A hero shall appear

We do, in fact, need a hero

We do, in fact, need a hero

This is the second Watchmen post, out of an intended three. The first one was Whom were they watching? This one is about protagonists – good guys – heroes – that perennially undefined but unavoidable feature of stories. For the record, I don’t want to distinguish among “anti” and “dark” and whatever-heroes; just put anything that works that way at all into a big box and I’m talking about it.

This post is going to be equally careful to avoid speaking toward the author’s intent or processes. That’s one element of Deconstruction theory that I usually support, what they call “the death of the author,” to avoid getting wrapped up in what he or she intended or did in order to create the content. I don’t think author-focus is necessarily a terrible thing but it happens to be a branch or topic of analysis that simply bores me, and inevitably distracts from the things that don’t.

OK, what I see is is that the twelve-issue series – the only text I’ll be talking about here – undergoes a truly neck-breaking shift in heroic focus just after halfway through. The first part sets up to protagonize the Comedian. That’s really not all that shocking. It’s very mid-twentieth century lit, in fact, to make a loose-cannon, plain-speaking bastard into the hero as experienced by the reader. The Comedian is a rapist, he’s a Vietnam-atrocity-guy, he shot John F. Kennedy, he smokes, he’s rude, and whatever else you want to name. He’s a black-ops CIA/CREEP goon, the very worst thing imaginable from a certain political perspective which to a great extent I think I share with Moore. But the core point of such a story is that unlike everyone else, including those he works for, he’s not deluded or trivial, and so by comparison, and also in the light of Oh My God We Are So Alienated (the natural habitat of said 20th-century lit), he’s heroic. When everyone is blind and stupid and neurotic, the one guy who can speak the ugly truth – because he wades in the ugliness more than anyone – is the hero, or whatever word you care to use.

You’ve read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, right? Didn’t understand it in high school? That’s what I’m talking about. The main character is a prick and he did commit first-degree murder; he’s also the only one who can see how morality relates to life as it is experienced. This sort of thing can be done well, but I’m more interested in its prevalence rather than assessing good or bad. So you know, speaking as a reader, I think it hits a high point in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a genuinely discussable point in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and a low, even vile point in J. P. Donleavey’s The Ginger Man.

In this first half, the other nominal heroes are flatly no such thing, both in the back-story and in the present. I won’t describe them one by one, but they range from completely deluded and ineffectual, to stifled and inactive, to outright psychotics committing genuine crimes. (Please remember, I’m not referencing the movie or later comics, not even the tiniest bit.)

Awesome, right? Well, yes and no. I’ve been there and done that 1000 times in literature and film already, and I’m speaking here as my 21-year-old self back then. This was my first encounter with fellow comics readers who were blown away by some concept which I thought was done and revised and subverted and resurrected and done again already. I was completely bonkers about Watchmen, poring over every panel and debating over every nuance of the accompanying text pieces with each new issue along with everyone else, but the alleged genius of the story wasn’t my draw, merely its competence.

Then it hits the second half, in which one of the pervert/trivial fake-heroes takes over as protagonist instead, specifically through becoming an actual classical superhero who opposes a clear and dangerous threat through moral determination alone. I’m talking, of course, about Rorschach. He begins as a right-wing, self-righteous, nutbar bully, and then, after he’s busted out of prison, he becomes very different – written differently, revealed differently, and basically a different character.

And this new Rorschach is a good guy, period. Lethal force? Sure, that’s a feature of many good-guys-period throughout the ages and shouldn’t concern the issue here a bit. But his lethal or otherwise vicious use of force is now applied completely differently.

The process of the transition isn’t that sharply demarcated – Rorschach’s running monologue and dialogue is great stuff from the beginning of the series, and at some point he acquires a sense of humor, but in #6, it hits levels of poetry and power which make the Comedian’s “pieces” so far look like the modern-novel boilerplate they are.

OK, stop – skip the material between the two following lines if you are inclined reflexively to defend this title and/or Moore at any provocation. It’s about what I don’t like about the therapy issue and doesn’t have to factor into my main argument.


So issue #6 is the key, right? Yes and no. In general, yes, it is a beautifully scripted and illustrated comics work all on its own. Its specific content, however, includes several absolute headdeskers for me.

