This is the third and final post for my Watchmen musings, the previous two being Whom were they watching? and A hero shall appear. Judging by the responses to those, it won’t be winning me any friends, and I know why. This is a most sanctified bovine. Watchmen is the talisman, the go-to, for more than one generation of superhero fans to legitimize themselves – to say “this stuff is mature,” “this stuff is literature,” “this stuff is not just for kids.” Yeah? Well, I can say something about that too. I’ll be hung for the goat, thanks.
But first the topic: Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan, at face value, the biggest gears in the story. Whatever you think Watchmen says about or does to superheroes, how it compares to other superhero comics at any historical scale, and what it means as a commentary on the genre, these two are where the fuel for your point must be. [as with all these posts, I’m discussing the 12-issue original series only]
Ozymandias. I’ll open with goggling fanboy acknowledgment: when it comes to style, Ozymandias rocks the house, ten stars, no question.
- Public identity + corporate monster + celebrity
- That awful, wonderful smirk accompanying every humble statement
- Catches a fucking bullet, with the classic build-up dialogue, a challenge to the reader and other characters, which still surprises both when he does it
- “I did it thirty minutes ago,” which frankly should have shown up in comics some time in the 1960s, or in a Gerber Defenders story, or at the very least, in the X-Men of about 1980
Now for what he does. Beginning with, he decides he can save humanity from itself by giving it a good scare.
- He kills people to keep it secret, including one who may well deserve murder for his past crimes, but perhaps more relevant, whom he hates.
- He kills everyone who helped him with it afterwards, nominally for said secrecy, but even those who are apparently fanatically loyal to him.
- His “scare” annihilates much of New York including all the people the reader has come to know personally.
Think, please. This isn’t new territory. Ozymandias as a story presence doesn’t reinterpret or cast light on anything. He is a classic villain, a murderer and the wielder of a WMD, for all his superficial disdain for their tropes. This is a fine thing, but in the context that he’s only a pretty good one, not a truly great one, succeeding mainly on the above-mentioned style.
Don’t even give me that shit about the Greater Good and whoooah how ambiguous. He kills all the scientists and artists, that’s your moral event horizon, as discussed in Bootin’ the pooch. You want more? OK, right there on the page is the reminder that he is the pirate-comics guy (ass-pull as this device may be), meaning that his whole plan is perfectly conceived and immaculately driven but actually deluded and homicidal.
Laurie’s got it right: he’s an asshole. And that’s all he is. Which unfortunately means, as I implied above, that he’s not a truly great villain, because the best villains are grounded in something more. This is important ’cause I have to talk about the late 1970s, the early 80s, and this thing called the Bomb. As of Ronald Reagan’s first term in office, SALT II was dead. Haig was detonating Lebanon; Central America was in flames. Take it from me – my generation of American mid-teens lived in terror of nuclear annihilation to a degree not felt since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and with considerably more justification. If anything, Adrian Veidt’s conviction of inevitability fell short of that felt by those a hair older than me, who’d hit 18 in the heady 1978 days of massive Soviet-U.S. accords and cooperation.
I almost went into a big discussion of the geriatric Nixon in Watchmen and the geriatric Reagan in The Dark Knight Returns. Obviously a post of its own waiting to happen. All I’ll say here is that it’s relevant.
Given that, Ozymandias’ genuine political presence would merit serious elevation to the greatest status of the best ultra-villains in comics. He doesn’t quite make it. Why not? Because nothing else about him, specifically nothing he does, concerns real live stuff: he uses a non-real world thing to do a non-real-world event with non-real-world effects. He’s not combating the fucked-up political history of Nixon, the arms race, and Reagan’s idiotic administration at all. Science fiction has to have something in it that’s not fiction, and I don’t mean the “science,” to be good. Granted, my favorites like Doctor Doom and Magneto don’t quite make it in application either, so if I’m to call him out as “not the perfectest bestest,” I acknowledge that he’s in good company.
The point: he’s a supervillain, and a pretty good one, in ways we know well.
Doctor Manhattan. And now for the event horizon of comics, meaning, something which isn’t anything, a huge presence of nothing. “Nothing” in the sense that although there are panels which him illustrated in them, and that he is given dialogue, you could take ordinary scissors and snip the character completely out of the plot and nothing would change.
I sense bafflement and anger out there. Fine. Work it through, in two parts. First, the biggest one: that each piece of his presence in Ozymandias’ story and scheme cancels another piece out.
- Ozymandias is worried about Doctor Manhattan interfering
- He engineers his departure
- He (Doctor Manhattan) comes back – negates the above point
- Ozymandias convinces him his plan is a good thing – negates the first point
See? The whole thing is a closed loop. Ozymandias might as well have just started at the beginning, “Hey Doc, I wanna do this – here’s why. Sound OK? Yes? Cool!” Or more precisely, his supposition (first bullet point) is incorrect, so the entire plot about this – a substantial portion of the title’s page count – is merely seeing it be corrected. Might as well even have had Ozymandias think, “gee would Doc Manhattan care? I bet he’d be OK with this,” and be right.
