I’ve been too busy at work to finish up my earlier post about Watchmen as a normal super hero RPG thing (post one, post two). But here’s zipped PDF’s of Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan, reflecting very idiosyncratic personal interpretations of these characters circa 1966 for the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game. Do you think I could have adapted them better? Speak up, because I’m sure there’s room for improvement in terms of content. (Again, I am ashamed of the layout and formatting but don’t care to take the time to learn how to do such things properly.)
watchmen and heroism
Last time I talked about violence, which in Watchmen often, though not always, involves super-folks savagely victimizing an ordinary person. Much as we might hate to admit it, that’s perhaps the most fundamental wish-fulfillment of the comic book super hero: “I wish I was super strong, so I could just beat the snot out of Keith Brophy.” If you look at the earliest Golden Age stories, the heroes are absolutely delighted to wallop the hell out of hapless thugs–reflecting, maybe, folk hero anger of a society still coping with organized crime, openly corrupt political machines, and Commie-Nazis, combined with every school kid’s hatred of bullies.
By avoiding the abstracted violence-as-catharsis of most super hero comics and returning the bully/victim model in which the protagonist is the bully, to center stage, Watchmen is of course a deconstruction of “the super hero,” but also “heroism” more generally. (Duh! Everyone knows this!) By not bothering with a typical good-versus-evil plotline cluttered with super villains, Moore and Gibbons get to show at least four different ethical systems in conflict–a “civil war” among super heroes far more nuanced than anything Marvel would do twenty years later.
The Comedian receives public praised as a hero, but is one of the most vile and despicable characters in the book–the one most eager to hurt people who don’t “deserve” to be hurt. (One of Moore and Gibbons’ best tricks in this book is that they virtually never provide us with someone who “deserves” to get hurt, which undermines a lot of how our culture thinks about super hero comics and the application of violence more generally.) The Comedian’s luck, or shrewdness, is that so long as he (off-panel) hurts enough officially designated bad guys to be useful to the elites, everyone is willing to look the other way and excuse his on-panel indiscretions. The joke is that he’s a horrible fucking guy.
If the Comedian is at heart a sadist willing to serve whoever grants him greatest license, nobody could accuse Rorschach of selling out. Kovacs was inspired to become an action hero by the horrific inaction of Kitty Genovese’s neighbors. In Kovacs’ view, there are men and women who do evil deeds, and we cannot shirk our duty to punish them lest we become complicit in their iniquity. The dude follows his own moral compass, no matter how askew it may point, and he never falters even when the path reaches its terminus. (I think Moore’s treatment of the Question’s ethical code is a very rich subject for analysis; given how often this thing is assigned in college classes, however, I’m sure it’s been done to death.) Rorschach only hurts the people who “deserve” it, but his judgment about who “deserves” violence and who doesn’t is highly suspect.
Doctor Manhattan, of course, is omnipotent, except he’s become so detached from ordinary human concerns that he doesn’t want to do much of anything–and whatever he chooses to do has, in some sense, “already” taken place anyway. Predestination robs him of agency, and therefore also of moral urgency. From Jon’s point of view, nobody “deserves” anything: free will is an illusory by-product of a deterministic mechanism. And yet, though he recognizes this fact, he has no problem vaporizing people or obliterating entire villages in Viet Nam. The Comedian is immoral but Doctor Manhattan is amoral, and it’s hard to determine which is worse.
Finishing up the quartet, Ozymandias recognizes numerous immediate and long-term threats to the human race, perceives their intricate interconnections, and decides that super heroism is plainly inadequate to the “super crises” of the 1980’s, requiring a stepped-up response. The guy who actually saves the world from thermonuclear extinction is a mass-murdering megalomaniac. The world, the human race as a whole, “deserves” to survive and this higher good supposedly excuses millions of deaths.
(It’s only within the insular world of comic books that Ozymandias’s ethics come as a shock: it’s a school of thought that’s as old as warfare, employed in the bombing of Hiroshima and in the Cold War disaster scenarios occasionally referenced throughout the novel. The trick is that here, one extremely competent man stands in the position of an international super power; a private citizen making decisions normally reserved for presidents.)
Moore and Gibbons are presenting the four active super heroes of 1985 as psychopaths, to a greater or lesser extent–unable or unwilling to truly consider the humanity of other people. But in a way, presenting super heroes as (literally) insane isn’t that surprising: how normal is it, really, to dress up as an owl and spend fifteen years of your life putting criminals in the hospital? It is, at best, a personality disorder of some kind, and it’s telling that the two characters who have pretty much put the adventuring life behind them to live as muggles, Dan and Laurie, are the two most normal protagonists in the book.
Relatedly, super heroism itself is absurd. The real world, as several characters observe, is far more complicated than punching a super-baddie in the nose. Street crime is just a symptom of much more entrenched social failures.
But fundamentally I think the problem here is that these people have been given, or have assumed, carte blanche to determine who deserves to live and who deserves to die–to define “good guys” and “bad guys.” That’s a maddening question, and it’s no wonder that the characters who answer it, one way or another, are highly disturbed individuals.
But then again, it’s a question our police officers, politicians, and pundits are called upon to answer every day.
Who watches the watchmen?