  • The “abyss gazes also” thing, which was pretty small potatoes for a kid who’d read A Genealogy of Morals side-by-side with both The Book of Matthew and A Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals, and who had more use for Nietzsche than one-off quotes. I swear, cherry-picking from that guy is Mao’s Little Red Book for more shit-for-brains intellectuals out there than seems possible.
  • The paint-by-numbers Freudian “primal scene” foundation for Kovacs’ trauma, perhaps spiced with Lacan, which a reader of The Interpretation of Dreams and the Essays on Sexuality knew well were incredibly simplistic compared to what Freud thought went on in people’s minds. (Say what you want about Freud, but read him to do so, don’t go by “Freudianism” or any summary at all.)
  • The blatant Mad Max ripoff – speaking here of the original film which most Americans had not seen or in many cases, ever heard of, but I had. Within a year or two, I’d figure out what shameless plagiarists the comics Brit invaders were, to the point of contempt for the reader; this was my first head-cocked squint at it.

I was genuinely too well-educated for it, such that I realized at that moment that Moore didn’t have to be smart as he could possibly strive to be to write this, he only had to be smarter than his concept of a typical late-teen American comics reader. I decided, and I have not seen a reason to change my mind, that he was either a sophomoric writer himself, or he was slumming. (I speak here as an admirer of V for Vendetta, From Hell, and several other works by him, but not the whole ouevre.)

Its only redeeming feature to me at the time, was that the therapist does not become a lunatic serial killer or something, but apparently gains a bit of a spine and at the story’s conclusion, seeks to help others all the more. (Why he doesn’t ditch his incredibly one-dimensional and entirely objectionable wife is another question.)

It was not until thinking about it again that I decided why I like the therapy issue after all, only in the context of the entire work: given the 90-degree swerve in characterization which follows, a retroactive and sympathetic reading of that issue permits me to interpret (or invent) that the therapy actually works: that even as Rorschach recounts his transformation from Kovacs, disdaining the former, Kovacs gets a good look at Rorschach and might not like what he sees. In this reading, Strangely, Rorschach’s lengthy justification of his alienation during the therapy sessions have the opposite effect – it changes his behavior rather than cements it further. This contradicts much of the verbiage about cosmic nihilism, the geek-coolness of becoming an utter bad-ass, and the right-wing vigilantism hard-on (literally) in the issue, so I either have to write off that stuff as Rorschach’s pathology, which he’s identifying in order to slough it off, or simply to accept the issue as a bit of a mess.


The whole story focus changes drastically: (i) the sympathy for the Comedian vanishes, and (ii) so does the right-wing derangement. Also, from this point forward, the Comedian’s role in the story via flashback also shifts in tone, to focus on his relationship with Sally, which is far more positive than it first appeared, and on his hidden affection for his daughter, both of which work against the direction of the first half.

Rorschach’s key scene is confronting his former landlady. To review, this is after the prison break, when he, Dan, and Laurie have figured out that Adrian is behind the various machinations and that they should oppose him. I don’t mind saying that if this were the same Rorschach as in the first half of the story, he’d do something awful to this woman without a moment’s hesitation, probably accompanied by a grim pun, and given what was depicted in issue #6, probably with an extra helping due to identifying her with his own mother. But then he locks gazes with the child she’s holding.

Watchmen 10 - 05Watchmen 10 - 06Here’s the difference. This time, he isn’t living inside his head, matching everything he sees to the imprinted traumas and tropes there; he’s looking at real people who have lives of their own, which he is close to destroying. She is not his mother, who would never have held him protectively against any danger. The danger this child faces is not abuse from her, but an over-abundance of knowledge from him, the same knowledge that traumatized him.

(My apologies for the following obvious bits, but, you know, visual medium, words-and-pictures …)

  • The panel at the bottom right of page 5 mirrors the half-page splash panel in issue #1, when he’s entering Eddie Blake’s apartment. This time it’s his own apartment. Instead of investigating a case in which he discovers the apartment owner is a masked [you name it], he’s recovering his own mask – and about to investigate himself.
  • The panel at the bottom left of page 6 mirrors the therapy account in issue #6, as he stands watching the factory burn with the child molester-murderer in it, with the spatter of blood across his front in both cases. This time, instead of becoming Rorschach, he fully recovers Walter Kovacs, meaning, not the sniveling bonkers sex-phobic man with his sign, but the man remembering himself as a child, setting limits on his own righteousness and on how he chooses to respond to hurts. (Gibbons’ depiction of his expression is the high-water mark for the series’ art, in my reading.)

