Watchmen: Redifinition of the Superhero Genre as a Whole

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Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel Watchmen has been said to redefine the superhero genre as we know it today. The story takes place in an alternate-universe New York City in the 1980s. The story begins with the investigation of the murder of Edward Blake in October, 1985. With no leads in the case, local vigilante Rorschach decides to take a stand and take matters into his own hands.

After discovering Blake to have been the true identity of “The Comedian”, a local “superhero” who was actually employed by the U.S. government, Rorschach believes he has discovered a plot to terminate all superheroes and makes it his mission to spread awareness of this plot to his four retired colleagues: Dan Dreiberg (aka the Nite Owl), Jon Osterman (a.k.a. Doctor Manhattan) and his lover Laurie, and Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias). However, once the plot has been discovered, it is later revealed that it has already been carried out, and Rorschach is ultimately unable to convince all of his colleagues of what is really happening in their world. The outlook is grim, and Rorschach takes it upon himself to save himself, his friends, and the entire city from inevitable destruction.

Throughout the novel, this grim outlook on the situation and life in general displayed by multiple characters contributes to the overall theme of morality that is dominantly present in the story. The world never seems to learn its fate, and neither do the characters, but their perspectives on life and the situations they encounter with murder, suicide, world destruction, and more all outline the underlying theme of morality and that everything comes to an end, eventually.

The first prime example demonstrating the theme of morality in the graphic novel would have to do with the main character Rorschach. Rorschach is a “self-proclaimed hero” in that he isn’t the stereotypical costumed superhero we are used to seeing. Rorschach is a self-made vigilante who takes it upon himself to better the community around him. He has made it his goal to extinguish the evil around him, no matter bleak the outcome may be. Rorschach sees existence as random and often portrays a nihilistic view on the world around him, despite being this being whose passion is improving the world around him (Wu, 2016). However, his ways of going about improving the lives of those around him aren’t necessarily foolproof. For a long time, Rorschach was a crime fighter who abided by the law while doing so. As time goes on, he slowly faded from that pattern and began to act out against the law.

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As seen on page 192, Rorschach says he was “Soft on scum; Too young to know any better; Molly-coddled them; Let them live.” Not long after having this epiphany, he begins to unravel and attack anyone and anything he perceives to be a threat of evil. An example of this irrational rage would be on found on pages 202-203. Rorschach comes in contact with a man he identifies as a threat and accuses the man of harming a little girl. Despite the man’s pleas for his innocent, Rorschach and relentless and even goes as far as chaining him to a water-pipe, giving him a hacksaw, and then setting his house on fire. Rorschach says to the man “Shouldn’t bother trying to saw through handcuffs … Never make it in time” (203). Rorschach relies on nobody else but himself at this point and makes it his own destiny to play every role in the law enforcement position. It ultimately remains a mystery as to why Rorschach suffers this unfortunate moral downfall, however there are some events that occurred in his past that could serve as a precursor to all of these events.

During his childhood, he suffered through the torment and anguish at the hands of bullies. It is very possible that because of this, he has a vendetta out for those who he claims are guilty of wrongdoings and will do anything to punish them in any way he deems to be fit, no matter how extreme as he has demonstrated. One more instance that would further demonstrate this narrative of morality within Rorschach would be found in the beginning of the series. This would have to do with Rorschach’s investigation of the death of Edward Blake (aka “The Comedian) as mentioned prior. The Comedian was killed after unfortunately discovering Ozymandias’ plan to kill off all the other superheroes. Rorschach’s short-tempered manner and lack of clear thinking gives readers some insight as to what his real motives are behind the actions he makes throughout the novel. Rorschach’s past traumas, vigilantism, and lack of reasoning all contributed to his ultimate downfall: his own death. He is without a doubt a staple character in the story, and greatly contributed to the novel that everso changed the genre of the graphic novel that we know today.

The next character to demonstrate the theme of morality throughout the novel would be Jon Osterman, aka “Dr. Manhattan.” Dr. Manhattan ironically is the only superhero in the novel with legitimate super powers, unlike our ultimate vigilante Rorschach. Dr. Manhattan was born as a result of a nuclear accident, and thus gets his powers, such as telekinesis and disintegration. He is an essentially invincible, almost God-like character. He was later contracted by the United States government as their nuclear war prevention, since he had the ability to destroy incoming missiles just by using his thoughts.

However, despite having these ultimate powers that humans everywhere would kill to have, his view on humanity isn’t quite as bright. One example of this can be seen in chapter nine in an argument he has with Laurie. Dr. Manhattan says “We’re all puppets … I’m just a puppet who can see the strings” (285). He also goes on to say that “Everything is preordained, even my responses” (285). Basically, Manhattan just works tirelessly for the government as if he is just their puppet, and that they control his actions and responses. He has no control over his life anymore, and he has no sense of what life really means as well. Similar to Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan has adopted this nihilistic and grim view on life that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. He even kills off his fellow hero in Rorschach when deep down, he knows it was most likely not the move to make for the sake of humanity, and his friend’s own sake as well.

One last character who demonstrates the theme of morality in Watchmen would be Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias. Ozymandias seems to have no sense of morality at all for that matter. He bases his actions on their long-term results, such as his plan to eliminate all the costumed heroes from the city. Unlike Rorschach, Ozymandias is aware that his actions are producing more evil than they are good. One quote from him that demonstrates this theory would be “I know I’ve struggled across the back of murdered innocents to save humanity… but someone had to take the weight of that awful, necessary crime” (409).

It’s as if he knows his decisions aren’t morally agreeable, but continues to go through with them anyway for his own satisfaction, rather than the greater good. While he makes various attempts to unify the world and its heroes, he is ultimately left unsatisfied in the end due to the large amount of casualties it took to get to that point. It was then he realized he was doing all of this for himself, and had deep regrets. Ozymandias sense of morality is at best described to be “poor,” despite his self-proclaimed good intentions.

Watchmen by Alan Moore is a revolutionary graphic novel that demonstrates how morality lives differently through individuals in different circumstances. Characters such as Ozymandias simply don’t care enough their actions may not be best suited for the world around them, whereas characters like Rorschach take matters upon themselves and try to change the world around them when they simply cannot save the world themselves. In the end, some have a more warped sense of morality and view on the world than others, and past events in their lives contribute to those views as well. It is important to dissect these issues as done above to show how these characters interact with each other and the world that has been built around them.

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