Comic Book Anti-Heroes Essay
Comic Book Anti-Heroes
The frequently talked about, critically celebrated – and to some extent excessively hyped – comic book miniseries Watchmen is most often described as a revisionist take on superhero conventions and narratives, and with good reason. Now retroactively referred to as a graphic novel, Watchmen sees writer-artist team Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons deal with costumed adventurers or ‘superheroes’ and attempt to place them within a ‘realist’ context. Moore and Gibbons do not appear to denigrate superheroes so much as purge them of the conceits that have become necessary for comic book readers to be able to suspend their disbelief.
Watchmen takes place in an alternate reality of 1985, where Cold War tensions are at their highest and multiple term extensions have allowed Richard Nixon to remain President of the United States. Furthermore, the United States has a long and troubled relationship with costumed adventurers dating back to the late 1930s. While the sensational nature of costumed adventurers acquire much admiration in the initial decades of their appearance, public sentiment turns strongly against them and by 1977, the government passes the Keane Act, which outlaws vigilante heroism.
As a result, the protagonists of Watchmen are divided evenly among those costumed adventurers who have retired and those who have not. In the former category lies the perpetually bored ornithologist named Dan Dreiberg, formerly the gadget reliant ‘Nite Owl’, Laurie Juspeczyk, a moderate feminist with assertion issues who was formerly the martial arts oriented ‘Silk Spectre’ and Adrian Veidt, a genius-level intellect and self-perfected athlete once known as ‘Ozymandias’ and now channels his talents towards a billion dollar business empire and renowned philanthropy.
Those adventurers who have continued to operate despite the Keane Act provide the most fertile area for ethical and moral analysis, especially in the context of the historical background that Moore and Gibbons have constructed. These include Edward Blake, a brutally gung-ho ‘superpatriot’ known as ‘The Comedian’, Jon Osterman, a former physicist turned emotionally detached god-like being code-named by the U. S. government as ‘Doctor Manhattan’ and Walter Kovacs, an uncompromising moral absolutist and the only one who operates without government sanction as the cruel vigilante called ‘Rorschach’.
Rorschach, The Comedian and Doctor Manhattan effectively function as anti-heroes in the sense that although their adventuring careers have persisted beyond the Keane Act, they are far removed from the heroic intentions that have been the traditional feature of costumed adventurers in comic book literature. Furthermore, the morality and ethics which governs their activities is shaded with far darker tones than the unwavering idealism of a Superman or the commitment to vigilance that characterizes a Batman.
However, their anti-heroism character is owed in large part to the ways that they evoke the characteristics of traditional superhero archetypes. This is not an entirely unfounded observation. It is no secret that the characters of Watchmen originate with characters from a relatively obscure comic publishing company known as Charlton Comics. Pustz (146-147) and Jensen (47) both recount that the genesis of Watchmen was in a request made by Dick Giordano, then executive editor of DC Comics, that Moore apply his talents to characters that DC had just acquired from Charlton.
Moore was selected primarily because of the revisionist skills he had displayed in books such as Swamp Thing and Marvelman. In the former, Moore turned a formulaic horror series into a melancholy drama with an environmentalist streak while in the latter, he toyed with what was a British Captain Marvel knock-off and subverted into an existentialist look at relationship between superhero and alter ego.
Because Watchmen presented superheroes as sexually frustrated, politically emasculated and psychologically unstable, it would have presented problems for the commercial longevity of the Charlton characters, making them unusable for future stories. As a result, Moore was instructed to re-write his story with original characters, and the Charlton characters were ultimately re-introduced by DC Comics through different means. This meant that the specific histories of the Charlton characters no longer imposed any limitations on the story that Moore and collaborator Gibbons had chosen to tell.