If I’m remembering correctly, after this they learn of Hollis’ death, and Rorschach stops Dan from beating and probably killing the topknot guy who tells him about it. Nor does he bully or harm anyone else, which before this point were almost reflexive, character-identifying acts for him.

To speak from a writer/creator standpoint for a moment, I have no idea whether the larger transition was a matter of initial literary artifice or of a shift in what the artist (Moore) was actually capable of doing with the material he had created. It wouldn’t be the first time a character “refused” to cooperate with his or her original conception, but I don’t know if that happened. Whether you think it’s internally justified via him benefiting from his therapy after all, or being moved by Daniel’s prison rescue attempt, is up to you. What you think Rorschach wearing the Comedian’s button since all the way back in the first issue and not having it in the second half indicates, that’s up to you too. To stay textual only, the story changes from A to B technically only partly successfully – but frankly, I’m glad it does because B is a better story. I think that if the story had continued with a more trivial Rorschach and a focus on the Comedian’s “I’m a bad man but I’ve seen the truth” breakdown, then basically, it would have been an annoying and probably unsuccessful story, based only on the putative ambiguity of Ozymandias’ plan and on the edginess of accepting the Comedian as the hero (well, edgy if one does not read books). However, through whatever process, I dunno, the Comedian is softened into a semi-sympathetic failure, and Ozymandias becomes a real villain in the sense of a real and present threat, with only the tiniest ambiguity about a Greater Good if any.

Not a whole lotta existentialism here.

Not a whole lotta existentialism here.

Ooh, did I say a real villain? (Just say yes for now. Ozymandias’ plan and whether it was “really” villainy is a topic for the upcoming post, as is Doctor Manhattan’s role. Please don’t get distracted by that here.) We all know what that means. It means confronting him is an act of heroism, and as it happens, a hero who is actually and really a hero, who has reconciled his childhood with his manhood, who accepts his own weaknesses and failings, who has given thought to what is right and wrong, who sacrifices himself to oppose the villain, and although in doing this he grieves at the futility of his effort, he is heavily implied at the end to thwart the villain after all. That’s not an existential or dark or Modern or deconstructive or villain-protagonist story at all – it’s a classic heroic Marvel story. Adam Warlock nods approvingly.

So I like and enjoy Watchmen the most because I like the completely standard-superhero story that it became rather than the overly-familiar edgy-lit story it began as.

Next: Today I am a man

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on July 5, 2015, in Heroics, Storytalk and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I don’t want to risk getting drawn into a long discussion here (Rorschach being a favorite character of mine, and one of the main inspirations responsible for me career as a writer/RPG designer). After all, it’s a relaxing holiday Sunday. 😉 But for me the “turning point” was the panel containing this quote: “We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we are compelled.”

    To me that sentiment perfectly summed up Rorschach (and in some ways the other characters) and the series. And it marked the point at which he became more than a cardboard cutout character, and the point where the psychiatrist began to see from Rorschach’s point of view rather than his own (and thus where we should as well).

    Beyond that, I interpret Rorschach’s “changes” (if any) beyond that point a little differently from you, and I think perhaps you’re being a bit hard on Moore (I see V For Vendetta as more of a low point for him, personally). But I think those are broad enough topics best saved for conversation at GenCon or by phone. 😉

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    • The question is whether the “it” Rorschach refers to is the same thing in the different phases of his masked life, especially the last two (as he is upon his first appearance in the story, and as he is following the prison sequence). And whether you think he was compelled not to wreak some vengeance upon the landlady, or at the very least, (not) to continue to clarify her sexual economics to her children. Or compelled not to let Daniel beat the shit out of, and possibly kill the guy in the bar. If those are compulsions, then I can’t see how they’re the same as those he expresses in his journal in the first half of the series, in which all whores, all punks, all anything-he-doesn’t-like, are going to be punished, and he’s going to like it.

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  2. Gordon Landis

    I remember wrestling with “who’s the hero?” (in both the “who meaningful to the story do I like even a little bit?” sense and the protagonist/central character sense) in Watchmen quite a bit. In addition to the above, I considered the mariner in the Black Freighter tales. I considered the reader of the Black Freighter comic (kinda liked that one). In the end, while I liked that Watchmen made me consider those normally-absurd possibilities, I decided it didn’t manage to deliver a clear protagonist along any pathway I could find – a shame, and it does weaken the work, but as to how severely I remain uncertain.

