Thursday, March 12, 2009

"The World will look up and shout 'Save us!' And I’ll whisper 'No.'"

I first read Watchmen while in college, shortly after completing another graphic novel by Alan Moore entitled V for Vendetta. I was immediately drawn to its dystopia, initially because of the Nietzschian phase we all go through in college (or was that just me). As I have grown older, I am still a fan of Watchmen and I thought the film adaptation was a wonderfully precise piece of cinema that, frame by frame, captured the gritty essence of the story.

I find that essence to be simple: the superhero cannot save you. Watchmen restores the balance for me in dealing with the superhero phenomenon in American literature. I admit it: I normally have disdain for the superhero genre. The superhero serves as an all too human Savior who has the inner strength and the outer resiliency to face the greatest evil and conquer it. The romantic portrait of humanity makes me gag. I know! I know! I can hear the accusations already – I am revealing my closeted Jansenism. Well I say balderdash! The superhero, in his traditional portrayal, is an anti-Christ. Our human nature is generally corrupt, but not fundamentally corrupt, as the story goes. There is one man (or two or three men or women) who is capable of rising above, nay, conquering this human nature to combat the forces of evil. Is such a thing possible? Well, grace can surely perfect nature, but grace is non-existent in the superhero world. Christian themes are just not present.

And this is why I like Watchmen. Moore takes the genre to its natural end. The Watchmen form as masked vigilantes with the best of intentions, but we all know what the road to hell is paved with (besides the skulls of bishops). The demigod Doctor Manhattan resembles the nonchalant coldness of Zeus. Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II are adrenaline junkies rendered lifeless (both existentially and sexually) without “crime fighting.” Rorschach is a psychopath yearning for someone to compromise his inability to compromise (and gets his wish). And Ozymandias – well that one is obvious. The only vigilante both aware of his severely deformed character and even slightly remorseful at the end of his life is the Comedian.

It’s all a joke. Absolutely! Salvation of the world by power, murder, elitism and manipulation is very much a joke. This is the redeeming value I find in Watchmen. It is not nihilistic, but bleak and rightly so. It is an examination of our inability to save ourselves and a meditation on our willingness to accept the vilest of horrors in order to gain a little temporary safety.

Mason Slidell

1 comment:

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Watchmen restores the balance for me in dealing with the superhero phenomenon in American literature.

I understand. And what's interesting is that Watchmen achieves this balance by presenting an imbalanced vision of heroism. Had the work given more showing to traditional good'guy heroes, this effect may well have been lost.