The Reading Room
Who Will Watch the Watchmen?
Will democracy survive? Recent years have not always brought encouragement. In Lincoln’s memorable phrase the possibility of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was not a guarantee but a “proposition” yet to be determined. Lincoln acknowledged that such a political arrangement might yet “perish from the earth.
In considering the future of democracy the insight provided by graphic novels may be overlooked, especially the most notable of those novels, Watchmen (1986) by author Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins. Watchmen is the bestselling graphic novel of all time. The New York Times celebrated its publication by declaring that it marked “the day comics grew up.” Watchmen was immensely influential: it marked the the decline of the superhero and the emergence of the anti-hero who operates in a morally ambiguous universe. The latter are still crime fighters but are more personally conflicted than their predecessors.
Graphic novels (or comics if you prefer) are now mainstream and have an astounding readership. Approximately 18 million comics are sold monthly in the U.S., and it is assumed that more than one person reads each comic, so the total American readership may exceed 50 million. The genre is by no means limited to teenagers or the proverbial kid living in his parents’ basement. I recently heard a member of the National Security Council, in discussing civil liberties, begin, “what if someone broke into my house and stole my entire comic collection . . .” 53% of purchasers are between the age of 13-29 but that leaves almost half younger and older. Around 40 % of purchasers are women though that number is growing, especially as more women are joining the comic industry. A celebrated case in point is Persepolis I and Persepolis II by Marajane Satrapi, available in at least 13 languages.
Scores of universities offer courses featuring the genre in at least a half dozen disciplines including literature, political science, philosophy, and art. For some the terms comic and graphic novel are interchangeable; for others, the graphic novel is distinguished in that it is longer and self-contained, or the compilation of a comic series. In 2014, Amazon acquired the digital reading platform “comiXology” so that reading this material in a digital format works remarkably well. Some may even prefer it to the print versions.
Watchmen is not for kids. It is dense, strategically spiced with quotes from, and references to, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Albert Einstein, the Book of Genesis and Nietzsche. It often follows a complex narrative style. In the introduction to the 2019 edition, Gibbons reveals, “It all began with Bob Dylan.” He specifically cites Dylan’s “1966 masterpiece “Desolation Row,” pointing to an enigmatic quatrain from the song, which the novel uses as the closing lines of the first chapter of Watchmen. The lyrics are a strike against pretension:
At Midnight all the agentsAnd the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone who knows more than they do
Gibbons continues, “It was a glimpse, a mere fragment of something; something ominous, paranoid and threatening.”
The novel hit the theaters in 2009 with little success. The 2000’s band “My Chemical Romance” recorded a chaotic self-promoting pop punk version of Dylan’s song used during the closing credits which the band later released as a music video. The best that can be said about their cover is that they only attempt three of Dylan’s ten verses. Two other Dylan songs are included in the movie soundtrack, “The Times They Are A’Changin” and “All Along the Watchtower” (the celebrated Jimi Hendrix cover); both songs are also quoted in the book itself.
Given the importance Gibbons places on “Desolation Row,” it is instructive to consider two stanzas before summarizing the novel and then teasing out its political implications. Like many of Dylan’s songs, “Desolation Row,” a track from the album “Highway 61 Revisited” (1966) is difficult to interpret, though perhaps easier than some. One passage from Dylan’s composition condemns the effete, compromising, self-serving political leaders during the racial crises of the 60s. This particular stanza apparently refers to a lynching in Dylan’s hometown, which the elected leaders were unwilling to rectify. The “commissioner” of the song is clueless, compromised, and sybaritic.
Here comes the blind commissioner,
they’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied
to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
Another intriguing stanza describes the darkening of a culture in which the future is no longer certain, brotherly love is absent, sex is prosaic, and charity is cynical:
Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide
The fortune telling lady
has even taken
all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
and the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan,
he’s getting ready
for the show
to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row
The narrative, dialogue, artwork, and deft use of color that characterize Watchmen all depict a culture in irreversible decline. The novel is set in an alternate history in which the Vietnam War has been won and the 22nd Amendment has been repealed so that a white-haired Richard Nixon is in his fifth term of office. The tension of the Cold War is central to the plot, as nuclear war seems increasingly likely. The Soviet Union has not only invaded Afghanistan but Pakistan as well. A doomsday clock appears at the introduction of each chapter, ticking inexorably toward catastrophe. A marquee announces a concert featuring “Pale Horse” opened by “Krystallnacht.”