    I maybe-sorta saw the Rorschach transition, but this, um, bright light on the subject might be enough to trigger a re-read. While there’s the whole possibly-ultimate victory-via-journal thing, I’ve never been able to decide if that’s real or ends up merely as a highlight to futility. I mean, yay! ambiguity! and all, but at some point unsatisfying is just … unsatisfying.

    Kinda an aside, but I remember the consensus (drawing even on things Moore said about HIS intent) being that the Black Freighter tale was a parallel to Veidt. As a parallel to Rorschach … there’s therapy on that Freighter (or somewhere it’s heading), and more story to tell. Hmm.

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  3. i Ron!

    Second post about Watchmen, second one that I don’t agree with….

    1) I am not sure we can ignore and remove the author from a book. What I am sure is that we can’t remove the technical and economical aspect of its production. Or we risk mistaking economic and technical reasons for creative ones.

    Watchmen is not a graphic novel. It was not written to be a graphic novel (i.e. “a book”). Moore was sure to get the rights to Watchmen back after one-two years because books that reprinted comics books were rare and they never did stay in print. The “book” was a short-lived novelty, any following reprint would have been in comic book format, as was normal in comic books publishing up until then

    Watchmen is a mini-series of 12 comic books. And it should be read that way. The comic book graphic design, with the clock on the back cover, the text articles that takes the places of the letter and editorial pages… While I understand that these days it would be unpratical to ask people to search for 12 back issues from thirty years ago instead of simply buying a book, I always recommend to try to read it in the way it was designed: one chapter at a time, and waiting at least a day (possibly more) between chapters.

    2) As a comic book series, Watchmen was a serial work: when you write a novel you usually can revise the first chapters after finishing it. Even if you publish it on a magazine (or in a newspaper as in decades past), you can revise it before the book publication. With a comic book usually you can’t or you won’t.

    Moore had the idea of the pirate comic-inside-the-comic after issue three was already drawn and going to press. No chance for revisions.

    Does this mean that we can justify some incoherence? Yes, but this is only an aside, my point has more to do with the technical points of comic book writing, that shows that the ones you list are not incoherences. There is not a change of protagonists. What there is, is a structure of 32-pages books with alternate past/present focus.

    3) As a comic book series, the “chapter” of Watchmen are of a fixed length. There is no such things like “ah, he devoted that amount of pages to that character, so he’s important”. EACH character gets THE SAME amount of pages in even-numbered issues. But someone had to go first, obviously. In a book this would be “present the protagonist”, in Watchmen this is “issue 2”.

    4) From the beginning, the odd-number books are about the present-day (at the time) mystery, and the even-number books are about a character
    Book 2: The Comedian
    Book 4: Doctor Manhattan
    Book 6: Rorschach
    (in the second half of the series the issues are swapped, #7 is about the two night owls, #9 about silk spectre and 11 about Ozymandas)

    So, it’s not that Moore set up the Comedian as “the protagonist” or even “the hero”: he is simply “the first one in the list”. And when he dedicated the entire iissue #6 to Rorscharch, it’s not that he is now the protagonist: it’s simply his turn.

    5) When does Kovacs change? You are right that the scene with the landlady and her son shows more humanity, but (A) he is “without his face”, he is Kovacs, he is not wearing Rorscharh’s face, and (B) there is not a similar scene to compare. We simply don’t know if he would have acted differently before. You presume that he would, but the data doesn’t add up. For example, if Rorscharch would have killed her… WHY SHE IS STILL ALIVE, at the start of the series? She is everything she was before. She said false things to the reporters about him, yes, and this fuel his rage. But that is not Rorcharch. Kovacs is enraged with her, Kovacs calms down after seeing hr child with her. This show a side of Kovacs, NOT that Kovacs is changed.

    But Kovacs did change. In Issue 2.

    Everything is said at the end about the comedian, that you say is to prep The Comedian as a protagonist…. it’s said by Kovacs. It doesn’t tell us about the Comedian. It’s telling us about what Kovacs is thinking. The Death of the Comedian is what shock him. You can see it in the scene with Moloch: Moloch is dying. And Rorschach leave him the medicine. The ILLEGAL medicine. Empathy. With a “supercriminal” that he suspect tied to the murder of the Comedian?

