Whom were they watching?

Scary supervillain! oh wait

Scary supervillain! oh wait

BONUS POST: Thanks to Markku Tuovinen and his June pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon!

This is first of three posts about Watchmen, specifically the 12-issue run from the 1980s. I’m not including the movie or the new comics that came out more or less with it.

This one has nothing to do with the principal characters’ actions in the present-day of the story. It has to do with the fictional historical context of heroes and villains in the setting, and with some of the principals’ past actions. Help me stay strictly on-topic with that, OK?

My thesis is simple and I think, completely textual without any interpretation or claim to a special reading: in the history and back-story, there are no villains, absolutely none. There are a few people who emulated the heroes in a fad-driven “I’m a bad guy” way, offering no threat to ordinary people or society if you will, and a few law-breakers who are tarted up as super-baddies by media accounts, and that’s it. The masked crime-fighters of the story’s history exist in a villainless world. There wasn’t any Moleman. Any Sub-Mariner. Any Doctor Doom. Any Absorbing Man. Any Magneto. Not even any Vulture, Looter, or Toad.

I hear you out there. You’re about to say, “But Ozymandias!” (or whichever other’s principal’s name). I know. The further posts concern whether the present-day events in the story manages to change this aspect of its foundation. Be a little patient please.

This single but pervasive change from superhero comics tradition isn’t an interpretation on my part or even a clever reading; it’s absolutely explicit in the comic itself, supported in multiple scenes and events, some incidental and some pivotal to the plot. I don’t care if the characters wear costumes and have secret identities and beat people up. I am talking about the constant and overwhelming context of active supervillains in which the heroes always existed and which is completely absent. Moloch ran a “vice den?” So the fuck what? Sending Doctor Manhattan after him – why? “The newspapers call me a crime-fighter, so the Pentagon says I must fight crime.”

A lot of this involves my frustration with Deconstructionism. To deconstruct something, one exposes the assumptions and mechanisms of its effectiveness. That’s a positive act, as I see it, like understanding the Newtonian principles upon which bridges are built. However, it does not mean that bridges are now rendered uninteresting or un-useful as objects. Whereas a great deal of fashionable Deconstructionist thinking is based on that very idea, that if we understand structural or other principles that have made novels work (for instance), then we are now released from the obligation of using those principles to make good novels, or can make novels “any way we want” to the extent that working (functioning, being any good, whatever you want to call it) isn’t a consideration.

Which is raw steaming horse shit. It’s an excuse for people to publish crap novels and garner accolades that they are sooo deconstructive and to claim you’re intellectual buddies with Nabokov or anyone else similarly good at intensely complex work. It’s also led to a lot of really bad academics in which pissing all over something is mistaken for analyzing it.

This aspect of Watchmen illustrates exactly this problem. Instead of being the superhero story that exposed the assumptions underlying superheroes, it merely devalues the superheroes by taking out a key part of their fictional context. It’s like stabbing a creature in the heart, or removing the support strut from a bridge, and saying, “See, this shit doesn’t work! It’s not real! I have deconstructed it!” That’s not insightful, it’s obvious. It’s not exposure or constructive dissection, it’s destruction. If you take a bus and remove its engine, then throw it off a bridge, you haven’t “deconstructed” buses.

Supervillains matter because what they do affects ordinary people’s lives, at any scale, from mondo-powerful to a guy with a gadget. Some of them matter more because their outlooks are understandable to the reader, again, independently of scale. Magneto’s militant-minority outlook was instantly sympathetic even before the character was further refined as a Jewish concentration camp survivor. Was he scary? Yes. Was he a bad guy in terms of creating havoc and generally posing danger to others? Yes. Was he fascinating because he was not quite entirely wrong, or even almost right? Yes. When this feature was ignored by a given writer, did the story’s quality drop like a rock? Yes.

All the best villains are like that. Dr. Doom was a knee in the groin to Cold War assumptions about eastern Europe and to many “the future is here” ideals about U.S. control over dangerous technology. The animated Batman series from the 1990s was so incredible because most of the stories were based on villains’ psychology at least as centrally as upon Batman’s. Do I think the authors understood any of this? My call is “yes, of course,” although by “understood,” I don’t necessarily mean they could verbalize it, because I think that’s irrelevant. They understood it because they did it, establishing that the villains exist independently of the heroes in most of the classic stories, counter to the Miller-esque claim that the heroes’ presence creates the villains, and counter to the Watchmen’s presentation that “costumed crime-fighting” was a fad and the villain side of it was rarer, even more fleeting, and in many cases trumped-up.

(Side note: In recognition of this issue, in our superhero role-playing back in the 80s and early 90s, I always decreed that superheroes were rare, that supervillains were quite common, that the former usually ended up tragically, and that the latter was a profitable way to make a living.)

Taking out the, for lack of a better word, environmental villains removes the heroes along with them. It means that the trappings of the “costumed crime-fighters” must be explained in some other way besides stepping up to the ongoing menace the villains both represent and actually present. Without any such menace in the picture, the heroes’ costumes become fetishes, with their psychologies adjusted to match; their patriotism or community spirit becomes naivete or goon-ism; and their feistiness and powerful abilities become bullying, up to and including casual atrocities – all of which describes the historical characters and the pasts of the principal characters in Watchmen precisely. And so important: every one of them is completely out of his or her depth regarding the social and political world they live in and in no way can they confront it. (“But Rorschach!!” Not in the back-story. Patience.) Instead of grappling with power-politics, they become establishment stooges.

Given this foundation, whatever you go on to do whether it’s good or bad, it’s not a deconstruction. The only options are to restore the conditions of villains/heroes or to flounder further. Which way Watchmen goes is what my later posts will be about, for the main characters who might be described as heroes or villains: the Comedian and Rorschach in part 2, and Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan in part 3. I know you’re probably itching to unload your standard rant about these characters, but my topic of the moment is incidental, background, back-story villainy, with Moloch as the single featured character as such, so please focus on that in the comments.