An ungrateful population has given their support to the Keene Act of 1977 which restricts the activity of all masked vigilantes but two. With one exception, none of them are “super-heroes". At best, their skills have been honed to a preternatural level. It is only Dr. Manhattan who possesses supernatural power that he acquired as the consequence of a nuclear physics accident in a particle physics test facility in Gila Flats, New Mexico.
Consequently, he exercises “mind over matter.” He can multiply, and he transports himself and others anywhere his whim takes him, including Mars. Though he has lost most of his human warmth, he still enjoys sex with Laurie Juspecyzk, a former vigilante herself whom the government has put on retainer to keep Dr. Manhattan “relaxed.” Laurie, though, draws the line when Dr. Manhattan duplicates himself in the interest of more titillating foreplay. Politically, his atomic character has tipped the nuclear balance in favor of the U.S., at least for a while.
The plot trajectory involves a search for the killer of “The Comedian,” by another vigilante, Rorschach, whose white latex mask is impregnated with a black viscous material so that his face is an endless series of ink blot images. For the amoral Comedian, life was a “joke.” Accordingly, the ruthless masked adventurer was useful in bringing the Vietnam War to a successful conclusion. Rorshach, raised by a prostitute and abused by her clients, is a nihilistic ruffian who brutalizes criminals yet represents the conscience of the novel.
The fate of the nation is in the hands of the adventurers, masked or retired. Nixon is left in the background. Ultimately, the crisis between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R is resolved by a fabricated disaster that wipes out half of New York City but elicits sympathy from the Soviets so that both countries resolve to work as allies to insure nothing similar occurs in the future. The catastrophe has been secretly engineered by Adrian Veidt, the retired adventurer “Ozymandias.” He fashions himself the heir to Alexander the Great and Rameses II, and his reputation is such that he is still regarded as “The Smartest Man in the World.” He proclaims that he has saved the world from “hell;” and his next adventure—beyond the scope of the novel—will be to lead it to “utopia.
The manner in which the political crisis in Watchmen is resolved is debatable. It may be a dark derivative of Plato’s “Noble Lie” (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, gennaion pseudos) that Socrates proposes at the end of Chapter 3 of The Republic. He explains that such a device has been useful in other places at various times. It is “nothing unprecedented” and needs “no little persuasion to make it believable.” In the first instance, Socrates proposes some kind of founding myth that will justify the political order and allocation of authority in the regime, yet he seems to suggest that a “noble lie,” even on a smaller scale, might be useful. On the other hand, perhaps Watchmen depicts Nietzsche’s “overmen” exercising his “will to power” on behalf of a political order headed for ruin. Notably, Nietzsche had only disdain for democracy; he refers to the people as “the herd.”
It may even be that Plato anticipates Nietzsche. Plato’s vocabulary choice for “noble”—“gennaion”—is more subjective than other possibilities, like the more absolute terms beautiful (kalos καλὸς) or virtuous (agathon ‘άγάθων). Gennaion most fundamentally means “well-born” but well-born is in the eye of the beholder. Clearly, for Adrian Veidt, Alexander the Great and Ramses II were “well-born.” So Plato’s proposition of the possibility of, and the occasional need for, a noble lie, may really be a warning. After all, it is perhaps best understood that in the interest of conveying timeless political principles, Plato employs a great deal of irony in The Republic.
As the book draws to a close, Veidt, justifying his deadly “heroism,” reveals one of the sources for the book, Kennedy’s last written but undelivered speech “Remarks Prepared For Delivery At The Trade Mart in Dallas, TX, November 22, 1963 [Undelivered].” The speech is largely concerned with the threat of the Soviet Union, and the need for the United States to maintain its nuclear strength to deter that of the Soviet Union. It is an exhortation to the country to support that effort and those who lead it. His closing paragraph is telling, the last phrase of which is taken from Psalm 127: 1-2 (KJV).
We in this country, in this generation, are—by destiny rather than choice—the watchmen on the walls of world freedom . . . that we may achieve in our time . . . “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”
Kennedy notes that “freedom can be lost without a shot being fired” and he underscores the importance of the “virtues of freedom.” Dylan and Watchmen ask whether those “virtues of freedom” can be sustained, and if not, the graphic novel asks whether the political order might need watchmen to survive. The book concludes with the famous passage taken from Juvenal’s Satires: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” that is, “Who watches the watchmen?”
Watchmen offers few answers but several insights, and more than a few warnings.