We Don’t Need Another Hero
Alan Moore’s Watchmen remains a stirring warning against absolute power
By: Franklin Harris
You can tell a work of fiction is influential when other writers are still grappling with its implications nearly a quarter of a century later—usually with limited success.
Since its publication in the mid-1980s, Watchmen has been the poster child for pop art that transcends its origins. Having garnered accolades usually reserved for highbrow literary fiction, Watchmen is the reason we now refer to comic books as graphic novels. It birthed countless newspaper stories with unfortunate headlines like “Bam! Pow! Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore.” It changed the aesthetics of superhero comics, both for better and for worse. And this year, of course, it inspired a major motion picture that, if nothing else, perplexed audiences expecting the next "Dark Knight" or "Iron Man".
While Iron Man and The Dark Knight both deal with issues of power and corruption, they ultimately side with their vigilante protagonists. Superheroes, those movies tell us, are a good thing. “Watchmen,” however, remains admirably faithful to its source material and comes to a different conclusion. Its costumed crusaders are, at best, powerless when it comes to doing good and, at worst, make the world a far more dangerous place. If, as Lord Acton said, power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then unaccountable superhumans with near God-like powers are not necessarily a good thing. Like a powerful central government that is able to dominate local governments or an imperial presidency that co-opts powers properly belonging to Congress, superheroes upset existing power structures. “Who watches the Watchmen?” is a question with no obvious answer.
It is little surprise, then, that anti-statists have latched onto Watchmen, claiming it, along with the works of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, and the 1960s cult-favorite television series The Prisoner, as part of libertarianism’s artistic canon.
The graphic novel, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, is set in an alternate 1985 in which the existence of superheroes has turned the United States into a virtual dictatorship. President Richard Nixon, having engineered the repeal of the 22nd Amendment, is in his fifth term, and corruption and chaos are rampant. As gangs terrorize the streets, the U.S. and the Soviet Union plunge toward seemingly inevitable nuclear annihilation.
The main point of divergence between our 1985, which turned out comparatively well, and the 1985 of Watchmen is the existence of Dr. Manhattan, the one costumed hero in the story who possesses superhuman abilities. With Dr. Manhattan’s help, the U.S. wins the Vietnam War, a victory that Nixon uses to become all but president for life. The Soviets, meanwhile, regard Dr. Manhattan as such a threat that they’re willing to risk nuclear war to avoid U.S. domination.
Dr. Manhattan, in short, changes everything. As one character in the graphic novel observes, “It is as if—with a real live Deity on their side—our leaders have become intoxicated with a heady draught of omnipotence-by-association, without realizing just how his very existence has deformed the lives of every living creature on the face of this planet.”
Dr. Manhattan is the literal embodiment of amoral power. Following the accident that gives him his superhuman abilities, he gradually becomes more and more removed from his humanity. Time, for him, has no real meaning because he can see past, present, and future simultaneously. As a result, death has no meaning for him, either. Thus he is the perfect tool for the politicians who seek to exploit him.
The U.S. government in Watchmen maintains a monopoly on superheroes. A law bans costumed adventurers except for those who work for the state, namely Dr. Manhattan and the more aggressively amoral Comedian. The only masked crimefighter working illegally is Rorschach.
Of the characters in Watchmen, Rorschach comes closest to being a libertarian, although Moore’s portrait of libertarianism isn’t exactly flattering. Rorschach is brutal, malodorous, and, most importantly, psychotic. Moore bases him on The Question and Mr. A, two characters created by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, an adherent of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Despite his antiauthoritarianism, Moore is still a man of the political Left, and his Rorschach is a not-at-all-subtle critique of Ditko’s “right-wing” libertarianism.
There are positive character traits hidden beneath Rorschach’s psychosis, however. Rorschach believes in truth and justice, and he is uncompromising in his pursuit of them, which is why he continues to work outside of the law even after the government criminalizes costumed vigilantism. He is, whether Moore likes it or not, the moral center of Watchmen, and readers—not just libertarians—gravitate toward him. Rorschach may be insane, but at least he sticks to his principles, even in the face of death.
Even as Moore’s Rorschach was capturing readers’ imaginations in 1986, Frank Miller’s daring interpretation of an old mainstay was doing the same, and for the similar reasons.
Published at about the same time as Watchmen, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns covers many of the same themes and is no less influential. It casts a middle-aged Batman in the Rorschach role of uncompromising individualist and Superman in the Dr. Manhattan role of government stooge. Yet despite the dark tone of both works, the similarities between Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns end there. Moore’s only solution to the problem of Dr. Manhattan is for his superman to leave Earth, abandoning humanity to its own fate. Miller, however, has faith in superheroes, so long as it is the right superhero.