Next: Back from the Zone

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on June 2, 2015, in Lesser is still great, Storytalk, The 80s me and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. I see where you are going with this. The details such as those presented in Hollis Mason’s memoir, ‘Under the Hood,’ and the investigation and conversations linked to the disappearance of Hooded Justice, point at villainy much like the heroism of the Minute Men: Normal people engaged in crime in costume to further hide their identities (before capture) and gain more media attention. The implication is the cleverness of this type of criminal and the resulting lack of effectiveness in the police force helped justify the decision to ‘suit up’ among the heroes. What Mason spells out though is more akin to pulp writers’ tales being the root cause for the costumes.

    The masks, on either side, were inspired by other masks, real or fictional.

    Many details in the backstory are implied and shown pictorially rather than in dialogue. The villains were many; Moloch is mentioned because he is relevent throughout the foward and backward ripples of Watchmen. I agree this has the effect of making the roster of villains seem thin, but I am not sure that the implication was that the heroes were more common. Granted, the heroes tackled criminal organizations and street thugs often. We do not know the level of connection between masks and these organizations. Moloch’s connection to such things, as well as mundane robbery, is clear, as you mention.

    No villain is described in the way the heroes are. None match the abilities ascribed to Manhattan or Ozymandias. No heroes seem to rise up in response to great villains.

    The question I have is, is not the terrible level of crime described enough to justify the heroism of the Minute Men? For normal men in masks, is not the challenge of gangs and rings enough threat to make their sacrifice and bravery important?

    An interesting correlation to your point, and the villains in masks were caused by heroes in masks point, is the result of the Keene Act. Villains were not its target, nor would they comply with it, yet…


    • Great to see you here. In part provoked by your “I see where you’re going” which got up my nose, I’ll launch into minor argumentative mode.

      The details … point at villainy much like the heroism of the Minute Men: Normal people engaged in crime in costume to further hide their identities (before capture) and gain more media attention. The implication is the cleverness of this type of criminal and the resulting lack of effectiveness in the police force helped justify the decision to ‘suit up’ among the heroes.

      … the heroes tackled criminal organizations and street thugs often.

      The question I have is, is not the terrible level of crime described enough to justify the heroism of the Minute Men? For normal men in masks, is not the challenge of gangs and rings enough threat to make their sacrifice and bravery important?

      I think that’s a generous reading, and to my eyes, for what that’s worth, overly generous. I also want to stress my phrasing Supervillains matter because what they do affects ordinary people’s lives. I see nothing in the text that shows “gangs and rings” doing anything specially awful to people which gangs and rings don’t ordinarily do, or that gangs and rings with masks and funny names were any different. I see no pictorial evidence that the latter even existed to any degree at all – I’ve read the work very carefully to distinguish between what is shown and and what someone is saying.

      I also think it’s important to distinguish among interesting name/brand, powers, and concealed identity, which are three really different things; and to keep those separate from establishment/criminal. I wouldn’t want to move on to hero/villain discussion until those get better hammered out.

      To address your final question, I don’t see any “sacrifice or bravery” depicted in the backstory at all.


      • It’s been a long time since I had a good discussion about Watchmen. One thing about doing so that I remember clearly is that it is hard to keep as long and as detailed a work as Watchmen fully in mind for real discussion – particularly considering its structure and means of presenting its content. Restricting oneself to focus on layers of the work, as you would like to do, is a good idea. There are a lot of layers, and we do not get to see all of them fully, though, so there again, I think you have made a good decision by carefully choosing specific layers in a specific order. By design, I believe, Watchmen has elements, images, and ambiguities within which, like an ink blot, mean different things to different people.

        Some context for my reading of Watchmen, and the way in which I take it: In university, I was turned on to Watchmen by a fellow classmate and gamer named Scott Marshall. His thesis was on the concept of encouraging greater recognition of the graphic novel, and toward that end he used Watchmen heavily for examples. Being drawn to art and writing himself, he redrew each panel at 4x size and looked at the graphical and textual details in both forward/backward linear order and in Moore’s & Gibbons’ ways of presenting a mirror-like ripple order. Doing that definitely reinforces the idea that there are no unimportant details. As he also delved into the roots of the work, I was drawn into his conversation about the material due in part to having grown up reading pulps, (The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Spider, The Lone Ranger, The Avenger [Justice Inc], etc), watching serials, and listening to old radio plays, thanks to my father’s collection and encouragement. I was not much of a comics reader, but I recognized the characters being re-purposed in Watchmen, and I knew the inspirational fiction involved. I knew the ambiguity, the apparent simplicity, and the persuasive nature of those sources of inspiration well enough to be a sounding board for a brief time, and to come from that opportunity wanting to look at Watchmen as a reflection of a period in fiction, or ripples from triggering events.

        I think the fictional biography “Under the Hood” agrees with the surface of your point about the lack of significant villains, and in doing so brings up the fact in passing that there was a decline in criminal counterparts to the costumed heroes, rather than a lack. This textual reference does not refute your point. I find the text implies that a Hollis Mason bent on retiring and feeling obsolete, is questioning the good he has done. These questions seem to be sparked by thoughts of the ‘new breed’ of hero and ‘new breed’ of villain. He cites Manhattan and Ozymandias as each being ‘one of’ the former, and in so doing implies there are others and also instances of the latter. Watchmen could be small in scope, perhaps he simply means the characters which appear in the tale. Then again, it could simply represent the extent of Mason’s familiarity with those others. For all the ‘tell all’ nature of Under the Hood, he is portrayed as choosing his words somewhat carefully. To my eyes though, a key point here is that Mason is not focused on fighting or responding to villains. He lives for adventure, he is portrayed as a man who longs to be a hero worthy of praise, and although he desires that praise, he was inspired to simple good vs evil adventurism first by a grounding in the pulps, then the thrill of comics, and finally by the news reports of Hooded Justice. He chose to be a costumed hero in response to costumed heroes, not due to costumed villains or super-villains. By extension, we could say that he was a hero in need of a villain or villainy, but we could also say that to him, the presence of that villainy was obvious and not the sort of thing that one talks about. I see this as important because his perspective, as well as Dreiberg’s, Rorschach’s, Osterman’s, and Veidt’s, frames the content of the novel and directs eyes at the motivations of its characters, leaving the background as vague in places or concepts as you say, while allowing it to be very explicit in others.

