When TIME magazine released their “All-TIME Greatest Novels”, there was only one graphic novel that made the list: Alan Moore’s epic Watchmen. It is widely regarded as the singular greatest story in comic history. And with good reason. In the world of comics, it’s a game-changer. Never before or since has a story managed to adeptly push the superhero genre forward while simultaneously showing the grim reality of what it would be like if superheroes actually existed. I’ve always called it the “deconstruction of the superhero.” Moore was at the top of his game for this one. Which is why it’s so unfortunate that he’s become such a pretentious, self-absorbed, ungrateful hypocrite in recent years…but I digress.
A brief synopsis of the story (WARNING: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK, OR SEEN THE MOVIE, AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW MAJOR PLOT POINTS, SKIP THIS PART):
The story takes place in 1985, in an alternate history in which costumed heroes, after emerging in the 40’s, have been outlawed. All heroes have gone into retirement, with a few exceptions: government-sanctioned heroes The Comedian (Edward Blake), a gruff, cynical veteran hero with a violent streak and little empathy, and Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman), the only being with actual “super powers” (subatomic manipulation, telekinesis, teleportation, invincibility, immortality, and near-omniscience) that he received from horrific accident that was believed to have killed him, and Rorschach (Walter Kovacs), a violent, near emotionless vigilante with an absolute black-and-white moral code, who operates outside the laws against costumed heroes.
When The Comedian is murdered by being thrown from his penthouse apartment, Rorschach begins to investigate, fearing that someone might be out to kill “supers.” This investigation sets into motion the rest of the events of the comic. Rorschach attempts to warn his former Crimebuster teammates, Daniel Dreiberg (Nite Owl – who utilized gadgets similar to Blue Beetle and Batman), Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre – a second generation crimefighter that took up the mantle of her mother after she retired), Adrian Viedt (Ozymandias – has use of 100% of his brain and is considered the world’s smartest man), and Dr. Manhattan. They all initially blow him off, believing him to be paranoid, citing The Comedian’s violent and cruel nature.
At The Comedian’s funeral, Manhattan is accused of causing cancer in those with whom he’s had prolonged contact, particularly his former lover Janey Slater. The public outrage from this causes Manhattan to exile himself to Mars, far away from humanity. With Manhattan, the United States greatest deterrent from attack, gone, the Soviet Union begins making plans for war. Rorschach is framed, and subsequently arrested, for the murder of former supervillain Moloch. While Viedt is attacked, but manages to kill his would-be assassin, seemingly proving Rorschach’s theory correct.
Eventually, Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre decide to break Rorschach out of prison. After doing so, Silk Spectre is teleported to Mars by Dr. Manhattan to convince him to continue to protect humanity, and in the ensuing argument discovers that The Comedian, who she hate because he once tried to rape her mother, was in fact her father from a later consensual relationship. The complications and complexities of human relationships convince Manhattan to return to Earth. At the same time, Nite-Owl begins helping Rorschach with his investigation. The deeper they dig, the more signs point to Viedt being involved. So they set out to confront him at his Antarctic base. Once they arrive, Viedt explains that he plans to fake an alien invasion of New York, causing massive death and devastation, in hopes of staving off an impending nuclear war between the US and the USSR. He believes that forcing both sides to band together against a common threat would unite them permanently. He also reveals that in order to protect his plan he had murder The Comedian, killed Moloch and set up Rorschach to take the fall, orchestrated the events that lead to Manhattan’s colleagues contracting cancer, and faked his own assassination attempt. Manhattan and Silk Spectre arrive back on Earth to see the destruction of New York and a dead giant alien. Manhattan realizes that his powers are being weakened by tachyons emanating from Ozymandias’ base, so he teleports himself and Silk Spectre there to confront Viedt as well.
Once there, they discover that Viedt was behind everything. Soon after, reports stating that the hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union have ended and that they have begun working together for a plan against the threat of invasion. This leads everyone but Rorschach to the conclusion that the world can never know the truth. Rorschach states that he will tell the world what Viedt has done stating “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise”, and leaves. Once outside, Manhattan appears in front of him and says that he cannot allow Rorschach to reveal what happened. After Rorschach tell Manhattan that the only way to stop him is to kill him, Manhattan does so. Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre leave and decide to begin new lives under assumed names. Ozymandias asks Manhattan if he had done the right thing in the end, to which Manhattan replies “Nothing ever ends”, then leaves Earth for good.
Watchmen illustrates just how deep and introspective the works of comic books can be. You see how disconnected from humanity a super powered being would actually be. Dr. Manhattan sums his view of humanity up in one sentence directed at Ozymandias: “The world’s smartest man poses no more threat to me than the world’s smartest termite.” He is beyond mankind in ever aspect. How could he not look down on them? He distances himself more and more as the story goes along, until he feels he can no longer be on the same planet as man.
Rorschach is an illustration of what the price for absolute conviction can be. He is the only character who refuses to compromise, and in the end, that stance causes his death. He is a willing martyr for his cause. I think this is why so many people connect to Rorschach as their favorite character: deep down, we all wish we were him. Everyone hopes that they would stand up for their beliefs even in the face of death. Despite his willingness to kill those whom he deems as wicked or evil and his terribly troubled psyche, there is a part of him that is the best of humanity.
Then there’s Ozymandias. He considers himself the best of humanity. He sees himself as mankind’s savior. While Manhattan is practically a god, Ozymandias thinks he’s one. He sees people, even his former friends, as pawns to manipulate to accomplish his goals. While he has good intentions and noble aspirations, his path to them is coated with lies, deceit, and the blood of others. In the final confrontation, he seems almost an inhuman, emotionless, logic-driven monster in his defense of his actions. This facade cracks during his conversation alone with Manhattan. He reveals his doubt about his methods in getting to his ultimate goal. This moment of vulnerability completely changes his character from villain to at least a somewhat sympathetic figure.
The story at its core is the ultimate dilemma of morals and ethics, and the consequences we face when decisions are made regarding that dilemma. The age-old question “If your family was starving and poor, would you steal a loaf of bread?” is discussed on a personal and global level. How many deaths are acceptable to create unity and peace, saving the lives of billions? One? Hundreds? Millions? Delving so deep into such a morally ambiguous and divisive topic is what makes this book so incredible. One of the truly amazing things with the story is that even in the end, the reader is left to decide if what was done is right. It forces you to deal with it, to work it out for your self. If you were in that situation, and you thought you could help prevent a World War, but doing so would mean doing terrible things…would you do it?