I’ve been blessed. In my time here at Durham University studying English Literature, I’ve been able to incorporate my love for comics… oops, I mean ‘graphic novels’ (must maintain literary sophistication haha) into my degree course without any issue. I wrote on Alan Moore’s Watchmen in my second year Theory and Practice of Literary Criticism exam, completed my dissertation on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, and am planning to write my American Fiction essay on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, I know those are all major titles, but there’s a reason why so much critical work has been written on them: they’re well brilliant.
I’ve also been binge-reading graphic novels, especially when I visited the Central Library in Edinburgh this past week (free graphic novels!!). I’d forgotten just how wonderful and magical libraries are! Anyway, in commemoration of finishing my dissertation and my recent devouring of graphic novels, here’s an essay I wrote in my second year on postmodernism and Watchmen.
Hope you enjoy it! Also, SPOILER ALERT. And finally, if you want any graphic novel recommendations, don’t hesitate to ask.
Nothing Ever Ends: Postmodern Cycle of Despair and Hope in Alan Moore’s Watchmen
by Justin Lau
Alan Moore’s Watchmen revolutionised the comic medium in a way no other comic had done before. The emergence of a graphic novel that dealt heavily with politics, history, and morality paved a way for subsequent comics. Ironically, despite starting a new trend, Watchmen was never about beginnings or ends; instead, it deconstructed modern conventions and notions about superheroes and comics that used to be viewed as only for children. McCloud describes this process ‘breaking nearly every one of the tried and true “rules.”’ Applying various literary techniques specific to the postmodern tradition, Alan Moore created ‘a world which is both morally ambiguous and full of semiological complexity – a far cry from the clear-cut semiotics of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman.’ Presenting heroes without superpowers, who behind the masks and costumes were regular people walking the streets of New York, Moore portrayed a frighteningly realistic alternate world where good rarely triumphed over evil. Watchmen provides a harsh critique of the cyclic despairing tendencies of society and life, but at the same time challenges readers by revealing infinite possibilities that could potentially lead to consequent, hopeful progress.
‘The Comedian is dead.’ So ends Chapter I, which incidentally also begins with the murder and death of the Comedian. On more than one occasion, Moore employs this reflective strategy as if to signify that the beginning and end are theoretically the same. This is most evident in Chapter V, entitled ‘Fearful Symmetry’, in which over the course of twenty-eight pages, the visual formatting of the first page perfectly reflects the twenty-eighth page, the second page with the twenty-seventh page, and so on. In fact, even the very first page and the last panel of the graphic novel are reflective: both present the iconic yellow smiley face with a red stain, whether blood or ketchup, over the right eye. Moore subtly mocks the concept of an introduction and a conclusion, emphasising the cyclical, neverending nature of life. Indeed, Barry expounds Lyotard’s view of postmodernism, which encompasses an ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ and instead embraces a ‘series of ‘mininarratives’, which are provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative’. The sceptic postmodern refusal to accept a totalising definitive explanation is apparent in Watchmen, composed of various ‘mininarratives’. There is no universal solution or answer presented in the graphic novel, and it adequately deconstructs ‘the idea of a unitary end of history and of a subject.’
The concept of having no beginning or end has to do with being outside and independent of the forces of time. Gertrude Stein desired to portray through her art a ‘continuous present’ which makes ‘the past, present, and future into a continual state of always’ in ‘a sort of dimensional simultaneity.’ Dr. Manhattan, the only character in Watchmen with actual superpowers after a tragic atomic accident, is the epitome of one not confined by time or space. Bernard succinctly describes him as being able to ‘transform the molecular structure of any object, teleport to anywhere in the universe, and is slowly becoming omnipotent.’ What makes him so fascinating is the process he undergoes from human to superhuman, to his gradual realisation that since he is so far removed and different from mankind, he has no more interest or sympathy for what used to be his own race. In Chapter IV, entitled ‘Watchmaker’, Moore revolutionises the concept of time by allowing readers, through an innovative combination of texts and visuals, to grasp what it is like to be outside of space and time. Dr. Manhattan narrates: ‘It’s October, 1985. I’m on Mars. It’s July, 1959. I’m in New Jersey, at the Palisades amusement park.’ By having him speak entirely in present tense throughout the chapter, whether he is referring to the present, past, or future, one sees that Dr. Manhattan has no sense of time, but is rather stuck in a perpetual state of being. Yet he begins to be troubled by such a concept; despite his omnipotence, he questions his own and the world’s origins: ‘A world grows up around me. Am I shaping it, or do its predetermined contours guide my hand? […] Which of us is responsible? Who makes the world?’ Furthermore, he understands that ‘things have their shape in time’; does the fact that he is outside of time discredit his existence and purpose? He concludes the chapter by musing: ‘Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there… a clock without a craftsman.’ If the world’s only superhero with actual superpowers faces such a complex dilemma, what does that imply for the rest of the world when faced with utter confusion and despair?
