Literature Long Read: You Better Watch Yourself

In the Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill 2 the titular character Bill, played by David Carradine, delivers a withering critique of Superman, saying that Clark Kent – a clumsy, skittish, slightly nerdy and shy figure – is Superman’s critique on the human race; that that personality is what’s needed to fit in. It’s a flawed critique, because it comes from a mindset that presumes that social hierarchies can only be formed through the application – and therefore the acquisition – of brute force and power. Superman is a God, and could easily subjugate the human race, goes the theory. But perhaps that critique is to be expected from a film that has the depth of a 90s beat ‘em up game (albeit a stylish one, admittedly) – Uma Thurman’s Bride goes through the levels, dispatching ever-more dangerous opponents and bad guys until she faces the Big Boss, who can only be defeated using a particular special move. It misses the psychological truth of Superman, and yet it simultaneously makes a very good point. Superman is popular precisely because he doesn’t subjugate the human race, despite his apparent ability to do so. And Bill’s right – his Clark Kent persona prevents him from doing so. What happens if you spend too much time in the costume? What are the psychological dangers of never taking it off? That’s what Watchmen is about.

Bill: wrong. Dead wrong.

The superhero is essentially an individual who can successfully compartmentalize their personality into different sub-personalities that can be deployed as needed. That’s simply a very literal and imagistic way of demonstrating the psychoanalytic notion of the self being compriosed of several different sub-personalities that vie for attention (rage, hunger, vengeance, kindness, compassion, pragmatism, libido, and so and so forth). The superhero is somebody who is able to switch on and off the part of them that is most needed at any particular scenario.

For me, the archetypal superhero is Superman, a DC stablemate of the Watchmen, and arguably the closest thing popular western fiction gets to a Christ figure in a post-Nietzschean world. He fits many of the classic hero-myth criteria: like Christ, he has two sets of parents (otherworldly parents on Krypton, and humble human parents in Smallville); he is a physical embodiment of the ideal; but he is not without weakness (Kryptonite is obviously convenient, but it is powerfully symbolic as it represents weakness per se and has entered the popular lexicon as such). He’s also (like most superheroes) uniquely and proudly American, an immigrant from a doomed old world who makes it his mission to do the best by the world he finds himself in (see also Captain America, who announces his presence to the world by smacking Mr Hitler square on the kisser on the cover of his very first issue dated March 1941 – a full nine months before the US entered WW2; there was no doubting America’s confidence back then). And, most importantly, Superman has the potential for two personalities; Clark Kent, who is all unfulfilled potential and soft edges, and Superman, who outrageously fulfils that potential and hardens those edges. But is Superman Superman or Clark Kent?

Watchmen, like Superman, was created at a time of global geopolitical anxiousness. Where Supes debuted in 1939 as Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Poland, Watchmen was published in 1986, at the height of 1980s nuclear anxiety, and takes its place among a string of books, films and TV shows that articulated these fears: Threads; When The Wind Blows; The Day After; even that episode of Only Fools And Horses where Del Boy builds a nuclear fall-out shelter for laughs.

There are precious few laughs in Watchmen, and what few there are tend to come from The Comedian, who’s no laughing matter. Watchmen takes its place from a speech JFK was supposed to have delivered in Dallas had he not suffered the inconvenience of having been assassinated before he arrived; “Our generation, by destiny rather than choice, are the Watchmen on the walls of freedom.” The new world balance precariously on the brink of annihilation; the Soviet Union is at its most bloated (and, with hindsight, we now know, perilously wounded) and expansionist, while America is paranoid, defensive, and spectacularly armed. If Superman represents what can be made of the world one finds oneself in, Watchmen represents either the extreme desperation individuals experience in trying to preserve a world that is going wrong in real-time, or, sensing the desperation of such an act, a detached contempt for it. Watchmen delights in the past, retelling the history of the costumed hero phenomenon in America born in ’39 (not Supes but the Minutemen in Watchmen history).

The Watchmen were preceded by their forebears, The Minutemen, who formed in the late 1930s.

One critique of the superhero genre is that it presents the problems of the world as unsolvable except to those who are in some way “super.” This critique has been made in the real world by critics such as Mark Steyn, but it also surfaces from within the pages of Watchmen itself; we read in the memoirs of Hollis Mason, Nite Owl 1, that superheroes express the notions of good and evil in simple, childish terms, while over in Europe they were turning humans into soap and lampshades.” Mason’s memoirs offer that sliver of honesty, that it’s hard to protect yourself from your own beliefs, especially when they are imbued with a streak of righteousness. If you don’t ever take the cape off, then perhaps you’re the villain. And why not? We have seen fights for social and economic justice bloat into totalitarian Communism; respect for authority veer into fascistic overrule; the idolization of the human intellect leading to the idea of the murder of millions of individuals as not only logical but ethical conclusions.

