The Watchmen: who’s watching them?

Since we just bought a copy of this to give to a friend as a birthday gift, I felt that it was a good time to talk about it.

First of all, I have never been into comic books. I do enjoy an occasional graphic novel, but it’s such a different schema of reading that it takes me two or even three times longer to read a graphic novel than it would be to read a regular novel of similar length. Surprising, huh? Despite the drastically reduced amount of words, the images are what trip me up. Because a book is focused only on the weight and meaning of the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. A graphic novel, on the other hand, has colors, actual images, facial expressions, clothing, scenes; everything. It’s reading a movie, except it takes longer than two hours and frankly, most of the time is better. (while I must say that I was quite impressed with the movie redux of The Watchmen).

Anyhoo, that’s not what we’re here to talk about! We’re here to talk about the graphic novel; The Watchmen. I want to talk about how it’s a novel of symmetry, and at the same time, contradictions. There is amazing symmetry in the way it was laid out on the pages itself; such as how the first chapter ends where it begins with the exact same shot, Rorschach’s (sp?) constantly changing yet ever symmetrical face etc. But there are contradictions too. As in how the comedian, who is cast as the bad guy, generally looks like a “good guy” by the end of the book. And how Ozymandias, who everyone sees as the hero, is seen as the bad guy by the end. Doctor Manhattan, who everyone thinks is all-powerful, seems to be in some ways quite powerless by the end, and we as readers are turned completely upside down.

Let me pause to say that I love, absolutely love, when a book can throw me for a loop, or make me question my beliefs. Not in a in-your-face insulting sort of way, but in a teach-me-something sort of way. And this novel brings up all sorts of questions as to the morality of this age we are living in, and who are the real heroes? Who watches the Watchmen? so to speak.

As a society, we have popular, pre-conceived notions of what defines heroism. Especially the super kind. We tend to think of them as charismatic, handsome, debonair, and altogether righteous. But we don’t have that in the Watchmen. The ones that we think would be the good guys; the comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias etc, are all shown to have their tragic flaws. The one guy that reveals himself to be somewhat heroic is Rorschach, who fights crime despite being considered an outlaw himself. Yet somewhat represented by his constantly shifting mask; his morals are constantly shifting, though never compromising; one of the reasons why he’s considered the “hero” of the story, even though this very same refusal to compromise results in his eventual death. (sorry for the spoiler).

But let us continue in the main question of the book: is human kind worth saving? Every watchmen has their own answer; their own coping mechanism. Rorschach fights crime because he believes there’s enough good to make it worth fighting the bad. Doctor Manhattan goes to another planet because he generally believes that if he can just make another species just like humans, what makes them special/worth saving? The Comedian, in his weird twisted way, thinks that humans are generally just disgusting, selfish, and horrible; but since it’s impossible to change that fact, we might as well laugh and be merry. Ozymandias seems to believe that humans are important, but by the end we’re not sure if it’s because he thinks that humans are valuable, or just controllable. So do their beliefs make them worthwhile as heroes? Or is their belief in human kind also their tragic flaw?

While the world is “happy” at the end of the novel, due to Ozymandias’s fake alien invasion, I am drawn to a quote between Ozy and Dr. Manhattan, in which Ozy questions his own actions; whether destroying the little to save the whole was really the right thing to do, and if it really did save humanity from destroying itself. In answer, Dr. Manhattan responds that “nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” Which is also the tragic flaw of the superhero; that they are not long-lasting: while their legacy may live on, people will always fall into old habits, people will always commit crimes, and there will always be evil.

So the question is, what allows humanity to go on? Are we really so evil and self-absorbed that it takes a horrific tragedy to unite us? When the watchmen die, who is left to take their place? Who is watching out for the Watchmen?

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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