Though postmodernist texts seem to offer infinite possibilities, the initial reading of Watchmen seems to suggest that these possibilities are stifled by the subconscious awareness and acceptance that no conclusion, no end can ever be reached; all is futile and hopeless. Waugh describes postmodernism as expressing ‘the sense that our inherited forms of knowledge and representation are undergoing some fundamental shift’. Barry also adds that for postmodernists, ‘fragmentation is an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of our escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief.’ Arguably, the lives of the heroes are fragmented and disjointed, connected by their disapproval and rebellion against the fixed systems of belief. Van Ness describes Watchmen as a ‘story of storytellers’, in which many of them grasp and take control over their life story, such as Nite Owl who follows in the footsteps of his hero, seeking to eradicate evil and bring about good, both in society and in himself. Yet ultimately, as evidenced by their countless failings, everything is foolhardy and to no avail.
Despair and apathy pervade the entire book, from Rorschach’s pessimistic outlook to Bernard, the newsvendor, who accurately comments: ‘See? Apathy! Everybody escapin’ into comic books an’ T.V.! Makes me sick. I mean, all this, it could all be gone: people, cars, T.V. shows, magazines… even the word ‘gone’ would be gone.’ This ‘pervasive loss of faith’ prevents anyone from thinking optimistically and looking forward to a bright, hopeful future. Dr. Malcolm, Rorschach’s psychologist, who begins his therapy with a positive mindset eventually falls prey to the futility of life: ‘in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.’ This phenomenon often embodies the postmodern helplessness present in many texts. According to Waugh, Arnold Toynbee described postmodernism as ‘dominated by anxiety, irrationalism and helplessness. In such a world, consciousness is adrift, unable to anchor itself to any universal ground of justice, truth or reason’.
And indeed, Ozymandias, the smartest man on earth, fears such anxiety and irrationalism. To prevent uncertainty, and to ground his intellectual confidence in some sort of universal truth or reason, Ozymandias, who idolises Alexander the Great, devises and carries out a plan of mass murder in order to save humanity on the brink of nuclear war. However, even after his plan has succeeded and he asks Dr. Manhattan for affirmation, he receives an unexpected, unsettling response:
Ozymandias: ‘I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.’
Dr. Manhattan: ‘”In the end”? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.’
Ozymandias: ‘Jon? Wait! What do you mean by…’
The forlorn look on Ozymandias’s face despite the success of his plan shows no one is exempt from the hopelessness of a life without beginning or end. Hughes says, ‘Simply put, no matter how elaborate or cunning Ozymandias’ plan may be, he can do nothing to change humanity’. Even Dr. Manhattan gets disillusioned and ponders over questions he does not know the answers to. Van Ness shrewdly points out that ‘as the narrative progresses, Dr. Manhattan expresses his inability to alter the future, questions free will, and has a sense of perversive predetermined conditions’. He accepts that even his powers are limited: ‘We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.’ Whether he or the other characters like it or not, life goes on. Those who refuse to accept this, such as Rorscahch who believes he can make a difference, die. Is there any hope left for mankind and can the human race continue in their process of becoming?
There are two options: one can either fall into despair eternally or make the most out of their hopeless lives. Dr. Manhattan makes an interesting observation: ‘There is no future. There is no past. Do you see? Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.’ He suggests that though futility is one way of looking at things, there exists another option. As long as the characters continue to live and exist, mankind will always learn, know, and become. Thomson describes Watchmen’s deconstruction of the superhero genre and comic ‘as an attempted martyrdom, that is, a sacrifice with a redemptive intent, a would-be rebirth’ in order to maintain a ‘hope for a better future.’ Indeed, the first Silk Spectre embraces this rebirth by overcoming past traumas, including her rape at the hands of the Comedian, through embracing them; she eventually gives birth to the Comedian’s child, the current Silk Spectre. She tells her daughter, ‘So, what, you want I should curl up and whimper for forty years? You want I should go be a nun? Life goes on, honey. Life goes on.’ She continues: ‘Every day the future looks a little bit darker. But the past, even the grimy parts of it… well, it just keeps on getting brighter all the time.’ She demonstrates the possibility of carrying on with life despite the atrocities and unspeakable terrors humans have experienced.
Moore claims the world is beyond comprehension; there is no overarching truth or narrative to explain everything. He sees the value in Lyotard’s words: ‘Let us wage a war on totality’. Wilde further explains that mankind must hold onto ‘an acceptance of the impossibility of making any sense whatever of the world as a whole’ and ‘a willingness to live with uncertainty, to tolerate and, in some cases, to welcome a world seen as random and multiple, even, at times, absurd.’ But is the effort worthwhile when knowing such possibilities in the process of becoming reach no end? Dr. Manhattan questions ‘the point of all that struggling […] accomplishing nothing, leaving people empty and disillusioned […] broken.’ That is the paradox of postmodernism and texts such as Watchmen: both the characters and readers must keep striving to make the world a better place, to improve as individuals, to give their lives meaning, yet all the while knowing it will lead to nothing and history will continue to repeat itself forever.