        Vague as it typically is or appears to be, I believe there was something out on the streets for these first ‘heroes’ to fight. Before they took to it, artists were writing about it. People were afraid of it, and these early vigilantes responded with violence. Whatever it may have been, I think readers have a good sense of certainty that the masks did not exist in a vacuum. Something was out there for them to fight. We are given to know this not only in the textual description of its decline leading to eventual retirement of the Minutemen, but also due to the recognition received, the long lists of names, the specific nature of the crimes mentioned, and the types of characters involved. Rampant, personal, violent crime, perhaps caused by neglect from and/or corruption in the police force, or perhaps due to a lack of resources and freedom for law enforcement to act, or possibly by organized efforts to profit at others’ expense, is definitely harming people. People are being harmed by other people. I agree that in Watchmen we generally see gangs doing what they normally do. What they normally do is important to the people and neighborhoods they affect, is it not? Human trafficking, is it less important without a mask behind it? The pains of the real world, against which it seems we do very little, become wrongs which can be addressed in our fiction. Do those wrongs have significance without the framework of hero rising up to stop villain?

        The adventure Mason seeks is in physically battling the fear and violence of the city – inspired by Hooded Justice, who is likewise engaged in turning the tables on violent gangs, rapists, and robbers. There is villainy, but it is impersonal. It is unfocused – at first. Does it become more focused on its own, or as a result of the masks’ actions? Until Veidt’s plan, does it ever rise to a level of supervillainy? I haven’t considered it from that perspective enough to have an opinion, yet, so I look forward to your remaining posts to see what you have to say. I do think, though, that perspective both in the fiction and within the reader is a point. To me, the older characters rise up in response to need – internal, external, or both. Those needs bring them in opposition with what their generation regards as evil. The younger ones rise up for similar reasons and they also have to contend with evil, but from a foundation where the lines drawn are harder to see. Our perspectives and their perspectives give shape to the story we might take from Watchmen. Are they simply freaks, or is there a spark of the heroic in them?

        For the original Nite Owl, his crime fighting was simultaneously adventure, doing good, a source of fantasy-fulfillment, and a bit embarrassing when analyzed. To the people he saved from gang violence or freed from predatory pimps, however, how would he be seen? What reason would there be to come forward and honor him? Without powers or significant protection, outnumbered in a world of guns, knives, and chains, did he risk nothing? Did he give up nothing? Sacrifice nothing? Don’t take these questions as challenges, just questions, reflections. You say you don’t see heroism or sacrifice in the book. I say we see its traces frequently, and in its opening and closing we see two versions of self-sacrifice on a grand scale, with numerous ripples in-between. It’s possible one of us is being generous or being stingy, or perhaps, we are just taken in by different details, different ripples. Is a person who risks life and saves others a hero only when innocent of motives other than altruism?

        We see Mason reflected throughout the chapters, but he isn’t the stone that starts the ripples. Perhaps he gives those ripples shape and greater context. In so doing though, his perspective frames ours, and that might decrease our ability to see the villains his so-called ‘super hero fad’ faced (or encouraged) because they are not his interest. Focus and perspective are tools that I feel Moore and Gibbons took great pains to control as they lead us through time, through narrators, through space, and all around the intricately detailed, planned, and sadly ill-fated intersection of the newsstand and the Gunga Diner, like the hands on a clock. The lack of focus on villains, named or otherwise, seems clearly intentional, or to be critical, to firmly focus on Moloch without introducing new threads to the ‘Mask-Killer’ mystery. What I am curious to see is the significance you make of the lack, and where that significance is sourced among the details. The difference between hero and super-hero, between villain and super-villain, and between heroism and villainy may take on more import, as does what Watchmen may have intentionally tried to show…or revealed in the attempt.

        The fan-popular Rorschach, despised in the fiction, is very focused on evil and the villains it makes of humanity, but like Mason, he is in the fight for personal reasons not in reaction to a specific person. Unlike Mason, he doesn’t think of crimefighting as adventure or that it got sordid and unglamorous after the 40s. He sees it as an ongoing symptom of a problem in people, a constant throughline that must be opposed. He sees this opposition as an imperative for those who have seen the problem – an absolute imperative. Villains or no villains, we’d still have Rorschach. Is there a perspective where he is a hero? Where he sacrifices? How important is the concept of sacrifice to the concept of heroism? Is resistance enough? Is the difference between Rorschach and Ozymandias merely one of scale?

        Here in the comments we can see another example of diverging ripples of perspective. Some respondents have focused on costumes and masks, others on deconstruction or destruction, some on villains and supervillains. Your post touches on a lot of ideas, and call different responses from the readers according to focus and background. I am drawn to two elements, heroism and perspectives.