Miller’s Batman is a quasi-libertarian anarchist, a genius who, like the characters in Rand’s novels, uses his brain to thwart the brute, physical power of Superman and the state. Miller’s version of Batman as an ordinary man prepared to stand up to seemingly omnipotent power has endured, inspiring everyone from libertarians to politically apathetic comics fanboys to subsequent Batman writers
The libertarian/Randian themes are even more explicit in Miller’s 2001-2002 follow-up, The Dark Knight Strikes Again . In the sequel, Miller introduces Ditko’s The Question as a mouthpiece for Objectivism, of sorts. The difference here is that Miller’s version says, “I’m no Ayn Rander! She didn’t go nearly far enough!”
But can antistatists put their faith in even a libertarian superhero? The treatment of Batman post-Miller raises lots of red flags. Just as Miller’s Batman developed a contingency plan to take down Superman, Batman, as portrayed in more recent comics, has formulated plans to deal with just about any superhero who, for whatever reason, might go bad. Unfortunately, time and again, Batman’s plans have fallen into the wrong hands, with disastrous results. For example, in the recent series Countdown, Batman creates Brother Eye, an artificial intelligence to watch over all of Earth’s superpowered heroes and villains. As one might guess from Brother Eye’s Orwellian name, this ends badly when a covert government agency takes control of the AI for its own purposes.
As a new generation of comic-book writers embellishes the ideas Moore and Miller first explored, it seems there is need for a critique of even “libertarian” superheroes. Ultimately, even superheroes who operate without government sanction, so as to preserve their independence and integrity, run into problems because they still serve a law-enforcement function. They’re still appendages of the state, if only unofficially.
Marvel Comics’ recent Civil War story arc illustrates the point. After a battle in which a team of young superheroes accidentally kills 600 civilians, the political leaders in Marvel’s fictional universe take a page from Watchmen. They pass a law banning all costumed superheroes except for those who agree to register with and work for the federal government. The Superhuman Registration Act splits the superhero community, with pro-registration heroes lining up behind Iron Man and anti-registration heroes backing Captain America.
Although it is never spelled out explicitly in Civil War, the pro-registration side has a point. What are superheroes anyway, except unauthorized, unaccountable law-enforcement agents? Superheroes don’t obtain search warrants. They don’t read suspects their Miranda rights. If they screw up, they don’t face disciplinary action. And it’s almost impossible for a wronged party to sue them for misconduct. Just try serving a court summons to the Hulk. In short, all of the real-world problems associated with police misconduct are potentially worse when it comes to superheroes. They exist outside the rule of law.
Against that possibility, the Superhuman Registration Act seems, in libertarian terms, the lesser of two evils. Of course, the lesser evil is still evil. Any law that can be abused eventually will be abused. In our world, Republicans constantly pass laws they would never trust Democrats to enforce and vice versa. Each side, when out of power, complains that the other is abusing the powers of government. Yet when they swap places, the incoming party never repeals the laws that the other side abused.
In the Marvel Universe, Iron Man currently finds himself on the outside, on the run and wanted for crimes he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, the villainous Green Goblin, in his civilian identity of Norman Osborn, has become leader of the government’s registration effort. If there is any consolation, it’s that Iron Man may have learned his lesson.
For all their efforts, no one writing superhero comics has yet come up with an answer to Moore’s critique of superhero power. Moore’s own solution isn’t really conducive to writing ongoing superhero comics. He sends Dr. Manhattan packing. Dr. Manhattan decides to leave our galaxy—end of story. When all else failed, Moore opts for abolition, which is, of course, what one would expect of any anarchist, of either the left-wing or the anarcho-capitalist variety.
Perhaps that is why Watchmen maintains its resonance with libertarians, despite Moore’s antipathy toward much of libertarian thought. Unlike Miller, Rand, Ditko, and others who gave us idealized libertarian supermen who could fly in and save the day, Moore takes a more radical, yet more realistic approach. His hero-turned-villain, Ozymandias, is named so as to evoke the image of the broken idol in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of the same name. Essentially, Moore is telling us to put not our faith in idols, even if they’re wearing a smile and spandex.
The Watchmen movie and the renewed interest in the graphic novel couldn’t have been better timed. Several comic-book artists have taken to depicting President Barack Obama in superheroic terms. Alex Ross’s painting of the president striking a Superman pose emblazons posters and T-shirts. Spider-Man and Obama do the fist bump in a recent issue of Amazing Spider-Man. And for his part, the new president seems happy to play up his heroic image, as when he posed with the statue of Superman in Metropolis, Illinois.
Whatever your politics, if you’ve grasped the message of Watchmen, images like that ought to have you worried.
Franklin Harris (email@example.com) is a writer and editor based in Alabama.