Analyzing "Watchmen" with Peter Sanderson

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.]

Just to recap the plot: The vigilante Rorschach investigates the murder of the superhero The Comedian (Edward Blake), a former teammate, during a time when superheroes have been outlawed. Over the course of the story, Rorschach uncovers a conspiracy by another former teammate. Nite Owl (Dan Dreiberg) and Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk), two retired superheroes, get drawn back into the game even as they're drawn together, while the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan, Laurie's husband, spends most of his time on the moon not giving a damn. And Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt) is too busy shilling his image for a tidy profit. In our last article, Sanderson discussed how "Watchmen" is an examination of the superhero genre and comics themselves.

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."  

"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.

"The superheroes, by taking this proactive role and not responding to threats but trying to remake civilization and take control, have become the bad guys and need to be put in their place," said Sanderson.

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.

Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt) in "Watchmen" comes closer to Nietzsche's concept of the superman, an evolved man who situates himself above those of ordinary men. We can see this elsewhere in comics as well, as with the "homo superior" concept in the X-Men books. Veidt stages an elaborate hoax, a fake alien attack on New York City in order to bring the warring nations of the world together and bring about peace. He kills millions in the process, seeing it as necessary to meeting his end goal.

"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.

Moore's characters in Watchmen are not just average people imbued with extraordinary power, but like unto gods that lord over average humans. Seeing superheroes as god-like is nothing new, but Sanderson shows us how these heady themes can be found in more traditional comics fare as well as a modern graphic novel like Moore's. Linking it again to other 1986 stories, namely Moore's other work, he shows how the characters in these stories expiate themselves for their sins (namely murder) as opposed to Veidt's philosophy. In Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow," though Superman is forced to kill Mr. Mxyzptlk at the end, he has always had a strict code against killing, even villains. Or at least it seems like it has been forever. Superman's code of honor against killing didn't come about until the '60s and '70s, as Sanderson points out. As a matter of fact, he was very active during World War II aiding in the war effort by killing a bunch of Germans and Japanese.

"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.

Veidt seemingly does not feel any guilt over what he's done, justifying that it was for the greater good, which Sanderson said "marked him as the villain."

"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."

"For example, conventional wisdom says that Superman is the real guy and Clark Kent is just an identity he's made up for himself. John Byrne turned this around [in "Man Of Steel"] as Clark Kent becomes the 'real guy' and Superman became a disguise he put on in order to act as a superhero. In 'Dark Knight Returns,' you have Bruce Wayne discarding his Batman identity, but it turns out the Bruce Wayne identity is just a hollow shell. He has no real vitality and is obsessed with death, only coming fully to life when he's Batman. Batman becomes the real person; Bruce Wayne is a sort of hollow shell," said Sanderson.

"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.

"When he goes around as Kovacs, he dresses in a slovenly manner, his apartment is a mess, and he has no concern for that part of his life at all. He considers himself to be Rorschach completely," said Sanderson.

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.

Earlier in the issue, Dan and Laurie are waxing nostalgic over some of Dan's old Nite Owl paraphernalia, including the goggles that served as part of his mask. While they dismiss their former superhero lives as youthful indiscretions or something "campy," Dan does tell Laurie that the goggles "did allow him to see more clearly." Owls are often connected to wisdom, the ability to perceive things more clearly. In his article on owls, Dan writes, "Looking at a hawk, we see the minute differences in width of the shaft lines on the underfeathers where the Egyptians once saw Horus and the burning eye of holy vengeance incarnate. Until we transform our mere sightings into genuine visions; until our ear is mature enough to order a symphony from the shrill pandemonium of the aviary; until then we may have a hobby, but we shall not have a passion." Sanderson explains how this relates to the reader of comics and how Moore is telling the reader of "Watchmen" to "see superheroes as something more than guys running around in funny costumes."

"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.

Until we look for the themes expressed in comics, thinly veiled by fantasy devices such as superheroes, we shall only have a "hobby" and not a "passion." A book like "Watchmen" makes one glad to be a comic book reader and a fan of the superhero genre. Too often superheroes are dismissed as kid's entertainment and campy. Only in recent years has the potential of the genre been appreciated and further explored. For those of us who have appreciated comics for years, it is truly a passion and not just some silly hobby left over from youth. It's interesting to see Sanderson make connections to not only great comics of the period, but the thrilling stories of comics' history, showing how that even back then, comics weren't just for kids; moreso with the characters and stories created by Stan Lee, who will be the subject of Sanderson's next lecture series .

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.

"In the case of Dr. Manhattan, it could be a metaphor for a God who does not care. Some people see Mr. Moore as an exalted writer, far removed from comics, but here we have a woman pleading with an alien-like super-powered being, pleading for humanity and saying that the Earth is worth saving from destruction," said Sanderson.

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.

In the end, Sanderson makes it clear that the story allows the reader to decide between these two ideological points of view on life: optimism or nihilism. The story arc in "Watchmen" runs from a dark, nihilistic viewpoint in the first half to a more hopeful outlook in the second half, though much in the end obviously leaves things on a sour note with a major city all but destroyed. Another interesting note is that Rorschach allows himself to be killed much like V in "V for Vendetta" and Superman in "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow." He is expiated for his sins, though for whatever reason strikes a chord with many fans of Watchmen. Sanderson said that Moore himself never meant for Rorschach to be likable. There's so much still left uncovered, but "Watchmen" could have a lecture series all its own.

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