the following was a paper i wrote with miko for a course in graduate school last year.
The common perception of a superhero has always been blunt and simple, a person who has acquired superhuman abilities and has decided to protect the welfare of the good and eradicate evil. A complexity has never been exhibited during the dawn of comic book superheroes. Part of the reason why they have become one-dimensional is due to comic books being largely targeted to kids and minors.
It is true, that superheroes have sometimes been placed with political undertones, such as Captain America, who fought Nazis in his maiden appearance during the 1940s. However, apart from the obvious motive to rally the American public at that time, especially children, against Adolf Hitler, Captain America remained just a symbol for patriotism.
But as with any form of literature, the genre of superheroes has evolved and improved to accommodate adult audiences. Philosophies and ideologies are incorporated to superheroes and their stories to restructure the whole concept of comic books.
One of those who have broke new ground and redefined the superhero is the critically acclaimed comic book limited series Watchmen, published from 1986 to 1987.
Set during the peak of the Cold War, Watchmen follows a number of superheroes during a time that they have been outlawed and most have been forced to retire, save for two government sponsored heroes. The graphic novel depicts the roles they have to play in an environment where they have been rendered obsolete, as well as their struggles, issues, and philosophies at a time that the world seems to need them the most.
In our exposition, we propose that the characters of Watchmen blur the usual archetype of a hero and signify something more complex. There has been a departure from the usual superhero that, at best, symbolizes good and opposes evil.
Umberto Eco defined a code as a system of signification, insofar as it couples present entities with absent units (Eco 1979, 8). In his review of the communicative process, when a receiver is a human being, there is a process of signification and the signal arouses an interpretative response in the addressee. Eco also described the code which foresees an established correspondence between that which “stands for” and it’s correlate.
Eco also posited that for as long as a gesture is done by a human being, there is an underlying significative intention, meaning that it has a semiotic value.
This semiotic value in gestures can be applied in Roland Barthes’ essay entitled World of Wrestling, where through a code, the audiences react to every gesture of such a wrestler, either good or bad. As wrestlers represent the concept of suffering, defeat and justice, the characters of Watchmen are caricatures for political beliefs and ideologies though their gestures.
The authors believe that a study and observation of some of the main characters would affirm the proposition mentioned above. Only readers who have an operational background on political ideologies and ethical beliefs would be able to decode the true symbolism of each character.
Rorschach the right-wing vigilante
At first glance, the mask of the anti-hero Rorschach is already a visual sign. He dons a mask quite similar to the inkblot test designed for psychological evaluation. The mystery and oddity of this subverts the villains that he fights, as well as the reader. The nature of the mask also symbolizes that everyone is judged and subjected unto Rorschach’s own evaluation.
In the novel, Rorschach is depicted as a vigilante, a hero without superhuman powers, similar to popular comic book character Batman, who has continued his operations and machinations after the passing of the Keene Act, a law restricting costumed heroes. Although his actions and his words do not reveal what he symbolizes, much of it revolves around a journal that he writes.
In general, Rorschach, based on the symbolisms of his actions, is politically right-wing. First, he was the only hero who refused to retire or become government sponsored when the Keene Act was established. This signifies the ideology of being a Reactionary. His continued resistance of either being insignificant, or compromising his beliefs transposes that he believes that a return to a former state, where they are not outlawed, would be for the better.
Throughout the novel, he repeatedly announces that there should be no compromise in anyway. He reiterates this belief in page 20 of the last chapter, where he utters “not even in the face of Armageddon, never compromise.” He expresses this in the context of an “end justifies the means” debate where he naturally is against. This discussion reveals his utter resistance to accept a rather radical method of saving the world, a testament to his beliefs as a reactionary and being conservative.
Furthermore, the aforementioned decision also reveals his ethical beliefs. His “no compromise” stand also invokes that he believes that even if the death of millions would result to the world’s salvation, the architect of such should be punished, that his act is still murderous, inherently evil. This therefore shows that he believes in moral absolutism, that there is always a choice between good and evil, and one must pay for its consequences.
The World’s Smartest Man
Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias, was dubbed as the world’s smartest man. Probably a testament to this was that he was able to see a law being enacted that would ban costumed heroes, which is why he was more than welcome to retire 2 years even before the Keene Act was passed.
The reason why he chose to do so could only be known years after. After retiring, he made his identity known to the public, which helped in retaining his stature as a public figure. This allowed him to set up a massive company based on his popularity. Although the detailed nature of his company was not revealed in the graphic novel, one of its products is a toy line, with himself being the selling point. These efforts of Veidt to protect, as well as promote, his public image could be associated that he is a narcissist.
This however is the least among Veidt’s symbolisms as a character.
In the novel, he can be best described as the face, the poster boy, of capitalism. His corporation, although as mentioned earlier, wasn’t detailed. It was hinted in the novel that it was multi-faceted, ranging from cosmetics to action figures.
Veidt also has a curious background. In the novel, when his parents died when he was sixteen, he gave it away to charity just to prove to himself that he can accomplish anything. As smart as he is, he thus saw the value and benefits that capitalism would give him. However, his dedication to capitalism isn’t his most important symbolism.
At the climax of the novel, it is revealed that Veidt, although he did not say it, somewhat embodies totalitarianism. He decides for himself that by creating a disaster, killing millions of Americans, and faking an alien invasion, it would lead to an aversion of a nuclear war and prevention of the end of the world. His decision to concoct such a plot lies only to his belief, and the perception that the people have of him, that he is smarter than everyone else.
Veidt’s plot also signifies his belief in utilitarianism, where he supposes that his actions and decisions and its consequences can be absolved based on the alleged good that it would bring in the end. With regard to this, he is fundamentally the opposite of Rorschach.
