Who Watches The Watchers? -A Comic Book As Political Commentary and a new blockbuster movie soon to hit theaters
If you thought the last Batman movie, The Dark Knight, was dark and cynical, wait until you see Watchmen, arriving in theaters on March 6, 2009. Brooding Bruce Wayne will have nothing on a “hero” that rapes his sidekick, another one that has no interest in mankind at all, one that is a megalomaniac, one that is psychotic, and one that is overweight and sexually impotent all set against a backdrop of a United States that is many shades of despair and evil. It makes Batman, The Dark Knight, seem like a festival of sweetness and light. This is the Watchmen, soon to be released by Warner Brothers. If this new flick at all follows that anti-American, nihilism of the original comic books we are in for some dark stuff, indeed.
Why do contemporary artists all seem to think the end of the world is nigh? Why has art become a thing of ugliness, instead of light? With all the beautiful things we see every day, the delicacy of a flower, the turn of a woman’s arm, the grace of a bird in flight, we are treated only to the bizarre and horrid by our artists. These days we see sculptures that look like molecular mistakes writ large. We live in architecture with the image of a jumble of blocks thrown to the ground in the midst of a temper tantrum by a gigantic, petulant child. We view paintings that appear more accidental than planned. We have movies full of violence and anti-social behavior. On the radio we hear music that celebrates all the worst in man. We even have comic books that belittle heroism, that deconstruct the good and exceptional turning their heroes as cartoonishly flawed as the most obscene head case on the Jerry Springer Show.
When did entertainment turn so dark?
In the field of comic books, a 12 part series called Watchmen, created by writer Alan Moore (original author of the story that the 2005 movie “V for Vendetta” was based upon) as a political commentary on its time, was a comic book series hailed as having “transcended its origins,” and so becoming a watershed in comics entertainment. This series, published in 1986, was at the front edge of a wave of comics in the early and mid 1980s that attempted to demolish the heroes of the past and replace them with a post-hero world of darkness and pessimism.
So why talk about a comic book from 1986 now? With a motion picture under development and Time Magazine placing the series on its top 100 novels Watchmen is being brought back into prominence, and now seems like a good time to re-visit the series. Since it is claimed that it had so changed the comic book industry, let’s give it a look with fresh, more critical eyes.
Watchmenwas a reflection of the contemporary political positions held by an influential minority, sure enough. But in the final analysis, it is so imbued with the over wrought and ill-conceived notions of the political left that it fails to wholly represent a true understanding of what was really going on in the world or what, in retrospect, we really had to worry about. Further, it is just the type of stuff being peddled to our kids (as it originally was in comic book stores) to which we should pay attention.
Graphically, it isn’t very well drafted. It does have the benefit of being created in the semi-realist style that began to be popular in the 1980s though. which instantly makes it better than today’s comics drawn in that horrible Japanese Anime/Manga style that has so pervaded the comic book industry of late. Thankfully, Watchmen’s was not yet an era infected by this regrettable, current trend in US comic art.
As to subject matter, it wasn’t “just a comic book.” It hit all the 80’s hot-button issues. Homosexuality, rape, war with Russia and “the bomb,” crooked US politicians, corruption, murder, sexual impotency, welfare mammas, and homicidal maniacs were all aspects of the story line. It even indulges in demonization of Nixon directly, and Ronald Reagan by inference. But it’s philosophy of nihilism and anarchy was its underlying message.
Obviously, the series is a commentary on the human condition as much as it is on the politics contemporary to the publishing of the work as intended by writer, Alan Moore. Moore is from a long line of political leftists and has repeatedly said in interviews that his comic series was intended to be a left-leaning commentary on political ideaology. Man is the greatest evil of all, despair is the only possible reality, and peace is but fleeting seem to be the core messages in Watchmen. And in all of this, the western world makes it even worse. Watchmen is all told on the backdrop of a fallen and corrupt western society.
But, this idea, that man will ruin everything eventually, could certainly have been told sans the ill informed and badly thought out political commentary running underneath. The basic tenets of leftist thought that forms the basic point of view in this series are proven failures and this detracts from what could have been a better story. The fact that the Left’s ideas are failures was even realizable during the era in which the book was written and not just in hindsight as we re-read it today. From the hatred of American politics, to doubt of American character, and the equalization of all ideologies to the lowest common denominator, this series fails in its political philosophy.
Further, the cynical commentary that “justice,” or “right,” and “good” themselves are so subjective as to be impossible to define runs throughout. There is a basic assumption here that there’s no such thing as heroism and that those who claim to believe in the concept or even try to put it into play eventually make a mockery of their claims of defending the innocent and punishing the guilty. That they, sooner or later, confuse the search for justice with their own selfish desires or that said search is so intertwined with their personality flaws in the first place that they only succeed in deluding themselves into imagining that justice really is being served at all by their actions.
This all reflects the author’s ideology of anarchy and nihilism. A case is being made that everything is relative and that nothing can be “known” because things are different in all situations, there is no universal “right,” no natural law. We know this battle has been fought between philosophers since man first began to wonder about his condition. It was hotly contested during the Enlightenment period of the 1700s, and once again in the 1800s, and still again in the 1900s and today. So, the lamentations in Watchmen certainly are not new.
Like I said, it’s all pretty dark and cynical.
To create his universe, Moore’s super-heroes were created specially for Watchmen and are case studies of a series of mental troubles that would make that old fraud, Freud, run for his couch.