However, Watchmen concludes with a glimmer of hope. Its ambiguous ending does not reveal to readers what happens subsequently: does Rorschach’s diary eventually get published and is Ozymandias’s plan revealed? Moore seems to suggest that the entire course of life, society, and the world could change even in the hands of a minor character, an assistant working at a newspaper company. Reynolds says, ‘Watchmen is at bottom about the inventions and fictions employed by everybody […] to get through their daily lives.’ There is a poignant urgency to find meaning in such a horrific world, and though one might feel tempted to succumb to a life of no beginnings, no ends, no possibilities of becoming, Moore conveys through Dr. Manhattan a truth that all is not lost:
Dr. Manhattan: ‘I don’t think your life’s meaningless. […] in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter… until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged.’
This concept of rebirth and the continuation of life, of humans growing up and becoming offers a sense of light and meaning in a world beyond understanding. Choosing is necessary, and if one is inclined to pick hopeless death, he or she must realise it is a collective effort to maintain mankind’s future. For ‘this hope […] we can deconstruct but never destroy.’
 Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), p. 117.
 Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (London: B. T. Batsford, 1992), p. 114.
 Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 2008), I. 26.
 Peter Barry, Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, Third edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), p. 83.
 Barry, Beginning theory, p. 83.
 Mark Bernard and James Bucky Carter, ‘Alan Moore and the Graphic Novel: Confronting the Fourth Dimension’, ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 1/2 (2004), last accessed 14 March 2014 <http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v1_2/carter/ >, p. 8.
 Bernard and Carter, ‘Alan Moore and the Graphic Novel: Confronting the Fourth Dimension’, p. 17.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IV. 1.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IV. 27.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IV. 24.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IV. 28.
 Patricia Waugh, Postmodernism: A Reader (London: Edward Arnold, 1992), p. 5.
 Barry, Beginning theory, p. 81.
 Sara J. Van Ness, Watchmen as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010), p. 63.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, V. 12.
 Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh, ‘Postmodernism: Introduction’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), p. 325.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, VI. 28.
 Waugh, Postmodernism: A Reader, p. 5.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, XII. 27.
 Jamie A. Hughes, ‘”Who Watches the Watchmen?”: Ideology and “Real World” Superheroes’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 39/4 (2006), p. 554.
 Van Ness, Watchmen as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel, p. 97.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IX. 5.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IX. 6.
 Iain Thomson, ‘Deconstructing the Hero’, Comics as Philosophy, ed. Jeff McLaughlin (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), p. 117.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, II. 2.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, II. 4.
 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 82.
 Alan Wilde, ‘Modernism and the Aesthetics of Crisis’, Contemporary Literature, 20/1 (1979), p. 44.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IX. 12.
 Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, p. 114.
 Moore and Gibbons, Watchmen, IX. 27.
 Thomson, ‘Deconstructing the Hero’, p. 117.
- Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (New York: DC Comics, 2008).
- Barnes, David, ‘Time in the Gutter: Temporal Structures in Watchmen’, KronoScope 9/1-2 (2009), 51-60.
- Barry, Peter, Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, Third edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).
- Bernard, Mark and James Bucky Carter, ‘Alan Moore and the Graphic Novel: Confronting the Fourth Dimension’, ImageText: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 1/2 (2004), last accessed 14 March 2014 <http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v1_2/carter/ >.
- Hughes, Jamie A., ‘”Who Watches the Watchmen?”: Ideology and “Real World” Superheroes’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 39/4 (2006), 546-57.
- Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).
- McCloud, Scott, Reinventing Comics (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000).
- Reynolds, Richard, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (London: B. T. Batsford, 1992).
- Rice, Philip and Patricia Waugh, ‘Postmodernism: Introduction’, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, Fourth Edition, ed. Philip Rice & Patricia Waugh (London: Hodder Arnold, 2001), 325-28.
- Thomson, Iain, ‘Deconstructing the Hero’, Comics as Philosophy, ed. Jeff McLaughlin (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 100-29.
- Van Ness, Sara J., Watchmen as Literature: A Critical Study of the Graphic Novel (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010).
- Waugh, Patricia, Postmodernism: A Reader (London: Edward Arnold, 1992).
- Wilde, Alan, ‘Modernism and the Aesthetics of Crisis’, Contemporary Literature, 20/1 (1979), 13-50.
© Justin Lau, 2015
- Alan Moore
- Alan Wilde
- American fiction
- Central Library Edinburgh
- comics studies
- Dave Gibbons
- David Barnes
- DC Comics
- Durham University
- English Literature
- Frank Miller
- graphic novels
- Iain Thomson
- James Bucky Carter
- Jamie A. Hughes
- Jean-François Lyotard
- Mark Bernard
- Neil Gaiman
- Patricia Waugh
- Peter Barry
- Philip Rice
- Richard Reynolds
- Sara J. Van Ness
- Scott McCloud
- The Dark Knight Returns
- The Sandman
- Theory and Practice of Literary Criticism