        In the fiction itself, mention of the opposition the heroes faced is limited. Most mention is made of gang violence, vice rackets, and singular predators. Named villains, according to Mason, retreat into criminal enterprises which prey on people in subtle ways (again, vice; and the organization serves as the costume, I suppose). Captain Metropolis, again according to Mason but corroborated to an extent by the memories of other characters, is just one of the masks to see the threat to people this represents in the early days, and later how it will and does spread. The effect of these hidden manipulators is villainous, it is noticeable, crime and violence rises, and heroes – for reasons personal and/or altruistic – respond….unless we come to see them as merely opportunists.

        All this to say, there are a lot of details and each of us is drawn to different arrays of them, revealing and obscuring different aspects of the material as we are. Some boggle at the Black Freighter, some see the sex and violence, others the masks…or a specific mask in the mix. Some want to know more, or have more, while others want to keep it in a box. Some want background, some to know what happens next. To me that variance of response is the lure of the thing: trying to see it from perspectives other than my first reaction, or my fifth.

        There are so many perspectives, not just in the text, but in the subtle details of the panels. What is there really to show the condition of the world before the ‘mask killer’ plot? Rorschach, before his transformation from ‘Kovacs playing at being Rorschach,’ is depicted as capturing criminals and turning them over to police with a note in his early days. With Nite Owl, he is both shown and described as having cleaned up serious gang territory and dealt with vice crimes. The Minutemen have trophy cases of weapons and paraphernalia taken from their enemies, with one from Moloch getting primary focus, but masks from a Mob (Kong Mob?) are also in view. Metropolis forms two different groups to improve the tactical advantage against organized crime. Would or could this occur without victims and therefore victimizers? Without victims of one kind or another, how do criminals prosper? With such a focus on vice, and so many years of varied vice rackets to focus on, what is society like in this work? What breeds the desperation of the street gangs, and makes them prey on ordinary citizens? I suppose the most easily accessible instance of gang violence is the attempted mugging of the distracted Dreiberg and Jupiter while Manhattan is being interviewed on TV. Unless we choose to tie this to Veidt’s influence or some other intelligent motive force, this is a random mugging attempt which just happens to catch victims that can defend themselves. This is a glimpse of their world. Of course, this is the ostensible present of Watchmen and outside the limits you set in the post. If we go looking for backstory for the modern vigilantes though, it grows much harder to find, and is presented in mere glimpses and single panels. If we try to establish a world beyond where the original vigilantes started, we are only left with textual references and tiny details like headlines, statuettes, suggestions of photographs, and other memorabilia.
        Perhaps all we have are our biases and implications based on the internal logic we glean from the setting and characters. How far does the justification for the masks have to go if there is no significant harm being perpetrated on that ordinary citizen? In other words, if Watchmen shows no heroes, no bravery, and no sacrifice, what does it really show – and is that depiction tied to the presence or absence of a super-villain? Good question~

        It would seem that there is enough crime and the masks are effective enough in dealing with it that the media finds things to report down through the decades. More interesting is the Keene Act which both bans and legitimizes these heroes for their activities. Even with all the danger, and the implied or vaguely referenced levels of crime, Nite Owl can still ask the Comedian “Who are we protecting [the people] from?” and have it echo in meaning later in his life. While this might commonly be seen as reflected in Rorschach and the Comedian, I think its outline can be seen across the range of characters, to varying scales and from varied points of view. “Who watches the watchmen?” is what the people ask as they react, or are led to react against the vigilantes who have been protecting them. Those watchmen, however, find themselves – again each of them – asking that question differently. This is your titular question, and it is an important one to both the readership and the characters. What you make of the answer is the cool part~

        In that spirit, I am asking questions and offering thoughts in the comments here to be a sounding board, not an invader of nostrils. My aim is to see how you phrase and support your perspective, and then interact if I am able. Supervillains matter, but, other than Ozymandias (your subject for later), are seemingly absent in Watchmen. Is this a real absence, an obscurement by the material’s focus on the Watchers not the Watched, or a perceived absence? Whichever way, is the effect of evil as an impersonal force of crime, fear, and violence different enough to matter in the lives of ordinary people in comparison to that of an individual villain acting on them with evil intent? How important is good vs evil here? Is Us vs Them more important? To an ordinary person being beaten by one of the predatory street gangs evident throughout the material, does dead or harmed mean more or less than if Dr. Doom’s plans caused them death or harm? Does the intervention of an unknown protector mean more or less to them depending on the source of death or harm?

        Good topic of discussion, I think. Thanks for raising it~

        Looking back over this lengthy comment, I suppose I should have written a blog post. I still might, but I would have to convert it to be more topical for my rpg-focused site. Either way, time to take Watchmen off the shelf again~


  2. I’m up early so I get to state the obvious nitpick first. And I haven’t reread it in years, but wasn’t Big Figure presented as a Kingpin-like crime lord whom the regular police had no hope of stopping?

    Not that it detracts from your larger point, which I agree with. I’m not sure that Moore believes in heroism or villainy, just terrible people.


    • The Big Figure commanded a gang of jailhouse goons, and he was clearly a crime-boss of some kind prior to arrest, but I don’t recall any information at all about his power or significance prior to his imprisonment, and especially not any reference like “regular police had no hope of stopping.”

      To use a bit of internal story logic, Rorschach switched to lethal crime-stopping pretty early in his career as he relates during his (uh …) therapy. That may imply that he somehow was involved withe Big Figure’s arrest before that point, although exactly how Rorschach’s assault on anyone resulted in those people’s arrests is left vague. In fact there’s no instance in the story which shows that he caught “bad guys” for the police to arrest. It’s true that all the prisoners hate his guts, so I’m not saying that definitively didn’t happen, but as I say, it’s vague.

      My copies are playing hard-to-find (yes, the original issues), so if anyone wants to correct my recollections with chapter-and-verse, please do.


      • The references to Rorschach and Nite Owl “teaming up” to “take down” the Big Figure certainly implied to me that he was a major underworld figure. If the cops could’ve stopped him, I’m not sure why two costumed heroes had to team up and undertake what seems to have been a concerted, long-term campaign to defeat him.