The Comedian represents the most cynical example of anarchy in the series. His only desire is to continue to sate his need for violence, a need he cloaks in service to his country thereby making a mockery of patriotism as well as heroism. He sees no value in anything unless it fulfills his desires. One political undercurrent for this character is to display the evil of the US government, as well as the character’s degradation. This evinces itself in a US government that apparently sees nothing wrong with employing such a homicidal maniac as an undercover agent.
Unfortunately for the author’s touch with reality, he seems not to understand that such a personality is not one a government would be able to control or trust in the long run. The reality is that a certain fealty or belief in the ideals of the government in question usually makes for the better operative.
Dr. Manhattan is the only truly “super” being in the series. Whereas the others are just normal people who have certain abilities of physical strength or mental acuity, Dr. Manhattan was a man altered by a radiation experiment into a being that can manipulate molecules. But, as a result, his problem is utter disconnection with his fellows. With all his power he still lacks any real understanding of his fellow man. He is so fascinated by the workings of things, so blinded by the mechanics of the universe, he fails utterly to ask “why.” In fact, everything is so relative to him that he can see no difference between a blade of grass, a lone molecule, or a human being for most of the series. His world is unsatisfying, though. He continues to look for that “something” that even he, with all his great powers, is unable to define.
Manhattan’s politics seem to represent the ultra egalitarian “we are all the same” variety. His equalizes all of human endeavor to the same level. But, if we were to buy into this simplistic view it becomes inescapable that there really is no difference between a Gandhi figure and a Hitler. They are both “just humans,” so how can their actions be so “different”? Thus such a philosophy ends up denying any “truth” for man. This, of course, goes to the heart of undermining justice and law.
The Nite Owl, an aging tech expert, represents impotency in nearly all things. He cannot stop a crime, he cannot save New York, and he cannot even subdue a friend. He can’t even have sexual relations without some out of the ordinary stimulus. Futility seems his only ability in the end. His character screams that we are all helpless.
The main female character, Silk Spectre really has little meat to her role. She seems not to represent much of anything, seeming to act only as a foil or enabler for other characters. In fact, Moore is quoted as saying she is only in there so that they had a requisite female character. She seems treated that way, too. This makes her Mother’s rape by The Comedian seem gratuitous and all about The Comedian’s character development instead of either of the Spectres’ (the daughter takes up Mother’s superhero character). We are left with feeling that this rape story line was only added to make the story seem “adult” oriented. Of course, it could be a commentary on the supposed ill treatment of women in western society, too, but looking at the rest of this story, I doubt it was meant so by the author of the series.
Ozymandias represents megalomania at its worst, most messianic form. So sure is he that he knows better that he takes away the very thing that makes man a sentient human being an individual: choice. The ability to choose our fate, choose our reactions, and direct our own lives is overridden by Ozymandias’ “better” future.
Lastly is the character of Rorschach. As a child, this character’s prostitute mother told him that she should have aborted him. He was repeatedly abused and eventually snapped, turning violent. Once he snapped, he found that his wild violence fixed things for him and made people fear him. As an adult in his superhero life, he uses unbridled violence to elicit information from underworld figures and thinks nothing of casually breaking fingers to insure cooperation. He attacks a caner riddled old man to get info and basically roams about the city intimidating and causing harm to people. His main part in the comic is to act as an unbalanced mockery of justice.
Unfortunately, the series ends up being just another way to tear down standards, another way to complain about the old ways while offering nothing with which to replace them. That being the case, nothing new has been learned in Watchmen. The only thing “new” is the forum in which the questions are being raised: a comic book.
One wishes that writer, Moore, could have used his considerable talents to produce uplift as opposed to depression, to reach for the sublime instead of the prosaic, to inspire by taking the high road instead of the low. But, unfortunately, with the influence of the political view from the left upon him all he could do was take the low road. If all one can do is see the worst in man, claim nothing is ever worth the effort, and that western ideas have destroyed any vestige of light in man then you are doomed to stay on that low road. So, we end up with despair and darkness in our art, too many artists having taken the low road.
Just as sadly, we see that the political Left hasn’t learned much since 1986. They still see the west as causing all of the world’s problems, still see capitulation to our enemies as the right course of action, and still feel that Patriotism and right and wrong are words with meaningless distinctions or, worse, even dangerous concepts.
Moore has lamented that his work with Watchmen had “started a whole genre of pretentious comics or miserable comics,” but since he insisted on taking that low road, but what could he expect? His politics, if emulated, ends up at this very place.
But, laments aside, Moore’s epic comic book does do one thing very successfully. It reveals the empty moralizing and faulty logic of his flavor of political thinking. Nearly every leftist political point that Moore tries to sell coupled with his philosophical premises all have been tried by successive generations of humanity and with the all the same results. Utter failure has been that result. Yet, here is Watchmen subtly trying to sell the same failed concepts that have proven so dangerous to mankind — and often murderously so. In the end, we cannot help but realize that the Left, so sure that they are the ones qualified to “watch the watchers,” fail to see that it is they, rather than others, who need the watching.
–The Watchmen series is 12 issues in length and is so full of political undercurrents and topical content that this short Op Ed doesn’t do it justice. For a full review, book by book, visit our review website at – http://www.publiusforum.com/watchmen/watchmen_index.html
(image credit: DC Comics/lib.udel.edu)