    Empathy with a dead man (Comedian). With a dying man (Moloch). And what does the sign that Kovacs carry around during the day? What is Kovacs thinking about?

    It seems to me that you are ignoring all these pieces, and the structure of the limited series, mistaking your personal realization of his depth (as shown in issue 6) with incoherence.

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  4. Bloody hell, you just told me something new about Watchmen.

    My impression on the whole “protagonist” and progression of different characters thing was that the various character’s focuses work as a kind of argument, weakened by Nite Owl’s contribution being less impressive than that of the others; absurdity/fatalism/arbitrary moral stand/mythology. It’s quite annoying that Laurie doesn’t really contribute anything philosophically, given that every other (male) character does. One of the flaws of the book to me. It sort of helps in that it helps distinguish the set up from Ozymandias’ self-perfection perspective, make it less of a conclusion to a sequence, but still, a weakness.

    Anyway, that aside, I think you’re right that there is a significant change in Rorschach after the prison episode, maybe yes because of the therapy, and also because for the first time in years everyone is cooperating with him on the “Mask Killers” thing, which is technically something that he has overlayed onto reality, a self-fulfilling prophesy etc.

    But I think it’s quite plausible that the therapy thing humanised him as a character. Out of character because Moore had written extra depth into him, given him extra backstory and complexity that from that point on gave him a broader pallet to work with than just right wing craziness, and in character, this idea can be represented by having him rehumanise himself in the context of his own history, which does actually put a cool flip on the basic Nietzsche quote.

    So yeah, good point.

    Both of these ideas feed nicely into that idea of what makes a credible superhero; they aren’t about being more powerful than normal people, they are about being able to face things we don’t think we can. They are in other words sufficiently powerful to operate on the level of ominous threatening things. IE you could say that the second half of the comic leads to the characters slowly turning back into superheroes, with a subversion at the end:

    See Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s decision to save some random people->break Rorschach out of prison->go after Veidt.

    At every stage they are not quite facing the problems of Nuclear War that surround them, but they are slowly increasing in their ambition, and their success. They are only finally defeated when they embrace Veidt’s plan to directly stop the war, stepping up the level where their problems actually lie.

    In other words, that scene only has impact because they have stepped up over the last few issues to start actually behaving like superheroes, going after a villain, if they were still just bullying vigilantes, it wouldn’t have the same impact.

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  5. I saw Mad Max so many years ago, so my memory of it is hazy. I do remember that I didn’t particularly care for it, so I don’t want watch it again. However, I am curious: How does Watchmen plagiarize it? Is it the near-apocalyptic setting, the hero driven mad with rage, or something else?

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    • For reference, I’m talking about the original, first, entirely Australian movie, not The Road Warrior, which was the first film most people in the U.S. saw.

      In the film’s final scene, Max chains or handcuffs a man to a car which is about to blow up and gives him a hacksaw, Which is to say, he can either cut off his own hand (quickly) to escape, or be killed by the explosion. Then Max walks away and the car explodes, without the guy getting away. This isn’t a throwaway scene with a nameless goon, it’s a climactic moment regarding a very specific person.

      This is almost exactly how Rorschach kills the child-molester/murderer in his description of his past during one of his therapy sessions in Watchmen #6. It’s his personally-defining, “true Rorschach” experience.

      I don’t mean general similarity of concept or characters. I mean the specific depiction of an important event in one story transported directly into another.

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      • For an English/European reader (and so, probably for Alan Moore), the first “Mad Max movie was not “obscure” a reference at all. It was distributed and seen, and had a pretty good success for a small budget movie. It was certainly known in comic book circles.

        Watchmen doesn’t reference only “superheroes”. Rorshach is a direct reference to a kind of “vigilante hero” that goes back to The Question (the original template) including the Punisher, Charles Bronson’s movies and obviously Mad Max I.

        Every Watchmen character is a walking mass of references to archetypes. I don’t see referencing Mad Max “origin” as more “plagiarism” than referencing The Batcave with Night Owl.

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        • If you’re not kidding, then you’re using a definition of plagiarism which reduces it to pure copyright violation and nothing else. That scene is a plain rip-off.

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