3.3. Deconstructing the hero
One of Moore’s aims in Watchmen was to look behind the curtain of the superhero genre, and show the reader its protagonists in their true, infinitely fractured light, without the masks of absolute categorization. According to Ian Thomson in his work Comics As Philosophy, Watchmen represented the coming of age of the entire comicbook medium by “developing its heroes precisely in order to deconstruct the very idea of the hero and so encouraging us to reflect upon its significance from the many different angles of the shards left lying on the ground” (Thomson 101).
By deconstructing the underlying principles by which we distinguish heroes from villains, Moore achieved a state in which the symbols we expect to communicate a particular meaning communicate something else entirely. In this respect, his approach is similar to the one of Grant Morrison in Animal Man – the bottom level of understanding, the ‘dictionary of perception’, is transformed, and thus all the higher levels of discourse fail to retain their ‘original’ meaning.
This is best exemplified by the difference between the Comedian and Ozymandias. The Comedian is a Captain America pastiche, who functions as a satirical reworking of the nationalistic hero – he is determined to uphold the laws imposed by the state at any cost, disregarding their moral ambiguity. Under regular circumstances, the Comedian would be read as a positive force within the story, a position which is confirmed not only by his allegiance to the ‘flag’ (emphasized by his costume design), but also by the fact that he is attacked (and killed) at the beginning of the story. This detail is extremely important: by law, it is never the hero who prompts a conflict; it is always the villain (unless there is a third party involved, which is threatened by the villain). This seemingly leaves us with only one option: reading the Comedian as a hero. However, as we delve deeper into the story, we realize that it is impossible to see him as such – he attempts to rape his team-mate, Sally Jupiter, and possibly countless Vietnamese women, performs his duties with appalling ruthlessness (especially during the war), and employs villain-like brutality to uphold the status quo. Moore also uses the Comedian’s costume as a means of underlining the transformation (the importance of costumes for the perception of superheroes is examined in detail in section 3.4.); in his most productive years, Comedian changes his traditional super-heroic eye cover for a full leather mask, this time not only resembling (as in the Nite Owl’s case – see section 3.4.), but fully constituting a mask of a dangerous criminal and – quite appropriately – a mask associated with rapists.
In short, the Comedian fails to fit into a definitive category: he opposes the main ‘villain’ of the story and under all circumstances fulfills his orders (administered by the United States government, by default a ‘positive force’), dons the American flag as his costume, and is a victim of an attack, rather than its perpetrator, but in all moral respects outside the expectations of the genre embodies the vices of the most inexcusable sort.
On the ‘opposite’ side of the equation (but at the same time sharing the gray spectrum), we have Ozymandias: a retired superhero and a successful businessman, who, by forfeiting his vigilante career, forfeits his claim in the ‘good guy’ category; at the end of the story, he is revealed to be the mastermind behind the ominous doomsday plan, as well as the Comedian’s killer. However, in the same way as it did for his victim, the depth of his character causes him to elude the simple categorization we would expect from the superhero genre. He is truly the Comedian’s opposite: by all standards, he should be read as the negative force within the story, a perpetrator of an insane mass-murder, a killer – a true ‘bad guy’. And yet, his qualities lead us on an entirely different way of perceiving his actions; he is virtuous in every sense of the word: courageous, wise, strong, respectful, and above all, morally committed to his actions (however twisted his morality may be). It is his desire to bring a lasting and global peace to humankind, which fuels his actions, whereas his opposite, the Comedian, is only motivated by his lowest desires and boundless cynicism.
An interesting point raised by Reynolds in Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology is that Veidt’s actions are partly prompted by the realism with which the superheroes of Watchmen are confronted: by removing the tangible enemy from the storyline, its heroes, and Veidt in particular, are forced to face “more intangible social and moral concerns, effectively removing the whole concept from the narrative expectations of the genre” (Reynolds 115) –in other words it is the social and moral concerns that led to the formulation of Veidt’s gruesome plan – he would have no need for attacking the major Earth cities in order to instill world peace, were his only problems the occasional brawls with costumed criminals.
Moore’s intricate portrayal of the two warring sides of the villain/hero duality shows this duality as much less absolute than we might believe (or unintentionally expect) it to be – in fact, it illustrates, in full, the impossibility of such a distinction. In Watchmen, as hard as we might try, we cannot distinguish good from bad – only the infinitely mirrored reflections of the two in each of the characters.
