Who Watches the Watchmen?

Amidst all the huge and ongoing obsession with comic books and graphic novels in the film industry at the minute I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about what is, in my opinion, one of the most prolific graphic novels of all time. My endless adoration for Alan Moore’s work aside, I thought I’d talk about the idea of the realism and the role of superheroes in Watchmen and how it makes it such a striking piece of writing.

During the 1980s comic books took a turn away from the cookie-cutter mould of the idyllic vigilante superhero with noble motivations and honourable ideologies (such as Superman’s innate and unstoppable will to do good or Captain America’s sickly sweet patriotism and Christianity) towards the more macabre and violent motivations seen in such comics as The Dark Knight Returns and, indeed, Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons show that the heroes of Watchmen are different to the heroes of the Silver Age straight away by setting the comic in a dingy and realistic world, where they very much:

“exist at the mercy of contingent factors, which limit their action […] The superhero in Watchmen has become just another facet of society.”

I think maybe this realistic setting is what initially drew me to the graphic novel when I first read it, and why the idea of these not-so-super super-heroes appealed to me. For me the whole story of Watchmen is really just a way of asking us what superheroes would really be like; Moore’s way of answering the fantastical and idyllic Silver Age with a bit of a reality check. Much as we’d all like to have a boundless faith in the human decency, I don’t think any of us could deny that if we suddenly got super-strength or invisibility we wouldn’t abuse it a little (though I hope for the sake of the world none of you reading this would abuse if quite as much as Hawley Griffin).


They further juxtapose the heroes of Watchmen not only with the superheroes of other comics, but with their earlier counterparts ‘The Minutemen’. This is where the importance of ideology and motivations comes in for me. For example the original Nite Owl, a former policeman, is very obviously motivated by basic justice and law enforcement and “basic notions of decency that were passed down directly from [his grandfather]”. Similarly, Captain Metropolis is a former US Marine. However, The Comedian, a former cop and war hero, seems to have similar motivations in initially forming the Minutemen but is later corrupted.

The ‘Watchmen’, on the other hand,  have far more unconventional motivations for their vigilante actions; Silk Spectre does it because of pressure from her mother to inherit the persona; Nite Owl because of his technical wizardry and love of owls (weird, right?); but most interesting of all is Rorschach. Brent Fishbaugh seems to sum up pretty neatly why Rorschach choses to become a vigilante. He says it was:

“not for fun, but out of guilt—guilt over what his entire race has become, guilt spawned not just from the events [that] surround Kitty Genovese’s death, but from his own misbegotten upbringing.”

Born to a prostitute and with no Father, Rorschach “was created entirely by his own environment.” His troubled upbringing leads him to develop a dangerously cynical and sociopathic outlook on the human race, and seeks to right this imbalance and impurity in the human race through his vigilante actions. Rorschach’s attitude towards the human race is entirely why he is simultaneously the most interesting and the most terrifying character in Moore’s works for me (and for those of you who don’t want to sleep tonight, his full terrifying effect can be seen in this reading by Alan Moore himself).

For me, Rorschach becomes even more interesting when you compare him to Ozymandias. On the surface, Ozymandias seems to represent capitalism, but for me he’s not just represented as cold and greedy archetypal “rich” villain like Doctor Doom or Green Goblin. While on the one hand Rorschach is seen to punish the guilty and execute his own form of justice, Ozymandias seems to protect the innocent, even if it is at great expense or sacrifice. The two characters share the same cavalier attitude towards violence and taking lives, and this similarity leads me to wonder what Rorschach would have done or how far he would go is given Ozymandias’s resources. This means that, rather than being able to define Rorschach as the hero and Ozymandias as the villain, we are given a moral grey area.This is what I would argue Moore was trying to achieve by challenging the idea of “superheroes” and vigilantes in Watchmen. By making his protagonists morally ambiguous and imperfect, Moore suggests through his characters that, in actual fact, if these characters who dressed up in masks and killed people existed in the real world then they would be considered to not only be insane, but dangerous.

By comparing and contrasting the ideologies of the heroes of the Silver and indeed Gold Age with heroes in graphic novels such as Watchmen, we are really forced to answer the question: “Who watches the watchmen?” With such heroes as Superman, we can clearly see that due to their extraordinary power and their standing in the far less realistic universes, they answer to no-one but themselves. However, in the world of Watchmen, which is seen to be much closer to our own in that it is a world built on production, power, infrastructures, and where the State is the all-mighty power to which we are all answerable,  it is clear to see just how important an individual’s ideology becomes in determining their course of action. I would wholeheartedly agree that:

“The message of Watchmen, then, is this: in a world where man can end the world, there is no place for moral absolutes.”