Pustz (147) observes that this was for the better: fewer readers would have the prior knowledge necessary to appreciating the Charlton characters than those who would appreciate original characters. However, for these original characters to resonate properly with audiences on a similar level as established characters it became necessary for Moore and Gibbons to develop them beyond what could be communicated in a finite number of comic book panels, even when allowing for flashbacks and copious amounts of background detail.
To do so, Moore and Gibbons made use of various fictional documents such as a report on the political implications of Doctor Manhattan’s super-powered existence and the autobiography of Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl and predecessor to Dan Dreiberg. The characters of Watchmen, as already suggested above, ended up being evocative of superhero archetypes. As Pustz notes: “Dr. Manhattan […] echoes every omnipotent superhero from Superman to Miracleman to the Spectre.
The Comedian refers […] to patriotic heroes such as Captain America and superspies such as Marvel’s Nick Fury. Rorschach is […] every other obsessed vigilante from Batman to the Punisher. ” (Pustz 147) By converging the evocation of superhero archetypes with a dysfunctional alternate history, Moore and Gibbons impose profound effects on the psychology of Watchmen’s protagonists. Simply put, Watchmen’s protagonists really are anti-heroes in multiple senses of the word.
This is because what Moore and Gibbons have done is make it impossible for their characters to sustain a heroic purity over the course of their careers, especially in the face of history. Many of the longest-running comic book series are those that feature superheroes, and require a moderate suspension of disbelief that allows them to persist in a constant state of present tense. Therefore, in addition to a diminished aging rate (if any at all), the psychological and political development of the characters is limited in order to allow them to sustain continued adventuring careers.
Thus, while the Spider-Man of the 1960s hangs out with his pals at soda parlors and the Captain America of the 21st century faces personal uncertainty in the face of international anti-American sentiment, neither never fully achieve any personal disillusionment or psychological resolution that would end their stories. By contrast, the costumed heroes in the Watchmen world do not and cannot possess the static personalities that have allowed the likes of Captain America or Batman to function continuously in their own comic books, despite the changes in cultural and political zeitgeist.
Even if their personalities weren’t so troubled and their motivations so void of nobility, the forces of history would still have gradually eroded the initial foundations of their adventuring careers, which they do. As such, the relationship between crime fighting and society changes radically in the decades between 1938, when costumed heroes make their first appearance, and the year 1985, which is when the primary events take place.
Klock notes that ahistorical conditions are necessary to support the superhero narrative, opining that “superheroes only make sense in world where masked opponents support their fantasy, and masked opponents only exist to fight superheroes,” but because history and personality carry greater weight in Watchmen than they traditionally do in other superhero narratives. As a result, Watchmen’s protagonists encompass varying levels of cynicism, neuroticism and societal alienation. They become anti-heroes simply because it is impossible to for their heroism to remain pure at all.
It is from this angle that Moore and Gibbons proceed to interrogate the effect of history on the individual viewpoints of costumed adventurers and superheroes, as well as their effects upon history itself. In addition to the geopolitical implications of Doctor Manhattan’s nigh omnipotence, Moore and Gibbons examine how personal humanity is profoundly altered by nigh omniscient awareness of history, whilst the Comedian is the expression of how historical tumult and a life of violence has corrupting effects on the patriotic character, rendering an almost irredeemable cynicism.
In the case of Rorschach, who is Watchmen’s most (dis)reputable anti-hero, he experiences constant exposure to the endurance of social and cultural malaise which serves to only harden his moral and ethical absolutism. The result is an unwavering dedication to the pursuit of justice, one which would ordinarily and unquestionably admirable in traditional superheroes, but not in one who ultimately comes across as a fascist.
Jackie Earle Haley, the actor who is to portray Rorschach in a feature film adaptation of Watchmen, notes that Rorschach’s personality centers around his contention with the oft-declared complexity of the world that is maintained as the excuse for its ills and woes: “Rorschach’s complexity is […] an attacking complexity. He tries to simplify the world in black and white. […] Rorschach thinks that you’re not what you say you mean, you’re what you do. You are your behavior […] That sort of forced me to look at my own behavior, to ask myself, ‘Who’s my behavior victimizing today?