“The whole point of the book is to say that none of these characters are right or wrong. They are all humans or former humans who are doing the best according to their lives and according to the circumstances as presumably do we all. I didn’t want to make any character the one who’s right, the one whose viewpoint is the right point, the one’s who’s the hero, the one who the readers are supposed to identify it, because that’s not how life is.” (Khoury 114)
This point is also emphasized by the deliberate ‘moral indifference’, with which the comicbook is written. Although the story is largely narrated by Rorschach, it is ultimately the reader who must decide with whom to sympathize, as the ambiguous feeling of the work prevents a simple categorization of the characters, typical for the superhero genre. Moore’s approach to the morality of the characters is reflected in the non-linear, simultaneous layout of the story, mentioned in section 3.5., which aims to disrupt the obviousness of importance and unimportance of certain aspects of the narrative, again leaving the reader with the decision on how to read it.
Aside from dismantling the opposition between heroes and villains, Moore also examines the forced clash of superheroes and the real world, in order to show how their behavior, their course of action, and their perception of the world and themselves, would be transformed in such a setting. The immense influence of Watchmen on the superhero genre is clearly visible in this respect: since their publication, the tendency to move superhero stories towards more ‘reality’ has become the most dominant trend within the genre (as is proven in particular by the works of Mark Millar, such as 1985, Wanted or the Ultimates).
The characters of Watchmen, Rorschach in particular, and their relationships, are used to show not the impossibility of the superhero lifestyle, but its probable impact on the parties involved. As Reynolds point out: “More than just tough guys, these heroes or anti-heroes follow through the logic of their code, even if it leads to their own destruction. A realistic rendering of the traditional superhero code would have meant the same fate for Batman many times over (…) ending in death against overwhelming opposition” (Reynolds 107).
Walter Kovacs/Rorschach is a prime example of this: his vigilante war against crime must necessarily mean abandoning any connections to a normal life. Several characters point out his unpleasant body odor and his filthy appearance. This was indeed Moore’s intention, as he himself says “If you’re a vigilante, then this is what you’re going to be like: you’re not going to have any friends because you’re going to be crazy and obsessive and dangerous and frightening; you’re probably going to be too obsessed with your vendetta to bother about things like eating or washing or tidying your room because what have they got to do with the War Against Crime?” (Reynolds 117)
Although Rorschach’s actions are guided by a strong moral code and in spite of his viciousness, he successfully invokes an image of a superhero, he is an outsider - the undesired social element, especially in his civil life “Rorschach, in short, is cut from the template of the vigilante superhero, but with every semblance of glamour apparently taken away.”(Reynolds 107). This is indeed the most probable course of the ‘lone vigilante’ lifestyle, confronted with the complexity of human motivation and psyche.
Rorschach is also, much like the Nite Owl (see section 3.4.), a victim of his own costume: without it, he is but a shade of his true self. This is best illustrated in issue five, when he is arrested and unmasked by the police: “No! My face! Give it back!” (Moore, issue 5, 28). His words only go to prove how completely void of meaning his personal life is. Without his mask, to which he at many points alludes to as ‘face’, he is nothing.
It is also worth noting that Walter Kovacs is so strongly tied to his Rorschach persona, he would rather die as a civilian than as a vigilante. In his last moments, before he is obliterated by Jon in issue 12, he takes off his mask – as if to save ‘Rorschach’ from defeat, and offer his own life instead.
However, as is typical of Moore’s work on Watchmen, the symbolism Rorschach represents does not function alone; he is also a part of a trinity that serves to inspect different ways in which a superhero, if faced with real world, would possibly become cut off from the rest of humanity. The other two parts of the trinity are created by Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias.
Each of these heroes is, either due to the nature of his abilities, or his motivation, disconnected from the human race. Dr. Manhattan’s power is so incredible it slowly removes him from the human affairs; the struggles of lowly Homo sapiens become entirely alien to him towards the end of the story, as he points out at several points during his conversation with Laurie on Mars: “Don’t you see the futility of asking me to save a world I no longer have any stake in?” (issue 9, p. 8);”In my opinion, it (life) is a highly overrated phenomenon. Mars gets along perfectly without so much as a micro-organism.”(Moore, issue 9, 13). “I read atoms, Laurie. I see the ancient spectacle that birthed the rubble. Beside this, human life is brief and mundane.” (Moore, issue 9, 17). In many aspects, Dr. Manhattan is not unlike the most iconic superhero of all – Superman, who, in spite of his singularity, remains faithful to the human race - a behavior which Moore tries to deconstruct with his rendition of Manhattan. Manhattan’s opposite in the sense of power range, Ozymandias, took a very different road, and developed his mental and physical faculties to such a level as to exceed any other man on Earth, purely by harnessing the latent potential present within every individual (this is also put in a strong contrast to the purely accidental omnipotence of Dr. Manhattan). The deliberateness of his training is closely bound to his desire to control and reform human affairs (while Dr. Manhattan, true to his origin, sees only determinate randomness, which should not be tampered with). However, despite being invested so much in it in general, Ozymandias is so removed from the rest of his species that he ultimately deems it appropriate to sacrifice millions of lives in order to achieve a long-standing peace and harmony. In this, he is as removed from humanity as Dr. Manhattan.
