“The Greater Good”

Written by: Alan Moore
Art by: Dave Gibbons
Published by: DC Comics

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.” (Who watches the watchmen?)

Hailed by Time Magazine’s 100 best English language novels since 1923, Watchmen is considered the masterpiece of the comic book medium. Based on heroes from the Charlton Comics (The Peacemaker, Captain Atom, The Question, Blue Beetle, etc.) line which DC had acquired, Alan Moore crafted a dense tale which explored the reality of super heroes (The Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Rorshach, Nite Owl, etc.). Not only wanting to get to the real heart of the super hero life and how it differed from public perception, it also examined the roles of super heroes, over two generations (the Minutemen and then the “Crimebusters”), in society.

“Every day the future looks a little bit darker but the post, even the grimy parts of it, well it just keeps getting brighter all the time.” –Sally/Silk Spectre

Taking place on an alternate earth in 1986, the world stands on brink of nuclear annihilation. It’s the height of the cold war, Russia is making noises along its borders and both sides are stockpiling nuclear weapons. Against this backdrop, told mostly through the voice of Rorschach, is the investigation of the death of one of his contemporaries, The Comedian. On surface lies a simple murder mystery, one which explores the sordid tale of a Golden Age (when Hooded Justice first leapt into the masked fray) and a Silver Age generation of heroes (ushered in with the appearance of the superman, Dr. Manhattan) told from modern age perspective. The stories of the two generations not only interconnect, but build thematically on one another.

The book’s literary appeal is what has given it such lasting resonance. Little things made the comic so great, like how so much revealed and foreshadowed in the beginning, that the reader just doesn’t realize until they get to the end. The dense literary allusions. The clocks moving toward midnight. The recurring symbols. The extras at the end of each individual comic, from book excerpts to essays on super heroes. The parallel panel work of issue #5 entitled “Fearful Symmety”. Everything is connected; events even those which are seemingly trivial, are mirrored or referenced later.

Tales of the Black Freighters—a comic a background character is reading throughout the story—is an obvious homage to the E.C. Comics line, at the time the most popular comics line until they were forced out of business by censorship pressures. What happened to E.C. paralleled not only the 50s “Red” trials in our reality and but also the treatment Minutemen when they were forced into retirement in the Watchmen reality. The E.C. stories were described, in one of the appendix extras of the book, as “recounted as small, self-contained tales within the larger narrative that frames them,” a description easily used for Watchmen; just like Moore could be talking about himself when he writes about Max Shea … and it eerily foreshadows much of Moore’s relationship with DC in subsequent years.

“We were doing something because we believed in it.” –Hollis/Nite Owl I

The thing about Watchmen is that it’s not about the spandex set’s fisticuffs, but about their interactions. Most of the book is simply conversations, punctuated by violence which seem that much more violent due to the book’s quiet tone. Even a casual study of the psychology of super hero reveals the kind of extreme personalities it takes to wear your underwear over your pants and don masks. The same impulse to do good which led “normal” folks to become cops, firefighters, and doctors, allowed masked vigilantes to escape into their pulp fiction and comic book worlds. They operated outside the boundaries of laws which in itself, a slipperiest of slippery moral slopes.

“Why does one death matter against so many? Because there is good and there is evil and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this.” –Rorschach

Inflexible, incorruptible, and pure, Rorschach, with his fluid mask which keeps changing, has a right wing flair about his nature and politics. The Comedian saw life as a cruel joke. Dr. Manhattan’s power made him so transcendent, such a superman, that he became more alien/less human with each passing day. The affairs of humanity mattered less and less. His emergence as a true meta-human heightened the unease people felt in the presence of superheroes as well as the uncertainty of the times. The villains were largely an assemblage of psycho/sexual deviants which the true ones, true evil, wore business suits and kept on marching, regardless of the presence of super heroes.

“They had a choice, all of them. They could have followed in the footsteps of good men … instead they followed the droppings of lechers.” –Rorschach

We look at the world around us, the culture that we’ve made of it, and we realize just how much of a mess of it we’ve made. Ozymandias’ diagnosis is correct: individual crimes/evils “are just symptoms of an overall sickness of the human spirit, and I don’t believe you can cure a disease by suppressing its symptoms.” If the rallying cry is that the greater good must be served, then we have to ask ‘what does it mean to serve the greater good?’ We have choices in how we go about transforming the world. We could layer it in laws and bootstrapping the enforcement of them.

We can trust in ourselves, our own ingenuity, creativity, and intelligence. Like Dr. Manhattan, who is so aware of space and time and the dance of atoms, sees how everything is held together, is free and predetermined, yet loses his perspective. But somewhere shy of “the ends justify the means”, we have to also check ourselves by asking “how can actions that are wrong lead to a greater good?”

“Somebody has to save the world.” –Nelson/Captain Metropolis

We have to ask ourselves “what does it mean to change the world?” One way this might look is for one man to take it upon himself to be the world’s savior. Modeling himself on Alexander the Great, using evil as his means, unaware that the biggest villain it the sin of his own hubris. Not satisfied with something so seemingly simple as “love thy neighbor as thyself,” he has to do ‘big” things, things on a more “meaningful scale.”

Counter-intuitively, we need to reduce our scope. All true change happens at the most local level. We must begin by changing our world, our sphere of immediate influence. Another Savior might set out a kingdom mission with the hope that this world can be rescued, redeemed, renewed, and transformed. In the cross, Jesus takes an instrument of death and destruction and transforms it into a symbol of life. Through his death and resurrection, He sets the stage for a different kind of world, one where grace and forgiveness reign supreme and uses love and peace as its chief weapons. It’s a call to a greater way of living, changing lives one at a time in order to change the world. Doing good, helping your neighbor, such deeds ripple out and help the world … because everything’s connected.

“Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.” –Rorschach

The legacy of Watchmen is that it was a watershed moment which was about striving to see how much it could do with the medium. In the kind of multi-layered stories which could be told, the comics grew up. It’s funny how Watchmen laments how things got “so serious” after the first age of costumed adventurers since that’s exactly what happened to the comic book industry in the wake of Watchmen. Many books became dark for dark’s sake, missing the point of what it means to be adult tales. It wasn’t about having a license to cuss, show nudity, or have graphic violence. It was about interconnecting plots, themes, complex storytelling.

Dave Gibbons nine panel format didn’t allow for a wasted panel, each one meaningful crammed with details that build the story. When a creation hits on all cylinders, with an artist so at the peak of his skills, it seems that he draws above himself; and a writer drawing on so much material, he seems to write outside of himself, the result stands the test of time. It’s like magic.