A recent twitter thread examining the public reception about Rorschach vs. author intent got me thinking about Watchmen again. When the movie came out, I went to a local comic book club meeting about the classic graphic novel. I was the oldest there; everybody else was roughly college age. It struck me that the whole giant subtext (or is it surface text?) about the Bomb was largely lost on them. That is, the pirate comic – Tales of the Black Freighter – as a metaphor for the fear of nuclear annihilation that was so prevalent during the Cold War, especially during Alan Moore’s childhood (the “duck and cover” years, even in Britain). It’s not about nuclear annihilation itself but about what the fear of it does to us. We (the poor shipwreck survivor, that is) will do terrible things to avert the object of our fear, even if it means enacting the very horrors we think the object of our fear threatens to deliver upon us.
Watchmen is a multi-level work, of course, but I think understanding the Bomb and its omnipresence during the Cold War is the master key to really unlocking the work, and not just because Doctor Manhattan is a walking representative of the nuclear program. While superheroes predate the Bomb, they really take off as a genre in the early-60s, when the Cold War is at full rev. The so-called Silver Age is actually the Post-Bomb Age, as attested to by all the heroes who gain their powers from the wayward atom. Moore clearly sees superheroes as being complicit in the whole Cold War scam. If they’re not always crewmembers of the Black Freighter, they’re at least patsies for the establishment’s war engine.
There’s a lot to be said here, and I don’t have time to fully work this all out. But:
* Ozymandias’ alien arrives in the form of a bomb, one turned on the American people.
* Rorschach, the one who resists the New World Order, is vaporized, just like as if he’d been at ground zero for the Bomb. The message is that only those who embrace the logic of nuclear superiority will survive.
In the end, none of us are free. We’re enslaved to the logic of the Bomb, the atomic clockwork. The less human Doctor Manhattan becomes, the less free he is, seeing all of time – and all our choices — as already having happened.
Watchmen is justly lauded for its formal complexity, but I suspect that one of the reasons its rings a bell with the literary establishment is this pessimistic outcome, so contrary to the usual message of heroism and derring-do that superheroes are supposed to deliver. Nihilism and exhausted outcomes are considered “realism” to modernist stories. This is, I suspect, another unexamined legacy of the Bomb.