The second part of my argument concerns his personal interactions, in that he influences no one and takes no important action in any way which relies on him being exactly who he is.
- Laurie’s discontent with her life and personal history – a scuzzy boyfriend named Lester or Thor would have done fine here, maybe bringing a buddy in for a threesome or something like that
- Revealing to Laurie that the Comedian is her father – anyone could have done this, or if she weren’t such a raving [insert preferred term], she could have figured it out herself, e.g. with a flashback to her recent conversation with her mother
- Killing Rorschach – replace with a sinister guy who always hovered at Ozymandias’ shoulder until this point, or hey – logic! – have the killer be Ozymandias himself, which is no more than what Rorschach predicted earlier anyway
No wonder he got naked. Without that big blue dick to look at, the absence of character would be impossible to ignore. As with Ozymandias, I fully concede that this, and all other details of his appearance and comportment, were excellent and brilliant. I am also fine with his fun narration of “this is happening/will happen/has happened/what?” stuff straight out of Slaughterhouse-Five.
Every effort to discuss the character’s alleged philosophical significance runs aground on the fact that, to discuss a character in a story, the character must actually be doing something in it, however minor. Doctor Manhattan does no such thing in any way specific to his personality, motivations, goals, and general agency. He has none of those. I am not talking about in-fiction free will/predestination, I’m talking about action and impact on anything else in the story which required that specific character and no other.
This is why any verbal space near him is full of sophomoric noise about free will/predestinaton, which is to say, the competition of equally physically impossible things in the first place. Discussing a narrative non-entity instantly become abstract to the point of 1:11 AM dorm room yap.
If you want to wax away about how significant that is in terms of extra-super-crazy powered characters or in the changing landscape of American idealism or God alone knows what else, go right ahead … somewhere else. I talk about characters and stories.
Hey bovine, BANG! Time to debunk the myth: no, Watchmen didn’t introduce the darkness, no, it didn’t change superhero comics, no, it wasn’t “more mature.” Marvel and intermittently, DC had been doing this for over two decades. You don’t get more dark, edgy, political, and reflective than:
- Nixon committing suicide by pistol in the Oval Office
- Galactus’ parting comment: And at last I perceive the glint of glory within the race of Man! Be ever worthy of that glory, humans … be ever mindful of your promise of greatness! … For it shall one day lift you beyond the stars .. or bury you within the ruins of war!! The choice is yours!!
- Thundra and Ben Grimm killing Mahkizmo
- Peter Parker walking past his convulsing, pleading best friend on his way to kill a supervillain
- The final moment of the original Doom Patrol
- Green Arrow facing down the “crypto-fascist” Green Lantern about racism
- Pip’s death, and therefore Adam Warlock’s final words
- Magneto being willing to kill Kitty Pryde, and then realizing what he’d become
- The Hellcat disfiguring her husband’s face – bear in mind their backstory was a happy-ending romance comic in the 60s
- The original Luke Cage, full stop
- Mar-Vell’s death by cancer
- And a lot more!
I contend the mid-late 80s comics were less of all these things, not more, with only a few exceptions, and most of those written by imports. Watchmen‘s genuine virtues do place it with these comics. And these are my favorite comics. Got me? Watchmen is up there with my favorite comics. But it’s not better than them, and it’s not special in comics’ meaning and history, with the possible exception of the blue penis. It only looks amazing because the 1980s superheroes comics were so consistently poor in these specific virtues.
Aside from that, it had good PR, specifically Roger Sabin and his whole “low art becoming high” patter, and the generational timing to get a bunch of people their Masters degrees. A good line of bullshit in the 1980s had some kind of metaphysical power akin to Doctor Manhattan’s perception of reality: it became past and future simultaneously. Hencebackward the older comics couldn’t be as meaty or more so than Watchmen; henceforward, the newer comics all owed their weight to it, or even better, could “be mature” even when they were as stupid and vicious as a Nazi or Bircher tract.
See what I mean? Maybe you don’t. Once more in hope: Watchmen is great because it recovered the virtues of 1960s-70s Marvel and some DC (as did Swamp Thing, to be discussed another time). I love it for doing that. I criticize it for not doing it enough and over-layering it with pomposity. I criticize the fanbase for refusing to entertain critical thinking about it. I am disgusted with the idea promulgated by others, not by Moore (none of these posts are about Moore), that other contemporary comics and those which followed represent some kind of “advance” in superhero comics, whereas I regard most of them as politically and narratively infantile.
Funny, we all wanted to see Smart Comics so bad, but they had been sitting in front of our noses for over twenty years.
Next: And I’m not the bad guy
Posted on August 6, 2015, in Politics dammit, Storytalk, The 80s me, The great ultravillains and tagged Alan Moore, big blue dick, Doctor Manhattan, Eddie Campbell, Ozymandias, Roger Sabin, Ronald Reagan, SALT, sophomoric pap, The Bomb, Watchmen. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.