In placing the comic-book superhero in a realistic setting and social context, and discussing social and moral implications of vigilantism, Watchmen takes some of the most recognisable features of the superhero comic book genre and disassembles them, forcing the reader to question the moral, psychological and socio-political issues raised by the topic of vigilantism. The use of the comic book format enables Watchmen to address these issues in the format in which they were originally raised, taking the various superhero archetypes and applying them to a wider, more realistic context. The superhero-comic form of Watchmen is therefore not only its raison d’etre, but the most appropriate form in which to discuss these issues. By using the super-hero comic form to address these issues, Watchmen engages them on the home turf of the superhero, and in doing so puts itself in the most apt position to explore and deconstruct them.
Watchmen’s presentation as a comic book lets it fully use combinations of words and pictures in ways unavailable to other media. For instance, the use of the front page of each chapter as, in effect, the first panel of the chapter, is a feature unreproducible in other art forms. The front pages all feature objects of key significance to their respective chapters; the badge in the pool of blood from Chapter 1, the bright yellow fallout shelter sign from Chapter 3, the Rorschach pattern of Chapter 6 – these objects, as Hatfield states, ‘are associated with key characters and help to focus each successive chapter around one such character.’ They foreshadow the key characters, events, and concepts of their respective chapters.’ Another interesting feature of Watchmen is its use of mise en abyme; the tale ‘Marooned’ from the fictional pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter reflects not only the story arc of Ozymandias, and indeed the story of Watchmen as a whole, but also serves in its individual parts to describe and elaborate upon the specific chapters it intersects with. For example, the first panel (after the frontispiece) of Chapter 3 begins the telling of the story ‘Marooned’ in medias res, with the text ‘Delirious, I saw that hell-bound ship’s black sails against the yellow indies sky, and knew again the stench of powder, and men’s brains, and war.’ Even this brief segment from the tale provides a strong parallel with the main story of Watchmen – the image of the black radiation symbol on the yellow fallout shelter sign coincides with the imagery of the text, just as the the excerpt from the tale accurately reflects the tension and apprehension of nuclear conflict that is inherently implied by the presence of the newly-mounted fallout shelter sign in New York. Allegory and enjambment are used in this way throughout Watchmen – both text and pictures combining to create a depth of meaning that could not be fully realised without both components.
Combinations of text and image in this way serve to ‘keep readers minds fully engaged because they require them to assemble meanings out of such different parts’, as stated by McCloud. Indeed, this interplay is a crucial element in Watchmen, as the comic book format allows for text and images to integrate in ways unavailable to other media, and therefore allows Watchmen to elaborate on its key themes in ways unique to the medium. The comic book format allows for amounts of diegetic narration that would be unwieldy in other media, such as conventional literature or films, in both of which ‘the narrators voice is much more intrusive and often merges with the characters’ speech.’ Narration in the comic book format (as opposed to in other forms of media), and indeed the format as a whole allows the reader to take their time to fully digest the significance of both text and imagery without becoming overwhelmed, or missing vital details. An image provides an immediately powerful point of focus for the reader, instantly drawing attention to itself; whereas text allows the reader to progress at their own pace to draw meaning – ‘with words, the reader controls the pace and emphasis of the reading; with pictures, the reader is more or less assaulted by the image.’ By using the comic book format, Watchmen allows the reader freedom to digest the narrative, both textual and visual, at their own pace – while the image may indeed provide the initial assault on the senses, the text serves to elaborate and to aid in interpretation. Neither part stands alone here – the interplay of text and imagery in this way is key to Watchmen’s strength.
One of the most important issues surrounding Watchmen is framed by the quote that gives the work its name: ‘Who watches the watchmen?’; which, in this context can be read as asking ‘to what extent can those who operate outside the law be said to be beholden to it, and to serve it?’ Vigilantism has always been a key idea in the superhero-comic book genre; officially sanctioned superheroes such as Captain America are a rarity. Most often, the superhero in question is forced, either by the very nature of their operation, or that of their various antagonists, to work outside the usual confines of the law, while simultaneously defending it. In this way, superheroes often also exist outside the usual socially accepted confines of morality – for instance, many characters, such as Batman, or The Punisher, use what could be considered excessive violence to achieve their goals. Superheroes therefore work within a grey area of morality and legality, twisting and breaking these structures as they see fit. Watchmen addresses these issues by applying many recognisable superhero archetypes to a ‘real-world’ context, taking into account these legal and moral implications in a wider social context. The key characters in Watchmen all have their origins in the superhero-comic form; both in the sense that they are all adaptations of the original Charlton Comics characters, and in the sense that they can be seen to share key characteristics and themes with other superheroes. Therefore, they serve not just as characters in their own right, but also act as allegories for many of the issues raised by other superheroes.
As put by Geoff Klock: ‘…Moore’s characters resonate comic book archetypes in such a way as to suggest other established superheroes.’ For instance, while Dr Manhattan is an adaptation of Captain Atom, he can also be seen in a wider context as a representation of both the character of Superman, and also of the general ‘Superman’ archetype. Rorschach may be based on Ditko’s ‘The Question’, but he also shares many common characteristics with other superheroes such as Batman – for example, his ‘reactionary, violent, obsessive-loner personality’, (‘That’s what they’re saying about me now? That I’m paranoid?’) and his status as a wanted criminal.