        • A generous reading on your part. Mine would be more in line with saying that police rarely if ever cared about higher-level crime management, and that the historical FBI, for instance, was founded on pretending to while giving it almost a completely free pass. But that'[s a personal reading of the Watchmen content too. I think the textual reading has to stop at the admission that it’s simply left vague, and whatever “teaming up to stop him” :means, well, they did something that landed him in prison, and we don’t really know the details.

          I acknowledge that it’s the closest the text ever comes to the nominal heroes doing anything effective regarding crime, in the back-story.


  3. Tony Lower-Basch

    To me, it looks like Moore is presenting the “superhero/villain” narrative not as ‘the story’ but rather as a story told -by society- as a means of control (both over the Watchmen and over society as a whole). Hence, the way that public reception of the story evolves over time: It mirrors society’s treatment of other dogs-of-war (which attitude is pulled straight from real-world history). Post WW-II, people with dangerous combat skills and abilities are lauded for their accomplishments and trusted to be virtuous. Post-Vietnam they are feared and mistrusted, and people actively (violently!) protest the social structure that lead to them.


    • That historical topic is coming right up at the blog.

      I don’t think I agree with how it applies to the Watchmen backstory, as the post-WWII characters appear less idealistic to me than the later ones, and they all seem alike to me regarding their neuroses, psychoses, and willingness (or willful stupidity) to serve establishment power.


  4. I see that one of the reasons why we didn’t see a lot of prominent costumed villains is because most villainy is easier to pull off without a costume, especially in a world in which there aren’t really a lot of folks with super-powers. Consider the Year One Era Batman stuff, like Legends of the Dark Knight, that came out after the Watchmen watershed; even though Batman is existing in a world in which there are superpowered heroes and criminals, MOST of his early crime-fighting is against mundane organized crime and serial killers. Sure there’s a ghost or a demon or two, but his early nemesis Hugo Strange isn’t a threat because of any superpowers he has (unless you count his creepy psychologist powers) but because he has his tendrils in the various places of power. So even though that era of Batman was subsequent to and influenced by Watchmen, it gives us a glimpse into how that sort of paradigm we see in Watchmen could exist in an established world where superpowers and supervillains do exist (even if elsewhere).

    I’ve always looked at Watchmen as less a deconstruction of the superhero and more of a character study and look at what sort of person would put on a costume in a world that was not a comic-book world but had been culturally shaped by comic books. I think that Moore’s position in Watchmen was that even if people started wearing costumes as “heroes”, most crime would be mundane because mundane crime would be more lucrative than non-super-powered super-crime. Without real supervillains for superheroes to fight, only weirdos, nerds and sociopaths would put on goofy outfits to “fight crime”; and while they don’t beat anybody up, consider those guys in real life who put on the spandex and yell at people who Jay-walk.

    Still, i’ll admit that my thoughts on Moore and Watchmen have shifted a lot. I still think it’s a good story and really pushed the boundaries of what one could use the medium for in terms of story-telling techniques, but like Ozymandius, I find myself wondering sometimes “was it worth it?” Post-Watchmen comics introduced a lot grim-dark and edge for grim-dark and edge’s sake without a lot of the quality of writing and storytelling and pushed comics in general towards some really unpleasant places. I find myself these days wanting the older stories just with better writing: silver age stories without the god-awful silver-age dialogue and narration. It’s why I loved the animated Brave and the Bold and why I’ve been enjoying (with the exception of the issue where they fight against a bunch of straw-republicans) the old Outsiders run.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hiya, that helps a lot with how I want to say this.

      Without real supervillains for superheroes to fight, only weirdos, nerds and sociopaths would put on goofy outfits to “fight crime”; and while they don’t beat anybody up, consider those guys in real life who put on the spandex and yell at people who Jay-walk.

      That seems to me similar to the point I was making, or trying to make. Maybe that’s fine as far as it goes, but if one wanted to take that character study one step farther and see what it may say about superheroes in “real” superhero comics (for lack of a better word; I’ll define that as “supervillains are a real and distinctive threat”), then I think it won’t serve that purpose even a little bit.

      Perhaps I need to include one other variable or concept – some of the comments seem to me to be missing it cleanly. Specifically, that in the comics-headspace, the whole world is a crazy, fascinating, changing, unknown place. Technologies, new astronomical and physical understanding, and social choices are all in a state of profound flux, and that means personal ethics are really up for grabs. I’m especially struck by this in the 1960s Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Doom Patrol (a very Marvel-like title at DC at the time, maybe even doing it better). These “new things” about the external world impinge on people: they change their bodies, they open new abilities which are half blessing and half curse, they drive wedges into social and political cracks in the people’s lives.

      I think that’s more important than “I shall dress up in a costume now,” in fact, I think the costumes are pretty secondary, just as in the 1960s Marvel, most of the characters either wore utility-type outfits (FF), ritual outfits (Thor, Dr. Strange), or had costumes for costume-appropriate reasons or personal history (Spider-Man, Hawkeye, Daredevil). I grant that this approach never quite shed its “costumed superhero” motif from the 1940s and 1950s, but it did at least step a little bit away from the guy saying, “Ooh, I hate crime, I need leotards and a mask.”


      • All excellent points! As for the “I shall put on a costume”, the costume is less a response to crime and a desire to fight it but a symptom of whatever psychological issue drives that individual to fight crime in a costume or in disguise.

        Night Owl and Rorschach are the two sides of the Batman coin: you have the doofy sci-fi gadget obsession, which leads Night Owl to have a wild costume and flamboyant gadgetry, while Rorschach is the intensive, almost navel-gazing, introspection fused with a half-understood concept of the aloof ubermensch. Mask aside, Rorschach doesn’t even really HAVE a costume, but a persona. Much like how Bruce Wayne is the Batman’s disguise, almost to the point of dissociative identity disorder.

