. ‘You are life . . . the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly,'” said Sanderson.
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