Last week some of us were chatting at work and Alan Moore's Watchmen came up in conversation. I realized then that although I had read it several times, I had never owned my own copy. Five years ago, while packing my stuff to move from Vancouver to Montreal, I realized that the copy on my shelf actually belonged to a friend of mine - so I nobly returned it. Our little water-cooler chat got me wanting to read it again, so I stumbled out looking for a comic store and picked up the latest trade-paperback reprint.
I'm sure most everyone who would end up at this site has read Watchmen, so I won't worry about spoiling anything here. If you haven't read it, get off your as and do so... it's fucking spectacular.
There are a number of things that strike me about this story... not the least of which is that it bears many, many re-readings and that the characters become deeper and more compelling every time. I remember the first time I read it being extremely engaged by the Comedian, and the way the entire story is about his discovery of the Greatest Practical Joke Ever Imagined. I remember being floored by the elegant unveiling of that joke and how strongly I identified with him in the few glimpses we catch of his final moments. Here is a man who has made his trade in being in the world's biggest cynic. His cynicism is so powerful that it makes him superhuman... he's a rapist, a murderer, an assassin, and yet he is so totally amoral and nihilistic that these horrors he commits are water off a ducks back.
On later readings, I found more and more depth in Veidt/Ozymandias, who has come up with a super-villain plan to kill millions, but in fact he is not a super-villain at all. He might be a sociopathic fascist, and he kills millions of people in a truly disturbing and horrifying move, but the underlying certitude behind his logic is almost a priori infallible. The perfection of his rational approach reminds me of Kurzweil - though I can't imagine wearing Ray Kurwzeil perfume or playing with a Ray K action figure.
When the true nature of Doc Manhattan is revealed in Chapter 4, it almost makes you feel bad for God. Doc M is omnipotent in the real sense of the word, yet at the same time he is rendered utterly impotent in the face of determinism. Although probably the least compelling character due to his completely inhuman nature, the way Moore tracks his origin back to a fat man stepping on a watch at Coney Island and the subsequent inevitability of the events that follow is haunting. Moore is in dangerous territory in the scene where Laurie accidentally draws him to the realization that human individuality is essentially a thermodynamic miracle, but he pulls off a little literary slight of hand, and Gibbon's wonderful pull-back on two nested Martian craters distracts you for the blink of an eye needed to pull the rabbit out of the hat. I would say this is probably the only part of the book that gets weaker on re-reading.
And Rorschach. Wow. Now here is probably the single most deeply realized character in comic history. He's cryptic yet comprehensible, paranoid yet rational, psychotic yet controlled. Of the three 'main players', Rorschach, Veidt and Doc Manhattan, it is Rorschach who is the most human (I consider Dan and Laurie to be supporting players). Veidt never has a human moment in the story proper (though I think we are meant to feel one in his back-story). Doc Manhattan's human moment with Laurie (mentioned above) doesn't quite click. But Rorschach's human moment - when he calls his landlady a whore in front of her children and realizes (without even any words devoted to it) that he has allowed his cruelty to touch an undeserving innocent - this is the moment where he explodes off the page and becomes a fully realized, living and breathing character. His disintegration by Doc Manhattan at the end is is not only the end of the story, it is the ultimate punchline the Comedian foresaw, it is the inevitability of determinism as Rorschach's refusal to compromise collides with Veidt's a priori solution to the world's problems.
In a sense, all of Watchmen's main players - Doc M, Veidt, Rorschach and the Comedian have rejected or lost their humanity. It is only Rorschach who manages to recover his - if only for an instant near the end, and perhaps in his final act. And yet alongside these modern gods is a supporting cast of truly you-and-me people. Dan with his bumbling attraction to Laurie, his nostalgic drop-in visits with Hollis, his mid-life crisis and his regained virility. Laurie - who is just hopelessly over her head in dating a guy who can't merely see the future, but for who past, present and future has no meaning. She rejects her mother and at the same time is compelled to follow the path her mother has chosen for her. The bumbling Doctor Huxtable-esque shrink whose happy brown-stone and tweed existence is shattered by the bullet that is Rorschach's psyche, the dim-witted and ignorant news-vendor, the lesbian trying to live up to her new girlfriend's expectations, the meek Moloch who just wants to die and fade away, the two cops who half-heartedly sniff their way around the edges of the crime that sets the story in motion yet resist looking for an actual solution - all of these people enrich the world, and as their individual stories collide at the climax we feel the cost the Veidt's master plan and wonder if it could possibly be worth it.
Of course, Watchmen was written back in '86 when the standing vision of war meant casualties counted in megadeaths. Our world is not that world anymore. It wasn't a giant psychic tentacle monster from another dimension that appeared in the middle of New York that changed the world forever. It was something much more mundane and the numbers were orders of magnitude lower.
The thing that moved me the most about Watchmen this time was the comic-within-the-comic - the story of the stranded sailor who fights his way across the sea to save his family from the dread marauding pirates that sank his ship, massacred his crew and left him for dead. It is a cautionary tale of a man who becomes the enemy he has set out to defeat. It tells us that there exist paths through life that lead us to damnation even though each individual step itself can be called moral and just. In 1986 it read as an allegory on the balance of power, and the possibility that mutually assured destruction might be inevitable even with rational people making perfect decisions at every junction. Thankfully that turned out to not be true.
Twenty years later, the 2006 reading of the same story is a little different. It reminds us of Nietzsche's axiom that he who fights monsters becomes a monster. It makes us compare the reflex death-sting of a giant extra-dimensional psychic tentacle monster to the response of the world's only hyper-power to being stung itself. It reminds us there are no heroes and no villains - only those who have retained their humanity, and those who have lost it, and it reminds us that there is no objective reference point that will help you know which side of that line you are on until it's too late. We may set out to save the world from chaotic-evil pirates, but the cost of succeeding might be more than we're willing to pay. In attacking New York, Ozymandias might have locked us into an unrecoverable spiral whose outcome is the a priori guaranteed failure of everything we believe in.
Moore opens Chapter 11 with a quote from Shelley's Ozymandias, which may be the single greatest poem of the Romantic era; 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.' But Moore leaves out the next line - which is where the poem gets all it's power - 'Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.'. It is a poem about the absurdity of human pride, arrogance and hubris. So let's just hope we're facing Shelley's Ozymandias, and not Moore's.