        But this is getting a bit off-topic from your original post. Rather than deconstructing superhero comics or even deconstructing superheroes, I always saw it more as an analysis (albeit a shallow one) of how personality disorders could shape or manifest as heroic identities. (Bringing it back again) I’d go out on a limb and say that MOST of post-crisis Batman became about exploring this topic in various ways.


  5. epweissengruber

    Possibly off topic on the deconstruction theme: You might want to read what Don Ihde does with “deconstruction” in his “Experimental Phenomenology: Multistabilities.”

    “I had worked out a series of perceptual variations that yielded a much larger number of perspectival results and which showed how a phenomenological deconstruction leads to much greater multistability.” (xi)

    If you are running through perceptual variations, say making the Necker Cube appear like it is emerging from or retreating into the 2D surface on which it is printed, you are doing a kind of deconstruction: intentionally varying what is foreground and what is background, giving different stories about what appears (hermeneutics) or giving explicit directions to how and where you will gaze and for how long (a “transcendental” approach) . Once this is done, it is very hard to go back to seeing it as only one or the other and you get better at flipping them. So the figure has multi-stability.

    With practice you can dissolve some of your sedimented preconceptions and look at it as a 6-legged insect athwart a hexagonal opening or an oddly cut gem. The last two are harder to maintain, but once they have been seen, they cannot be unseen, and even if you default to the retreating/emerging cube binary, you will remember having had the experience of the harder-to-achieve variations. The parameters of the multistability can still be specified (forward to back on imaginary depth, lines all at the same focal plane, variations on forward-emerging and backwards-projecting 3D illusions, etc.).

    The parameters of the experience became thematized only after the deconstruction. It wasn’t the application of some metric that allowed experience of the figures in the first place. Thorough, reflective, and comprehensive reading makes the structures of the multistable experience apparent

    In other words: there is BS deconstruction and deconstruction.

    (Even de Man and Derrida, despite their reputation as sophistic word jugglers were basically realists and not idealists: deconstruction is always already at work in the figure before you got there and started your willful, intentional variations)


    • That divide is extremely clear to me. On one side you have some pretty good deeper thoughts into already-sensible, already-established modes of inquiry, and on the other, you have outright garbage, “science studies” and the like. Sometimes I think the best deconstructionists are those who never use the term.


      • At the G+ thread, after some back-and-forth to clarify things, Zak wrote,

        … it seems like it’d make more sense to me (and be interesting) if you went “Something bothers me about Watchmen, I am trying to figure out what it is…” kind of up front.
        It seems like this writing is proposed as explanatory rather than exploratory and I’m like “Ok, so there’s no villains and there’s a failure to deconstruct, is that…important? Is that good? Is that bad?” I am intrigued but confused about your starting assumptions, I guess.

        What I’m doing here is clearing the air before talking about the story. Part of that is establishing what the backstory is really like in the text, and since discussions of that backstory are ripe and stinking with deconstructive claims (some linked here, fortunately, so I’m not making this up), I need to dissociate what I’m doing from that. I haven’t stated a point, conclusion, or thesis, partly because this is exploratory for sure. Or mostly.

        I mildly hoped that this would be one of those posts for which the comments yielded the most useful concepts and I was greatly rewarded in that.

        Jesus, that Reynolds piece is the wrongest idiocy I’ve ever seen about superhero comics and I’ve seen some doozies. Just pointing at that and saying, not like that dork-ass is benefit enough for me.


  6. I think that Watchmen is not a good “Deconstructionism” comics, because… it’s not deconstructionist at all!
    Wattchmen does not have supervillians BECAUSE IT DOESN’T HAVE SUPERHEROES EITHER.
    Moore in Watchmen doesn’t want to show the inherent silliness of superhero comics: he take it as a given. And use it as a component of a political about our faith in people who will “save” us, about our need to “save” others, and about our desire to have heroes, leaders, saviour.

    The “villain” in the back-story exists, and is very pervasive: the USA government and its cold-war paranoia. They create Dr. Manhattan trying to create a bigger bomb. They use it as a military deterrent (they meet God and the first thing they do is to enlist him in the army…). They deploy it in Vietnam.
    And he does it, simply because he is trained to follow orders. To do what he is told. Like a good soldier. Even if he doesn’t see the point.
    Moore is not very subtle about it: Nixon is at his 4th mandate, and the Watergate journalists were killed by the Comedian. The Comedian killed Kennedy, too, probably. The Comedian is the REAL WORLD version of Captain America.

    Moore doesn’t de-constructs comic book: Watchmen is a showcase of what comics can do and other media can’t. Moore and Gibbons like so much to show off that sometimes is even distracting. Moore did it to be absolutely not adaptable to a movie (and obviously they did it anyway. It didn’t help that the people who did the movie totally missed the point by a mile and thought that they were filming a Batman movie).

    Watchmen follows in the tradition of the “drug” issues of Spider-Man, of the Green Arrow / Green Lantern travel through America, of the Jungle Action Black Panther’s stories: using the superhero trappings to talk about the real world.

    What Moore do, is to take so far, so deeply, so profoundly, that superhero comics breaks. I will wait you next posts about the “present-day” Watchmen to talks about it, but Ozymandas is the fault at the heart of the superhero concept, and Rorschach’s appeal and fame among the readers is where the trapping betray the author.