Edward Blake or the Comedian is one of the two government sponsored masked adventurers, whose untimely, mysterious death heightens the anxiety of other retired superheroes. Blake's death opens the curtains for the plot of the novel.
Blake fell off his apartment, in an apparent suicide, as police investigators scour the crime scene for clues. His death sends signals to the crime fighting community, as Rorschach, thinking of a conspiracy against masked adventurers, probes the apparent murder.
The novel described Blake's personality based on other characters' recollections with their encounters. He is painted by Sally Jupiter as a crazed maniac after Blake attempted to rape her. At one point, he is described as a nihilist with little if no regard for human life. He served in the military during World War II and Vietnam War, alongside Dr. Manhattan, killing members of the Vietcong mercilessly.
His ruthlessness is captured during an incident in the Vietnam War where a Vietnamese woman confronted him and implied she is with child. He shot her in the head to shut her up. Interestingly, his alias contrasts with his personality though his character is somehow parallel to The Joker in the Batman series throwing puns while unleashing havoc. This actions proves claims of his nihilist tendencies.
The government supported Blake's activities in the country. As an alternate reality of the United States, Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward get killed presumably by Blake and thus sparing Richard Nixon of his humiliating resignation as the Watergate stories never saw print.
Nixon went on to repeal the 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution, which bars Presidents from running after two terms, and win an unprecedented fifth term in 1985, enjoying a record high of popularity.
As for Blake, he had the blessing of the government in his travails and a steady support so he didn't have to work. He stumbled upon Veidt's scheme, which is to be discussed later, and planned to do something about it.
Toward his later years, Blake seems to have mellowed down, as seen in the cause of his death. Veidt revealed he killed Blake because he had discovered the latter's plot of killing millions of people in New York.
Inferring from his personality of having a tendency to be a nihilist, Blake suddenly becomes concerned with the slaughter of people as planned by Veidt.
The level of Blake's violent nature especially during wars contrasts with this sudden change of heart. The younger Blake could've condoned the Veidt scheme but the aged Blake seemed to have matured and ditched his nihilistic side.
The man who transformed into a god
In the novel, Dr. Manhattan is one of the few characters that possess true superhuman abilities including control of time and space, unlimited strength and immortality among other skills. To put it simply, Dr. Manhattan can do everything; he can make things happen with a thought.
His immense powers, however, contrast with the character’s growing disinterest with the world, particularly with the affairs of humanity. As he gained superhuman abilities, his emotional attachment to mankind diminished slowly until his self imposed exile.
Doctor Manhattan is John Osterman, a nuclear physicist from Princeton who meets a laboratory accident in a military base. After the Keene Act, Manhattan is the other government sponsored masked adventurers primarily because he is the government's trump card against Communist Russia. As the Cold War progressed, the Reds are toe to toe with the Americans but with Manhattan, the US is tipped to win the standoff. The story indicated how Manhattan can destroy almost all the missiles of USSR with a thought and at the same time obliterate the Reds' defense.
With a gift of clairvoyance, Dr. Manhattan can accurately predict events that are to take place but is unable to change the outcome, partly because of his indifference. In the story, he meets with President John F. Kennedy at a White House function in honor of Manhattan. He knows the President will be killed in 1963 but he doesn't utter a word.
Other characters, especially his love interests, have confronted him about his inability to do anything to prevent something bad from happening. He could only give this for an answer: “I can't prevent the future. To me, it's already happening.”
This line perhaps highlights Manhattan's weak determination as manifested in other parts of the novel. He gave in to his father's request to take up nuclear physics as it became a buzzword in the late 1940's after World War II ended. He felt how pointless human affairs were that during the Vietnam War, he never saw the rationale of the fighting there.
In starking contrast to his weak persona, Manhattan the character could be viewed as somewhat the Supreme Being in the novel, a god-like hero that is sternly rational. Given his powers, Manhattan has made it a point to detach himself from the people around him, somehow exhibiting being omniscient at certain parts of the novel. He is the machine in the phrase “deus ex machina.”
As a god in the Watchmen universe, Manhattan believes in the predestination of events, a determinist in philosophical terms. He views people as puppets and submits to the idea that he himself is one; only that he “can see the strings.”
Manhattan’s perception of time is altered significantly after acquiring control of time and space. He experiences time in the present and aware of and experiencing episodes of his life simultaneously. In Chapter 4 during the first moments of his exile in Mars, Manhattan’s recollections are somewhat cluttered all over the section, with abrupt jumps from the past and present.
In one sense, like Veidt, his decision making could be perceived as utilitarian. Toward the ending when he discovered Veidt's plan to wipe out New York, he realizes the value of the scheme and agrees to let it happen for the sake of future generations. He allows Veidt to wipe out half of the population of New York to avert the escalating tension between the US and the USSR.
The character analyses reveal that these ideas may be difficult to interpret properly without the appropriate code. The characters might be viewed only in a one-dimensional manner unless readers have a background of the various ideologies and philosophies.
This code includes working knowledge/background with ethical and political ideology, a hint of world history, particularly in the chronology of major events, among other things. These elements are something an elementary student may have no idea about unless they've been immersed in appropriate information.
Watchmen isn't just another comic book about good and evil; rather it puts the concepts of good and evil in more tangible terms as seen in the novel's climactic points. It makes readers re-evaluate their sense of morality and somehow produce an array of what-if scenarios.
The sense of good or evil may be deduced from the effects of capitalism toward Veidt's benevolent genocide concept --- killing millions of people to prevent further harm in the future if the Cold War progresses.
The concept of right or wrong, meanwhile could be seen in the inaction of the protagonists upon learning the Veidt scheme.
Watchmen may be hard to digest without a hint of understanding of the codes used in the novel. Codes also help broaden the reader's point of view and at the same time, appreciate the novel in the manner where the message the writer intended to convey is received.