The third part of the triangle, Rorschach, possesses neither the godlike abilities of Dr. Manhattan, nor the social power or physical and mental excellence of Ozymandias. He is also the only of the three who solves problems ‘hands on’, and deals directly with others – yet much like his counterparts, finds himself entirely disconnected from them. His separation is caused by the very war he wages: he can no longer perceive people as people; he only sees victims and actual or possible criminals, and the psychological space he reserves for his Rorschach persona is necessarily taken out from his own identity. In other words, the more he functions as a protector of his fellow men, the more he is detached from them.
“(Rorschach) is almost completely outside the bounds of the society he chooses to protect.” (Reynolds 106).
The trinity that Moore uses to deconstruct the conflicting nature of superheroes under the pressure of their own actions, sheds a pessimistic light on the very possibility of a superhero life, as the only people in the story who are able to lead a ‘normal’ life are those that have forfeited their vigilante career.
Another look at Moore’s work is not concerned with what it signifies for the future of the superhero mythos, but with the ripples it sends backwards in time, taking value from the conventions we thought were immovable. Geoff Klock points out that “Moore’s exploration of the often sexual motives for costumed crime-fighting sheds a disturbing light on past superhero stories and forces reader to reevaluate every superhero in terms of Moore’s kenosis – his emptying out of the tradition.” (Klock 65).
Klock also sees this ‘retrospective ripple’ in the story itself, namely in Veidt’s attempt to first destroy and then reconstruct in order to build a unity which would survive him. This clearly echoes archetypal redemptive violence principle.
The retrospective ripples, created by Moore’s Watchmen, carry a particular significance in the field of comics. Due to the unique narrative device called retroactive continuity (‘retconning’), which is closely related to the concept of a shared universe (see section 2.2), comicbooks are much more retrospectively susceptible to present changes of their content. In this respect, no other medium is as vulnerable as comics. The issue of multiple character authorship (further discussed in relation to Grant Morrison’s Animal Man) is often resolved by publishers and copyright owners ‘retconning’ certain pivotal moments in a given character’s history. The retroactive continuity essentially serves two functions, the latter of which is generally considered of greater importance: it removes inappropriate, illogical, redundant or otherwise undesirable content from the story and it ties together its crucial events (often contributed by different authors) to create an illusion of a more complex and interconnected storyline. These functions are facilitated either by addition, alteration, or subtraction of the material. Naturally, the various types of functions and devices of retroactive continuity often overlap.
As is mentioned in other parts of this thesis, the perception of a medium by the reader is shaped both intentionally and unintentionally by the medium itself; in other words certain idiosyncrasies the medium exhibits are frequently accepted by the readers as its ‘rules’ – not in the sense of what must be done, but more in what particular effects represent. In the same way the experienced comicbook readers unconsciously understand the fundamental difference between the authorship in the realm of comics and in the realm of literature, they also understand that this ‘shared’ authorship inevitably prompts many instances of retroactive continuity, and readily accept the retroactive continuity as an inseparable part of the comics storytelling.
This also means that the past of comicbook characters is not perceived as an unchangeable truth, but rather as something that is almost as likely to be changed as their future. It is therefore no surprise that Moore’s contemplation of superhero motives and sexuality in Watchmen ‘retroactively’ changed the perception of the sexuality and motives of comicbook characters in the prior comicbooks. It certainly revived discussions first prompted in 1954 by Dr. Frederic Wertham’s infamous book Seduction of the Innocent, in which he proposes that aside from comicbooks being offensive to the law enforcement system, they also portray disturbing non-stereotypical gender roles and implicit sexual symbolism. Wertham was particularly upset by the relationship between Batman and Robin. “They constantly rescue each other… Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They live in sumptuous quarters with beautiful flowers in large vases… Batman is sometimes shown in dressing gown… it is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together” (Wertham 190).
Although it is the character of Nite Owl who is generally considered a pastiche of Batman, there is also some similarity between Batman and the Hooded Justice. In the second issue, when the Hooded Justice foils Blake’s attempt to rape the original Silk Spectre by beating him to a pulp, Blake screams: “This is what you like, huh? This is what gets you hot…” (Moore, issue 2, 7), which seems to greatly disturb the Hooded Justice. While Blake’s remarks can be considered simple insults and do not necessarily reflect reality, they can also be interpreted as Moore’s mockery of Wertham’s assertions about Batman – Hooded Justice most likely really is homosexual and it is also hinted that he has a sexual relationship with Captain Metropolis of a sadomasochistic sort. It is perhaps ironic that the type of sexual themes Moore brought into comicbooks was accepted by the readers as convincing, and they were willing to apply them to comicbooks published even prior to Watchmen, even though Wertham’s opinions were a target of heavy criticism.