    Following Watchmen, Moore’s following books (the personal ones, not things like The Killing Joke) continue to be very political (I think that “Brought to light”, with the swimming pool filled by the blood of innocents killed by the American intelligence agencies is right after Watchmen, but Big Numbers, From Hell… all very political works), but he drops totally the superhero trapping. In interviews, he said that when you try to talks about real political and social issues using superheroes, people will only see the superheroes.
    I think it’s true, and much of what is said about Watchmen reflect this (and so does the movie).
    It was about our politics, in the real world. But everybody think that he was talking about superheroes. Even if they are totally missing from the story.


  7. Tied to my reply, and to some brilliant point made in the comments above mine about the real-world villainy, and why should a criminal wear a costume: the first superheroes were fighting common crime.

    Superman’s success and original concept was not due to people being scared of Lex Luthor: it was due to people scared of being powerless, in their own life. Against criminals, against powerful tycoons, against real things.
    Captain America did not sell a zillion of copies of his first issue because he was punching Batroc: in that cover he was punching Hitler.

    When Superheroes were more openly political, they did fight real-world villainy (and it doesn’t get much more political that having Superman punish a rich mine owner that exploited his miners, like in the first issues of his comic book)

    Super-villains was a way to sanitize them. Castrate them. Make them harmless and “suitable for children”. Who could object to superman punching “Moorgu the inter-galactic guy who enslave planets” instead of punching a true american hero like the mine owner?

    But politics have a way to show up anyway, no matter what they do to suppress them: not having access any more to the infantilized super-heroes, they did show up in the super-villains themselves. They can still punch mine owners!

    In having his “costumed crime-fighters” fights against common criminals and not against guys in brightly coloured underpants, Watchmen was more faithful to the historical first superheroes that it did talk about (in the backstory) than having them fight a anachronistic Doctor Doom in the ’30s.

    Doctor Doom, like all the other great villains, is post-comic code product. He is one of the guys that have to do what heroes can’t do any more.


  8. To quote an earlier comment, “I see where you’re going with this,” and to a large extent I agree with what you’re saying.

    Nevertheless, if we accept that “an ordinary guy in a costume who fights crime” qualifies as a “hero,” then conversely I think we have to accept that “an ordinary guy in a costume who commits crimes” qualifies as a “villain.” It’s true that the historical Watchmen setting doesn’t feature any “superpowered” villains like Dr. Doom, Magneto, or Namor, but there are textual references to characters who’d qualify as villains. Off the top of my head I can think of Captain Carnage, the Screaming Skull, the Big Figure, Jimmy the Gimmick, the King of Skin, the Twilight Lady, and Moloch, but there may be others. (Of course, I’m only assuming based on their names that all of these folx qualify as “villains” — some may be more like real-world gang bosses. But there’s plenty of precedent for costumed heroes fighting such adversaries.)

    But your central argument remains mostly intact, I think, because *we never see the heroes fighting these villains.* At best we get an offhand reference to their past encounters, or an understanding of which ones were important underworld figures and which weren’t. While I don’t agree that you *have* to have costumed villains to make a costumed crimefighter (and his stories) enjoyable, I think the lack of them makes an attempt to deconstruct the Superhero genre fall flat to some degree.

    Maybe TOP TEN has the opposite problem — when everyone has powers, the “specialness” of the main characters vanishes and deconstruction again becomes more difficult, or pointless. But I’d want to go back and re-read that series and think about that premise some more before pondering further.

    And I think I’ll refrain from commenting on the potential deconstructionist successes or failings of V FOR VENDETTA. Discussing politics online never leads to anything good. 😉


  9. I think I’m in both agreement and disagreement.

    My own genre-analysis took says that in order to have heroics, you need at least two of the following three things —

    — enough moral absolutism to have clear good guys and bad guys

    — the possibility of genuine triumph, using the tools the heroes have

    — causes that are worth great sacrifice, possibly including the sacrifice of lives (one’s own or others)

    …all of which are things that arguably do exist in the real world.

    “Destruction Testing” is a way of figuring out what something is made of that doesn’t leave you with that thing afterward. I think Watchmen does deconstruct super heroism, removing select justifications and motivations until the notion does collapse — but witnessing it collapse over the course of the books is educational.

    Part of this collapse seems to be chronological — it’s strongly implied that the three supports for heroism were more true in the past of Watchmen.

    But a good part of it is also a growing realization. In the past, most people and lots of heroes believed those things. Looking back, there was fetishism in the masks, bullying in the superpowers, that wasn’t seen that way then. But it was always in the mix. Even if it’s more dominant now, it’s not *new,* just the readers and the characters perceptions of it.


    • Thanks for posting! (disclosure – this exchange began at G+)

      In order to do destruction testing, one needs a performance variable that the creature or thing actually does, and to measure it. I described what I think the Watchmen does (as a story; I don’t use “Moore this” or “Moore that”) – simply negates the working mechanism via the removal of a key part. One doesn’t test a machine to destruction by taking out its main piece. You don’t have the machine any more to test.

      Despite the above, I agree with most of your post – one thing I agree with but see a little differently is that the older (1940s-50s) characters were arguably worse than the younger ones in their various failings and assholeries.


  10. Gordon Landis

    Ooh, something I’ve read …

    I think I’m with the “not deconstruction” premise, but I don’t quite get why that matters – I never read it as “deconstruction” so much as flat-out rejection. Also, while I’m unqualified to provide a judgement, friends (OLDER friends, it may be important to say) have told me that the only way to understand how Watchmen comments on (NOT “deconstructs”) comics is to consider the “history and back-story” as Golden Age and the contemporary events as Silver Age. And, obviously (sheesh), if you’re not steeped in both, you won’t fully get it. Which, come to think of it, may be one of the reasons I didn’t read many comics – the number of things I was “supposed” to read/know/catch-up on in order to get it exceeded my tolerance. I was actually impressed that Watchmen remained intelligible to a comics-outsider (though SF/Fantasy/etc. culture insider) like me.

