Brad's Reviews > Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore
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Dec 04, 09

bookshelves: graphic-novel, to-read-again, dystopian, political, sci-fi, the-best
Read in March, 2009, read count: 18

** spoiler alert ** I've been in many discussions over the years -- some in classes I was teaching, some over pints in the bar, and still others late at night with people I love -- about what Alan Moore was trying to say with Watchmen, discussions about the meaning of his graphic novel, and I am convinced that the meaning is not what most people think.

Most people I have talked to look at Veidt's mini-Armageddon to bring peace as inherently evil -- and the most monstrous act in a book of monstrous acts. Veidt's act trumps The Comedian's attempted rape of Silk Spectre and the murder of his child in the womb; it trumps Rorschach's punishment of the child killer, his torture of "innocent" informants, and the brutality he delivers unto anyone he happens to see committing a "crime," petty or otherwise; it trumps Dr. Manhattan's personal engagement in the Vietnam War; Veidt's action even seems to trump the not-so-petty criminal activities we see perpetrated by peripheral "criminals" throughout Watchmen.

On the surface, we tend to condemn Veidt's action because of its scale. It's cold and precise and sterile and necessarily takes the lives of "millions of innocent people." We have been indoctrinated from the youngest ages to hate this kind of killing more than any other. Our great monsters are Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, but we somehow find it in our hearts and minds to forgive Truman's nuclear attacks on Japan because they "saved millions of lives," as a young Walter Kovacs (aka Rorschach) writes in an essay about his absent father, defending Nuclear War and the Truman doctrine, albeit at an early age. And if we can forgive Truman's attack (I recognize that some people cannot forgive that attack, but many, many can), why not forgive Veidt? If we can forgive one, we must forgive the other. Sure Veidt killed more people, but he saved more too, and created a utopia out of the chaos.

This discrepancy in our accepted opinions is not lost on Alan Moore; in fact, it is at the core of Watchmen. We see it being played out in dialogue and action by characters from The Comedian to Rorschach, from Ozymandias to Dr. Manhattan, and even in the supporting folk who populate Moore's distopian future.

When faced with this discrepancy and pressed to discover why Veidt's actions continue to rile us, it doesn't take long to uncover a deeper root for our disdain: our need for individuality and Veidt's destruction of the freedom to make our own mistakes.

This realization of our anger at Veidt and why his action is "evil" quickly becomes the accepted meaning of Moore's story: that derailing humanity's ability to choose is the greatest wrong anyone can commit (the secular see this as a fundamental attack on our freedom, while the religious see this as our fundamental gift from God, but they tend to add anger at Veidt for playing God), and that Veidt's utopia will fail because the power of the individual is too great -- it always overcomes.

I disagree.

I don't think Moore considers Veidt's act evil so much as misguided. I am not convinced that Moore believes in good and evil at all. Throughout Watchmen we are led to see one man as the man who "gets it," and that figure is not Rorschach. Rorschach is a guide, nothing more. Rorschach acts as an Horatio figure, guiding us through the narrative, telling us what to pay attention to, whom to believe, what to see: mostly he is trying to get us to see The Comedian. If the story is anyone's it is The Comedian's. The Comedian is the man who gets it, and what the amoral Comedian gets is that morality is a construct designed to help us avoid despairing at what Moore believes is the truth: humanity is violent and base; it is ignoble; it is doomed to repeat and repeat and repeat its violence because that is what humanity does best -- violence -- and everything else is playacting. Thus, Veidt's mini-Armageddon is futile, not because of our noble individuality, not because of the strength of our human spirit, but because of the strength of our animal instincts. All those lives were wasted to create a utopia that simply couldn't be.

And Rorschach's journal, slipped through the door of the paper and ready to be printed, is the detonation cap.

Watchmen may be the most hopeless popular book printed in the last fifty years, and the most truthful. I am continually shocked by its popularity (even if only as a cult phenomenon), but then maybe it is only popular through a quirk of misunderstanding. Then again, it could be popular because people understand it better than they're willing to admit.
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Terence Wonderful review.

I think you've hit upon what (at least in part) has always bothered me about Watchmen: How naive Veidt (supposedly the smartest man on Earth) appears to be. With all that brainpower and the example of Hiroshima (and all of history, in general) before him, he still thinks his little project is going to make a more peaceful world?

Of course, it all could be a matter of ego. Where others have failed, Ozymandias will succeed (which makes the name all the more ironic).


message 2: by Manny (new)

Manny Liked this review! Saw the movie the other day, still trying to make proper sense of the story :)


message 3: by Donegal (last edited Feb 22, 2010 07:54AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Donegal Brilliant review! I completely agree with your analysis of the theme: when I got to the chapter where Veidt reveals his plan, I was immediately struck with the thought that something like that wouldn't work, that violence is inherent in us. When I finished the book and thought back over it, that certainly seemed to be the central theme.

I haven't read many reviews (if any before today) of Watchmen, but I honestly never saw the theme as "loss of individuality". Until reading your review, it hadn't ever occurred to me.


Thomas Chambers Thank God, SOMEBODY gets it! Too many people go looking for Xmen and get appalled when they realize they might actually have to think about who the villains are and what being a 'hero' actually means in different contexts when heroes don't wear white and the villains don't wear point black hats.


Brad Glad to be of service, Thomas.


Trevor i agree it was a really good book


Rohit Raut Excellent review Brad. I think this book is majorly responsible for the rise of the graphic novel as a widely accepted form of storytelling.


Jill This review hits the nail on the head, I think. When you consider just the number of main characters who present a bleak existential outlook on life, a message of basic human corruption becomes rather apparent.


Brad Thanks, Jill.


Laural There's always pain in truth. You can deny it, misunderstand it to numb the blow, embrace it, or just live with it, but you can't change it.


message 11: by Brad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brad Indeed.


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