Watchmen then, is a cautious tale about protecting yourself from your own beliefs and ensuring they don’t morph into poisonous ideologies. It’s about knowing when to put the mask on and, more importantly, when to take it off. The only ones who succeed in this respect are Dan and Laurie (and, to a lesser extent, Sally, and Hollis, though they can’t be said to have had truly happy endings); we see Dan and Laurie in their civilian clothes most of the time; sometimes we see them in their costumes, and other times, as lovers, we see them completely naked. We see them, in other words, as humans. They are the most rounded individuals of them all. The ones who refuse to relinquish their costumes – the Comedian, Rorschach, Dr Manhattan, and Ozymandias – are the ones who are psychologically unwell; stumbling into nihilism, brutality, and murder, intoxicated by the headiness of the licence granted them by their own confected identity.

Eddie Blake, the Comedian, was always a violent thug, but in maintaining his identity after the Keene Act (a bill outlawing masked vigilantes) he is employed by the state to act as a brutal enforcer both domestically and overseas. He is lauded as an American hero, but retains enough self-awareness to see the grim hypocrisy of his situation, and plays it for laughs. He reminds me of Nikolai Vysevolodovitch Stavrogin from Dostoevsky’s Devils – a charismatic, violent revolutionary, who cares not a jot about annihilation, and is prepared to laugh at the results because in his mind, it means nothing. They are also both revolting sexual predators (see the censored chapter, At Tihon’s, in Devils). And, perhaps most pertinently, they both die in despair after seeing the folly of their nihilistic attitudes taken to their horrific endgames.

The Comedian a.k.a Eddie Blake

Rorschach, a foul-smelling, Manichean psychopath, can only tolerate the world by living according to a warped, rigid moral code of his own creation. This code permits him to carry out acts of atrocious violence, and is maintained by jettisoning his human name, Walter Kovacs. He is always Rorschach. He calls his mask his “face” and he remains Rorschach even when the Police confiscate his mask and reveal his real face and birth name. Rorschach maintains his own version of nihilism, believing humanity to be doomed by its own empty morality. He attempts to fill that void with his own warped version, but it’s not enough. He sees the world in those childish dilutions of good and evil that Hollis Mason mentioned in his memoirs. Rorschach’s face, an ever-shifting inkblot of black on white, reflects his hard duality; no compromising shade of grey for him.

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Watchmen

Dr Manhattan is forced to live his existence as a superhero / superman after being trapped in the “Intrinsic Field Subtractor” in the 1950s atomic age. What he gains in superpowers in mirrored by the loss of his humanity. He becomes ever more detached from human affairs, understanding and reality, eventually viewing humans as no more relevant than termites. He views human affairs, and human lives, as purely transactional; like a chef weighing out grains of rice. He thinks nothing of obliterating an old friend to maintain a worthwhile lie. His relationship with Laurie becomes an empty cipher, perhaps to maintain appearances, leaving him dispassionate and her isolated. He eventually is reminded of the preciousness and strangeness of human lives as Laurie fathoms the unlikeliness of her birth, being the product of a loving union between her mother, Sally Jupiter, and The Comedian, who had previously attempted to rape her. This realisation convinces Manhattan to intervene in Veidt’s plot, but too late, and even then, he is too aloof todo anything but go along with it. His sort of über-rational thought can only ever lead to the conclusion that there is no God. And yet, with his superpowers, what else is he? He ends the novel isolated, distant (psychologically and physically), and filled with doubt.

Feeling blue: Dr Manhattan

But it’s Ozymandias, a.k.a Adrian Veidt, whose nihilism is the most dangerous. Just like Lord Asriel in Northern Lights, (or Lenin, or Pol Pot), he is a man who places his own intellect at the top of the hierarchical order, and permits himself to undertake actions that arise from logical, proposition-based rationale. In this intellectually-driven logic, the lives of millions are a small price to pay for seeing a plan come together. And, just like The Comedian and Stavrogin, and Dr Manhattan, even he is not immune to doubt. Ozymandias gets to bathe in the glory of his wicked master plan for a mere matter of seconds, before Dr Manhattan reveals to him just how futile the grotesque act is. The last frame we see of Veidt is a face racked with doubt. What’s more, as the novel ends with the tantalizing prospect of the right-wing magazine New Frontiersman printing Rorschach’s journal and the truth of Veidt’s crimes, we can hope that Veidt gets his come-uppance.

