watchmen: rorschach and the comedian

joesky tax

Links to a zipped file containing idiosyncratic adaptations for Marvel Heroic Role-Playing of Rorschach and the Comedian, circa the 1966 Silver Age period that I posited must exist in my earlier post.  The adaptations reflect personal choices, and I welcome commentary or suggestions about improving them.  Also, these character sheets are formatted for shit.  This is because I don’t know how to do graphic design, don’t care to learn, and have other things to do than please you.

violence in watchmen

Having paid my tax, I get to blither for a few hundred words.

When comics fans talk about the “Dark Age” of comics, they usually place its advent with the DC’s publication of Watchmen in 1985 and The Dark Knight Returns in 1986.  For the next several years, comics were saturated by graphic violence.   Over at Marvel, by 1989 the Punisher was holding down three separate titles based entirely around shooting criminals, and Wolverine probably surpassed Spider-Man as the company’s most popular character.  (1986 also saw the Mutant Massacre, which to my 10 year old mind was awesome.)

Given the increasingly graphic displays of violence in popular culture throughout the 1980’s, I think it’s unfair to blame super hero comics’ bloodlust solely on Moore, Gibbons, and Miller.  But I do think that Watchmen has interesting things to say about violence, and its gruesomeness is anything but gratuitous.

When I think about violence in Watchmen, the scenes that immediately leap to mind are the Comedian’s attempted rape of Sally Jupiter, and the set-piece battle in the last two issues.  But that’s because the rape scene was unprecedentedly repulsive in mainstream comics, and the set-piece is a great integration of action, character development, exposition, and moral dilemmas.

But these scenes are in one sense extremely unusual: they’re super hero fights!  With only two or three exceptions, all of the violence in Watchmen consists of super heroes beating the holy hell out of ordinary people.  This starkly contrasts with, say, Jack Kirby–another creator obsessed with violence as an artistic theme.  For Kirby, violence is a titanic, revelatory clash between unconquerable equals, even when Jimmy Olsen has to crash a motorcycle into Superman’s junk.  For the most part, equals don’t fight in Watchmen: super powered humans maim, cripple, murder, and vaporize largely defenseless people.  While it may not be the first to do so, Watchmen is certainly the most successful comic to view super human violence through the eyes of its victims–it’s the horror of Sally’s victimhood that makes the rape scene so terrifying.

The brutality of the violence in Watchmen plays to this as well.  When Rorschach takes out a fellow prisoner, he doesn’t just punch the guy: he scalds him so badly with a tub of boiling fat that the man dies.  Ozymandias surely breaks the jaw, the teeth, and the nose of his hapless would-be assassin.  There’s a sadistic element here: these victims are (literally) power-less, and we get to see every gory detail of what that would mean in a world where these sorts of people exist.

I would argue, though I may not be able to support, that it’s this element of sadism that was so attractive to the mainstream comics industry and/or fans who were entering their mid-teens at the time.  (The sadism element is perhaps even more pronounced in The Dark Knight Returns.)  Part of what was great about the Mutant Massacre, from a young reader’s perspective, is that the Marauders killed the HELL out of the worthless Morlocks, paralyzed Colossus, crippled Nightcrawler and Shadowcat, and drove Angel to commit suicide.

Watchmen may not have directly caused the over-the-top violence that began to saturate comic books in the late 1980’s, but its phenomenal success gave the industry a slight push over the precipice.

4 Responses to “watchmen: rorschach and the comedian”

  1. October 1, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    I’m a pretty casual comics fan, so feel free to tell me i’m wrong, but it seems like a lot of the “Dark Age” is just typical copycat behavior. Someone does something new with intelligence, style, and substance. The people on the next rung down on the talent ladder are inspired by it but they don’t have the chops to make something of their own at the same level so they copy what they can. Add business sensibilities to the mix and it’s a recipe for a descending spiral of glorified graphic violence.
    (I’m not saying they’re all just copycats – some had value, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that more than a handful rose above the gutter.)

  2. October 2, 2012 at 12:03 am

    Matthew, I think that’s exactly right. What I’m arguing in this series of posts is that the decision to engage in copycat behavior was deliberate, and furthermore, which elements to copy was a conscious and very cynical choice.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2012

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