In using these archetypes, Watchmen forces the comic book reader to question the possible real-world implications of superheroes. After understanding Dr Manhattan, the experience of reading Superman is never quite the same. The archetype of the superhuman (a being with powers beyond that of a normal human – Watchmen is careful to describe the mortal vigilantes as ‘costumed adventurers, or some such variation) is explored here in terms of the effects such a being would have on the real world. Watchmen takes the stance that, were a superhuman endowed with powers comparable to a deity to exist on Earth, he/she would undoubtedly be used as a weapon for his/her host country. Furthermore, Watchmen explores the loss of connection with humanity that a true superhuman could encounter. Dr Manhattan is shown as a being who loses his connection with humanity due to both his immortality and his non-linear perception of time – for such a being, we are nothing but brief intrusions on the cosmos – ‘A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?’
In using the concept of the superman in such a way, Watchmen performs an assault on the familiar archetype in its own home, the comic book – forcing the reader to reassess all previous incarnations in this new light. Similarly, the characters of Rorschach and The Comedian provide new readings of previously held ideas on vigilantism, and its representation in comic books. Rorschachs excessive violence, strict (almost fascist) moral code, and obstinate refusal to cease his activities in spite of his status as an outlaw are reminiscent of many comic book superheroes. These characteristics are at the forefront of his portrayal in Watchmen, and are used to force a reassessment of those characters and archetypes upon which Rorschach is based. Likewise, The Comedian is portrayed as an abusive, violent, murderous bully who seems to enjoy the carte blanche that vigilantism gives him to commit act after heinous act. In Watchmen, the society which the vigilantes are trying to protect turns against them, outlawing them with the Keene Act, due to their lack of accountability. This causes the majority of the active vigilantes to retire, with the notable exceptions of Dr Manhattan and The Comedian, who both continue to operate, albeit working for the government, and Rorschach, who continues his vigilantism as an outlaw. Although the outlawing of so-called superheroes is not a concept wholly unfamiliar to comic books, in Watchmen it is a key issue. By addressing this issue in such overwhelming terms, within the pages of a comic book, Watchmen forces the reader to reassess the idea and workability of the comic book vigilante in a realistic society – as the issue of accountability is explored through the pages of the book, so too is the debate raised of ‘whether the very foundations of superhero literature can in fact be maintained.’
Watchmen is a work of art that could not be presented in another form of media without the loss of some of its most compelling features. While the superhero is a concept that is not alien to other forms of media, its roots are in the comic book, and it is therefore most fitting that it should be disassembled within the pages of one. The format allows for narrative progression at a much different pace to conventional literature or films, and allows for interplay between imagery and text (in both direct speech and narration) in ways unavailable to other art forms. While the story of Watchmen could certainly be told using other forms of media, its roots are in the superhero-comic genre – its history, both in terms of its creation by Moore and Gibbons and in terms of the fictional history it portrays, owes itself in its entirety to the superhero comic. It draws as inspiration the various superhero archetypes and, in bringing them to a more realistic setting while still retaining their original format, disassembles them entirely on their home ground. The superhero-comic format is therefore the only appropriate way for Watchmen to be realised, as it owes so much of itself to the comic book.
Word count: 1939
Hatfield, Charles, Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005)
Klock, Geoff, How To Read Superhero Comics And Why, (New York: Continuum, 2002)
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McCloud, Scott, Reinventing Comics, (New York: Harper Collins, 2000)
Miller, Frank, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, (London: Titan, 1997)
Miller, Frank and Mazzucchelli, David, Batman: Year One, (New York: DC Comics, 1988)
Miller, Frank and Varley, Lynn, 300, (Milwaukee: Dark Horse, 2006)
Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave, Watchmen, (New York: DC Comics, 1987)
Moore, Alan and Lloyd, David, V for Vendetta, (New York: DC Comics, 1990)
Moore, Alan, Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics (Rantoul: Avatar, 2007)
Rosenberg, Robin S., The Psychology of Superheroes, (Dallas: Benbella, 2008)
Sabin, Roger, Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels, (London: Phaidon, 2001)
Saraceni, Mario, The Language of Comics, (London: Routledge, 2003)
Spiegelman, Art, Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, (London: Penguin, 1987)
Spiegelman, Art, Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (London: Penguin, 1991)
Varnum, Robin and Gibbons, Christina T, The Language of Comics: Word and Image (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
Versaci, Rocco, This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature (New York: Continuum, 2007)
Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 1987), Ch.3, 1
McCloud, Scott, Making Comics, (New York: Harper, 2006), 137
Saraceni, Mario, The language of comics, (London: Routledge, 2003), 63
Versaci, Rocco, This book contains graphic language: Comics as literature (New York: Continuum, 2007)
Moore, Alan and Gibbons, Dave, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 1987), Ch.1, 12
Ibid, Ch.1, 21