Ozymandias: You’re saying I can catch bullets? I’m saying when you’re ready, you won’t have t… oh wait, sorry, yes, yes, you will.
Wheels Within Wheels

Watchmen also makes use of the old story-within-a-story motif by way of a comic book being read by a young man by a newsstand. The comic is Tales Of The Black Freighter, about pirates (because who wants to read about superheroes when they’re real?) and it contains the story Marooned. Marooned follows the story of a sailor who has survived an attack by the eponymous Black Freighter and has been left marooned on a desert island. Driven by a sense of mad, righteous fury, he lashes together a raft made from the bloated corpses of his former shipmates. On this grim craft he surges towards a goal of vengeance, hoping to reach his home town before the Black Freighter arrives to kill his wife and children. Arrive he does, but he is driven insane by his own fierce visions, and he ends up murdering an innocent couple, and then killing his own wife, believing her to be a pirate from the Freighter. When he walks back to the shoreline, dejected, he realises the Freighter has not yet arrived, and is anchored in the bay. He swims out to it, and is welcomed aboard. The damned soul it has been waiting to capture is his own. The Marooned sailor represents Veidt, driven insane by his own calculations of equilibrium, and surging towards his goal on the bodies of his former caped comrades as he slowly wipes them out.

All of these characters succumb to the poisonous temptations of nihilism and/or violence because of the licence granted them by the costume (Interestingly, in Garth Jones’s spiritual successor to WatchmenThe Boys – the more revolting of the superhero characters are the ones who are, once again, supers all the time; the ones who maintain a shred of decency are the ones with alter-egos).

In recent history the MCU presented its own version of Malthusian nihilism in the figure of Thanos, who possessed the aloofness of Dr Manhattan and the intellectual vanity of Ozymandias. The MCU also presents a plethora of superheroes so wide and broad that perhaps superhero fatigue has set in. In the last fifteen years the Superhero genre has gone gangbusters; it’s the predominant summer blockbuster genre film, and probably has been for the last decade at least. But since Thanos was defeated in Endgame the returns haven’t been quite so huge, and have started to decline. Black Widow was a relative flop, ditto Eternals and Ten Rings. Only the latest Spidey movie, a shameless piece of fan-porn (but admittedly a brilliant one) has bucked the trend. Where does the superhero genre go from here, when the high watermark for its subversion was reached with Watchmen, thirty-five years ago? What’s the next innovation in the genre?

Thanos: mad

The ubiquity of superheroes may be interesting, or it may be dull, but it does perhaps present a problem. Are we, as individuals and as a popular culture, like the Watchmen? Are we too intoxicated to hang up the cape? The studios are too drunk on gate receipts; the audience are too thirsty for spectacle; the fans are too greedy for fan-service vehicles; and media outlets are desperate for clicks and content. Why can’t we hang up the cape, like Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Jupiter? Laurie, after dumping Dr Manhattan, realises the absurdity of her life, complaining, “I don’t know anybody else. I don’t know anybody except goddamned superheroes!” Or, to quote the Canadian critic Mark Steyn, “when everything’s super, no-one’s a hero.” Steyn’s angle is that the ubiquity of caped crusaders does the little guy no good in the end. But Alan Moore came to the same conclusion over thirty years before, and managed to do it in the genre’s own vehicle.

The superheroes sneer down their nose at the regular ol’ people, viewing them as little more than strangers, or pets, or curios; they can be kept, or fed, or entertained, or sacrificed, or put down, when the time and the cause calls. But they forget the fundamental spark of divinity that burns at the heart of the human being; that thing that we know gives life value, and meaning. In the epilogue of Chapter VII we get to read an excerpt of one of Dan Drieberg’s ornithological papers.

“Is it possible, I wonder, to study a bird so closely, to observe and catalogue its peculiarities in such minute detail, that it becomes invisible? Is it possible that while fastidiously calibrating the span of its wings or the length of its tarsus, we somehow lose sight of its poetry? That in our pedestrian descriptions of its marbled or vermiculated plumage we forfeit a glimpse of living canvases, cascades of carefully toned browns and golds that would shame Kandinsky, misty explosion of color to rival Monet? I believe we do. I believe that in approaching our subject with the sensiblities of statisticians and dissectionists, we distance ourselves increasingly from the marvelous and spell-binding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place.”

Humans are more than just bags of bones. There’s greater wisdom in Drieberg’s dorky but earnest appraisal of the owl than in all of Veidt’s and Manhattan’s aloof scientific calculations, and it’s the reason why Dreiberg not only survives, but gets to live out a worthwhile life with a good woman. He understands the poetry in the human spirit.

The superhero genre is meant to be a fantastical representation of the potential of the human body and/or spirit taken to extreme lengths in the forms of heroes and villains. But that’s why Superman was so Super; he knew when to be Clark. In the continual and feverish lauding of the superhero, are we losing sight of our need to be Dan Dreiberg, or Laurie Jupiter? To be Clark Kent?

We do find ourselves the watchers on the wall of freedom, but it’s not limited to times of existential threat such as Cold War nuclear strikes; or the aggressive expansionism of Nazism in the 1930s; or climate change; or anything we might experience now or in the future – we are the watchers on the wall always, in everything we do, but sometimes the most important thing to watch is ourselves.

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Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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