’ […] We justify our behavior with complexity. Not for Rorschach. ” (Adler 2008) Thus, it is not Rorschach’s relentless commitment to the pursuit of justice that gives him his anti-heroic character, as it is a quality he shares with Batman. Although portrayals of Batman have varied over the decades in both print and film, his ideals are not closely linked with his view of society, giving him a sense of ambivalence towards society’s collective responsibilities to its own welfare.
Rorschach on the other hand, views the world with utter contempt, with little faith in its ability to redeem itself. His moral absolutism originates from humanity’s consistent inability to live up to the nobility it ascribes to itself. His development as a vigilante stems from humanity’s failure and inaction. In the case of a woman who had been raped, tortured and killed outside her own apartment building, he remembers that: “Nobody did anything. Nobody called cops. Some of them even watched. Do you understand?
I knew what people were then, behind all the evasions, all the self-deception. Ashamed for humanity I went home. I took the remains of her unwanted dress and made a face that I could bear to look at in the mirror. ” Traditional superheroes do not view the world with this much contempt, but Rorschach does. His contempt for humanity is most strongly articulated when he declares, “This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate who butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs.
It’s us. ” While Rorschach articulates the most complex relationship between an individual’s ideals and his perception of society, Doctor Manhattan expresses how ambivalence towards the value of human affairs leads to a sense of detachment that reduces an individual’s moral compass down to dehumanized utilitarianism. This is not to suggest that Manhattan’s nigh-omnipotence makes him morally apathetic. Rather, it alters his ethical code in such a fashion that the welfare of a numerical majority takes precedence, regardless of the cost.
This is made most evident when he teleports an angry mob, which is a peaceful means of negating conflict, but it also leads to two shock-induced heart attacks. Manhattan maintains that this is statistically preferable to the larger number of casualties that would have been caused by mob violence. Towards the end of Watchmen, Manhattan becomes even more indifferent towards the redemption of humanity, opining that despite the attempts of individuals such as Ozymandias to bring about a peaceful new world order, “nothing ever ends.
” While Rorschach’s desire is to impose his will and “scrawl [his] own design on this morally blank world,” and Manhattan dismisses the notion that human problems can ever be resolved, The Comedian simply doesn’t care. As a nihilist, the Comedian shares Rorschach’s belief that there is no moral or ethical principle which guides the universe. Despite the fact that he fought for the U. S. during the Vietnam War, he concludes that its outcome matters only to Americans and holds no meaning to the average Vietnamese.
The Comedian is so utterly devoid of delusions about the moral value of geopolitical affairs, and his participation stems primarily from his loyalty to Uncle Sam rather than from any sense of idealism. His credo is that existence is one big joke, and he’s one of the few who is in on the gag. These three – Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan, The Comedian – are antiheroes not because they are devoid of any heroism, but rather because they express how a purity of ideals will always be shaped by the forces which history exerts upon them.
They do not operate from a corrupt morality let alone from villainy: several moments reveal deeply obscured or twisted nobility within them all. Instead, they are anti-heroic because the gritty realities of society and the debilitating effects of continued crime fighting take hold upon them in ways that are denied to their conventional counterparts. Works Cited Pustz, Matthew J. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Klock, Geoff. “Who Watches the Watchmen? ” SF Crowsnest, April 2003. Retrieved December 17, 2008 from: http://www. sfcrowsnest. com/sfnews2/03_april/news0403_6. shtml Adler, Shawn. “Is Rorschach ‘Watchmen’s’ Most Heroic Character? Jackie Earle Haley Thinks So. ” MTV Splash Page, 21 August 2008. Retrieved December 17, 2008 from: http://splashpage. mtv. com/2008/08/21/is-rorschach-watchmens-most-heroic-character-jackie-earle-haley-thinks-so/