    But that’s a side-point – I guess “why lack of deconstruction matters” (if Moore & cohorts were, at least in Watchmen, more rejectionists than deconstructionists) and Golden/Silver Age commentary(/rejection) are the possibly relevant conundrums.


  11. Thanks to everyone for the comments so far! I’ll be following up with some individual replies later. There’s also the G+ thread which is pretty interesting, including James’ post (which got eaten when he tried it here) and a good exchange with Zak, which I’ll probably address a bit more here too.


  12. A couple of comments from “the original author” about the meaning of Watchmen (both clips ends with Moore reading from Rorschach’s diary, the comments are before)



    Both confirms that he wasn’t interested in “deconstructing” superhero comics.

    Ron is not the only one to have heard a lot of times someone call Watchmen a deconstruction of superheroes. I have read that kind of comment a lot of times, too. But, as far as I can recall, it’s the usual type of comments you find on magazines or fanzines devoted to the idea that comics can’t be about anything real.
    As someone wrote in a comment above, the only lesson the industry took from watchmen was “people like grim and gritty comics”. Do we trust these people to tell us what Watchmen is about?

    The most bone-headed comments I have ever heard about watchmen were from two comic book writers. They criticized the “realism” of the ending for example. I didn’t believe they ever though that that book was about anything apart “grim and gritty super-heroes” (one of them to this day says that the best one among Moore’s comics was The Killing Joke)

    It doesn’t help that one essay about “Watchmen” is called “Watchmen: Deconstructing the hero””. I have never read it so I don’t know if it make a compelling argument, but this is what wikipedia has to say about it:
    “Citing Watchmen as the point where the comic book medium “came of age”, Iain Thomson wrote in his essay “Deconstructing the Hero” that the story accomplished this by “developing its heroes precisely in order to deconstruct the very idea of the hero and so encouraging us to reflect upon its significance from the many different angles of the shards left lying on the ground”.[48] Thomson stated that the heroes in Watchmen almost all share a nihilistic outlook, and that Moore presents this outlook “as the simple, unvarnished truth” to “deconstruct the would-be hero’s ultimate motivation, namely, to provide a secular salvation and so attain a mortal immortality”.[49] He wrote that the story “develops its heroes precisely in order to ask us if we would not in fact be better off without heroes”.[50] Thomson added that the story’s deconstruction of the hero concept “suggests that perhaps the time for heroes has passed”, which he feels distinguishes “this postmodern work” from the deconstructions of the hero in the existentialism movement.[51] Richard Reynolds states that without any supervillains in the story, the superheroes of Watchmen are forced to confront “more intangible social and moral concerns”, adding that this removes the superhero concept from the normal narrative expectations of the genre.[52] Reynolds concludes that the series’ ironic self awareness of the genre “all mark out Watchmen either as the last key superhero text, or the first in a new maturity of the genre”.[53]”
    If you are interested in reading the original essay, maybe is this one

    Click to access ThomsonHeroes.pdf

    (“maybe” because, as I said, I have not read it. there is literally too much written about Watchmen, after a while I gave up trying to read it all)

    The title and the short summary in the wikipedia page, interestingly, say “Deconstructing the HERO”, not the superhero. In that sense, yes, Watchmen is about heroes and our need for them (to our detriment). I should read the essay to say if agree or not, but it makes more sense than using “super-hero”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • First, thanks for those links! Looking forward to perusing them further. And for your thoughts, which are intriguing.

      A lot of the points you’ve raised touch on an issue of post-modern literary criticism: what is the place/importance of authorial intent? In this context, does it matter if Moore didn’t “intend” or “want” to deconstruct superhero comics, if in fact it’s possible to read WATCHMEN as a deconstruction of the genre?

      I don’t think I’m necessarily qualified to answer that question in full, and in any event it would probably require more time than I have. 😉 Personally, I think what Moore says about his own work cannot be discounted — unlike at least some post-modern critics, I consider authorial intent both discernible and important. But I also don’t think it’s necessarily the end of the discussion.

      As has often been observed, a writer’s work often says as much or more about the writer himself as about the subject of his work. I believe there’s an argument to be made here that whether he intended to do so, Moore was deconstructing the Superhero genre in WATCHMEN. If nothing else, the number of observers and commentators who have taken it that way — many of whom are pretty insightful analysts of the medium — suggests to me that the idea can’t easily be dismissed.

      Ron, perhaps you have the subject of your next book a-brewing here. 😉


  13. epweissengruber

    Would the “No more heroes” qualify The Watchmen as “punk”? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pg2np37JNEg


  14. Gordon Landis

    Hey, reading all this solidified something I maybe thought about Watchmen before, but only in a fuzzy way. It’s this – Watchmen *requires* a generous reading, of one sort or another. Or alternatively, it will always be a bit lacking in the close textual reading Ron seems to be pursuing here – maybe because Moore & co. wanted it that way, or at least because what they created only works if the reader brings something in particular (comics-history, political-awareness, something) to it. Gack – did I just propose Reader-Response analysis vs. New Criticism? I want to say “never mind”, and delete it all, but find myself hitting “post” instead …


  15. Having read this post helped me realize what was missing from the new Ms Marvel: throughout the entire first arc, she has no compelling villain to be her foil. While all superheroes struggle with self doubt, they tend to do so while fighting some really interesting bad guys. That is why Ms Marvel does not feel like a Superhero comic; it’s not one. It’s a slice-of-life coming of age story in which the main character happens to have superpowers.


    • I just mainlined the whole run to date of Strong Female Protagonist, and good as the main character is, it’s the villains – using the term loosely – that make her story pop..Her relationships to them are the drama in the best sense of the word.


  16. For me, superheroes without opponents at a similar level of power often come across as mere bullies. I guess in Watchmen that’s deliberate.

    Liked by 1 person

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