The World Watches the Watchmen

For those of you who expressed interest in reading my essay, here’s the first, very rough draft of the introduction and first paragraph. It’s a rhetorical essay to be 6-7 pages long that makes a claim about what the author is trying to say to his audience. And by “those of you”, I mean Dave-O. Thanks Dave-O! C=

A common recipe for comic books is “superhero defeats supervillain, and in the process, saves the world.” However, in the 12-issue comic book, Watchmen, Alan Moore does not create such formulaic characters or settings. Set in a fictional New York City in 1985, Watchmen tells the story of a group of questionable costumed vigilantes who begin to unravel internally as the world around them borders on the brink of nuclear war. With the death of the Comedian, Rorschach attempts to assemble all the masked vigilantes together to see who is behind the murder and for what reason. The setting parallels the real life situation of Moore’s audience at the time. With the Cold War and nuclear decimation on every Americans’ minds during this period, readers understand Moore’s references to past wars and future possibilities. Moore also presents many different characters as a way to relate to readers. If readers begin to understand that not all superheroes are faultless in morality and beyond, they will also understand that these superheroes are similar to the average American. The contemporary readers of comic books during this time can relate to the world that is presented in Watchmen and the characters that inhabit it.

Thus, Moore debunks any previously held definitions of the basic superhero construct and makes the comic more relatable to his audience. By doing so, Moore consequently evaluates how superheroes were presented in that era and demonstrates that superheroes are exactly like normal people, showing that no one should have God-like status among Americans. Through the use of a dystopian setting where an alternate history occurs, an embedded narrative whose main character parallels the flawed ideals of Adrian Veidt, and portrayals of Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk as average citizens battling their own mid-life crises, Moore argues that a society could neither function properly with heroes or vigilantes in its everyday life, nor should it place its trust in any one being to safeguard the world from danger.

Moore presents the world of Watchmen as an alternate Earth, which allows readers to see how events that played out in the comics differ from those during their lifetime. In this fictional world, superheroes became outlawed, the Vietnam War was ended with Vietnam becoming the 51st United State, and Richard Nixon is in his fifth term as president. People do not understand superheroes and they also do not tolerate them. Dr. Manhattan sees a riot in 1977 and says, “Claiming that costumed adventurers are making their job impossible, the police are on strike. Everyone is frightened, scenting anarchy” (Moore 4: 22). America passed the Keene Act to ban vigilantism and because regular people did not know how to deal with superheroes living above the law. Thus, Moore explicitly states that vigilantes do not coalesce well with society’s restraints. At the same time, this world also relies on government use of these same superheroes to defend them from enemy attack. God is placed in the form of an American- Dr. Manhattan. Both he and the Comedian work “entirely for the government” (Moore 4: 23) and are therefore, exempt from the Keene Act. Both of these characters helped end the Vietnam War, and while the Comedian is off performing top-secret duties for the American government, Dr. Manhattan is used as a nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union. Moore states in an interview, “Watchmen came to be about power…and about the idea of the superman manifest within society” (Whiston). If there were to be a superman intermingling himself with the real world, Moore suggests that it would never work out.

With these minute details, Moore emphasizes that superheroes are flawed, just like human beings. Readers learn that they should not place any person in the real world on such a pedestal because of this. During the Cold War era, many Americans accepted Ronald Reagan as one of these individuals with so much power that he could save the United States from nuclear destruction. A 2004 Gallup Poll article suggests “one of Reagan’s major contributions was to restore confidence in the presidency after the battering it took in the 1970s” (Newport). This data proposes that Americans during the 1980s supported Reagan’s escalation of the Cold War and the United States military. However, Moore criticizes the power displayed by Reagan during his term as president, stating he is only human, and cannot save the world through aggression. This parallels how the United States government relied heavily upon Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian to do its dirty work, when really, these heroes are just like the masked vigilantes outlawed by the Keene Act. By setting Watchmen in a duplicate of New York City, Moore illustrates to his readers the gap between perfect fictional superheroes and imperfect real people.

~ by Btab on 12 February 2010.

2 Responses to “The World Watches the Watchmen”

  1. Damn, brother, that is well written. I know it’s an early draft, but I’ll bet you could easily expand on what you already have quite a bit, exploring all the nuances you mention in even greater detail. Also, do you plan to mention Moore’s use of the Black Freighter comic as a parallel for his own comic (how meta!) and the semi-adversarial relationship between the news-stand owner and the comic book reader as a parallel for the nature of human relationships?

    I like it, can’t wait to read more.

  2. Thank you!
    Yes, I am definitely incorporating the Black Freighter into this essay. As for the other note you mentioned…Wow, that is something I did not catch! Very interesting, and I will for sure look into it and try to place it in my essay. Coooool!

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