Whom were they watching?
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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