A Further Look at Watchmen
In the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, a more realistic depiction of the superhero figure is achieved by allowing genres to be imbedded separately within the thoroughly developed identities of Rorschach, the Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan. Rather than being bound by the stale clichés of an existing “mythic character”, as its predecessors have been, Watchmen strives to implement a multitude of literature categories into unique characters, granting it a more robust, less limited representation of reality. While broadening the focus runs the risk of diluting said categories, this graphic novel proves to sacrifice nothing through its employment of rotating viewpoints.
Because Watchmen is an original piece, free from the demands or confines of previous literature or characters, it instantly gains strength in the sense that it can derive its own genre interpretation and sense of realism. Authors often feel a responsibility to uphold the trends followed by those who previously represented figures such as Batman or Superman in their own “original” versions of these heroes. However, like The Dark Knight by Frank Miller, Watchmen, by selectively drawing inspiration from previous graphic novels, is able to “converge weak readings into its own strong vision” (Klock 118). This comic does the same with each genre it seeks to employ. While Batman’s detective persona is certainly fascinating, it occasionally becomes overshadowed by the broad requirements of the already existing Batman series. Moore and Gibbons, by giving the detective genre its own name in Rorschach’s character, grant themselves the opportunity to elaborate upon the detective narrative to the fullest extent they see fit; they successfully avoid mottling the detective narrative with the novel’s other undertakings. Because most versions of the Batman series are unable to focus on Batman purely as a detective, much of the realism of sleuthing is forfeited. For instance, in The Return of Doctor Death, when looking for a hidden safe filled with diamonds, Batman is able to discover what he is looking for almost instantly, a task that, in reality, would have taken a much more detailed investigation (Kane 35). This can be contrasted to an investigation of Rorschach’s, where he is shown observing the scene of The Comedian’s death for multiple pages (Moore 13-16). Instead of getting a small, cliché taste of the detective narrative, we get to see it carried out in its realistic entirety.
Another example of realism in Watchmen comes from the shocking and rather bold nature of The Comedian’s character. Occasionally displaying similarities to the Captain America of an earlier time period, The Comedian proves himself to be a unique, realistic character that does not conform to the degree of representativeness essential to Captain America’s character. Because many portrayals of Captain America came about during the silver age of comics, his embodiment of the American dream is routinely overly optimistic, and is simply not applicable to the dark times of war and poverty in American history. Edward Blake opposes this idealistic depiction of the American dream when, while overlooking New York in the midst of a riot, he is asked “what happened to the American dream?” and he coldly responds “It came true. You’re lookin’ at it” (Moore 60). Though it would be pleasant to imagine America as the epitome of patriotism, this is not always the case, and The Comedian has no interest in hiding this gritty reality. Because he refuses to put on a face of hope and nationalism for society, he achieves a higher level of reality seldom seen in superhero figures.
Perhaps one property of science fiction comics that takes away from their movement towards reality is the sense of devotion that higher beings such as Superman are shown to feel towards ordinary humans. It is not frequent that the superior being questions why he or she should be concerned by the affairs of such a limited race. Rather, the superhuman is found to be maybe even too interested in the affairs of mankind. This claim draws inspiration from the graphic novel Must There Be a Superman?, in which Superman is informed that his excessive “presence on Earth directly contributes to the cultural lag [of humanity]” (Maggin 75). Though he descends from an advanced planet lightyears away, Superman somehow exists solely to protect the human race, and willingly impacts it in a way that prevents it from advancing on its own. This is not Kal-El’s fault, however, as he belongs to a breed of “mythic characters” who are bound by their extensive pasts. Try as he might to focus on his own aspirations outside the realm of humanity, “the mythic character embodies a law, or a universal demand, and, therefore, must be in part predictable and cannot hold surprises for us” (Eco 15). Generations of previous representations have sculpted Superman into a hero denoted by conformity; he is so imbedded in the life of ordinary man that he himself even experiences the mundane labors of humanity, as Clark Kent. On the other hand, Watchmen’s interpretation of a completely superior being, Dr. Manhattan, acts as one would expect an individual of such high aptitude would behave. While more unrealistic graphic novels allow humanity’s fascination with science fiction to be translated into a readily available connection between our world and the realm of the fantastic, Watchmen captures reality with Dr. Manhattan’s progressive indifference toward human affairs. Once Laurie, his “only link…only concern with the world” (Moore 288) is no longer part of his life, Dr. Manhattan literally alienates himself and teleports to Mars. Despite the fact that the world he once resided in is on the brink of nuclear war, his transition to a superior entity essentially eliminates his ties to those on Earth. Here, science fiction is able to exist and grow in its own realm, free from the expectations of a sense of entitlement from humanity, such as is imposed upon Superman and other figures.
In short, Watchmen emerges as one of the more proficient examples of realism within the realm of graphic novels by separating genres from their most prominent existing figures, and giving life and individual meaning to each of these divided aspects. Since this piece is also the first of its title, depending on no preexisting characters or events, it need not rely on or be hindered by the presence of a “mythic hero”, who carries along with him much baggage and expectations from past depictions. Drawing strength from multiple, well developed genres, Watchmen effectively “revive[s] old categor[ies]” and “abandons the territory of myth” (Eco 16), allowing the novel to define itself and leave nothing behind, contributing to its rounded and realistic feeling.
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