Monday, March 09, 2009

Watchmen: Reflections on the graphic novel

Warning! Spoiler Alert: This blog post may give away plot lines to the graphic novel and the film, Watchmen.


After hearing about the eminent release of a film version of this comic book classic, I decided I'd better go back and read the whole thing before seeing the film. Amazing. I rate this right up there with Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 only I think this one hits closer to the mark, confronting issues that became all too real and relevant less than two decades after it was written.

For those who haven't read it yet, first I recommend stopping here, and either reading the graphic novel or (for those with shorter attention spans) seeing the film. I haven't seen the film yet, but if it touches on half the material in the graphic novel, it would be worth checking out. For those who have already determined not to do either, I will briefly sum up.

Rather presenting a possible future, the story presents a possible present, much like our own with a few very important differences. Rewind the clock to the early twentieth century, and the advent of fictional heroes like The Shadow, The Green Hornet, and early Superman. Inspired by the fictional characters, real life masked heroes begin to emerge and soon vigilante-ism becomes not just accepted, but popular. It quickly becomes an important part of American society. The presence of masked vigilantes causes important shifts in the historical events of the twentieth century as these heroes participate in everything from WWII to Vietnam. The  result (in the graphic novel version) is a present where Richard Nixon is still president (by changing legislation to extend term limits) the cold war is still gaining momentum, and technology has developed in a slightly different though not necessarily any better direction. Along the way, the popularity of masked heroes fades in the wake of civil unrest and police strikes.

[Here comes the spoiler - seriously, turn back now! last chance!]

Watchmen 02 - 26That brings us to the current day and the main events of the story. Here's the quick and dirty version. As the world hurtles towards an inevitable nuclear crisis an subsequent self annihilation, a plot is uncovered that could save humanity from almost certain destruction, but would involve deliberately killing half the population of New York City, then covering it up citing some new previously unknown threat as the cause. Needless to say, many ethical questions arise at this point. If you knew of such a plot, would you try to stop it? More importantly, the person responsible for the plot thinks himself a watchful protector (a phrase used to describe Batman in the recent film "Dark Night" incidentally), but that gives rise to the question (currently one off the tag lines for the upcoming film) who watches the watchmen? The protectors who are supposedly making sure the rest of the world is held accountable for their actions - who holds them accountable for theirs? This question cuts to the core of the ideals behind vigilante-ism.

If there is one over all theme to the graphic2392444614_38f8a08116_o novel it would be summed up in that tag line, "Who watches the watchmen?" but there are plenty more moral dilemmas and complications in the actual reading. Questions about justice, forgiveness, the basis for morality, torture, retribution, etc. Unfortunately some of the content is pretty disturbing, painting a pretty bleak picture of the human condition which I think is frankly a little pessimistic and exaggerated, but then again, much of this is from the vigilante's point of view, so maybe that's part of the point. I did however, appreciate not just the moral dilemmas, but the political implications. It was interesting to compare the plot to save the world with the Bush administrations "War against terror" and it's justifications.

[here comes another spoiler]
In the story, the basic idea of the scheme to save the world, is to fool humanity into thinking that there is much worse enemy to be feared than any human rivals, with the idea of uniting the world in light of this new threat; this being accomplished by introducing a sort of alien biological bomb into New York City which wipes out a good chunk of the local population while psychically attacking survivors causing madness and nightmares in another large percentage of the population. Had this been written post 9-11 the parallels would be a little suspect. Regardless, what's really interesting is comparing the aftermath in both cases. The idea of uniting people via fear of a new threat, whether real, contrived, arranged, or imagined, is the driving force of the scheme in the book, and was also used to garner support after 9-11. In the graphic novel it seemed to work - peace was achieved and a nuclear war was averted. In real life however, we became engulfed in a war. A generation that had become notoriously apathetic suddenly became passionately political.

Bush - Yes I Did 

9-11 was used to justify a lot of executive actions that followed, not the least of which were the Patriot Act which removed rights of privacy and fair trial to anyone suspected of having terrorist ties (though many Americans seem to have forgotten the difference between suspected of a crime and actually being guilty). We watched our government use methods in treatment and questioning of prisoners that we had condemned in other countries less than 50 years ago. At the same time, the reaction on the other side was a passionate revival in concerns for human rights and a more global awareness. So some good came out of it, right? That makes it all okay, right? That sounds like the architect of the world's salvation in Watchmen as he asks a colleague in the closing chapter, "I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end..." to which his colleague replies, "In the end? Nothing ever ends..."

So basically a lot of good food for thought in the book. How far should one go for the sake of "justice"? At what point does the "greater good" out-weigh the good of the few or the one? Do the ends justify the means? What's worse: punishing the innocent, or failing to punish the guilty? What's better: justice or mercy? And of coarse, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" Who watches the watchmen?

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