“Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

I never really read comic books growing up, and I still don’t.  But recently, when the “Watchmen” movie came out, I heard how the comic book it was based on was revolutionary and otherwise amazing.  So I thought I would give it a try.  I can’t say I agree with it being one of the greatest stories of all time.  There is an interesting twist at the end and an underlying, depressing message on moral ambiguity.  I was a little uncomfortable with the art and language at times — this is definitely not a comic book for children.

Taking place in an alternate reality, the storyline involves a handful of retired superheroes, some from the original heyday of the 1940’s and other inspired by their actions to become “masks” themselves.  In 1977 a series of riots initiated public backlash against the masks and superhero activities were outlawed.  (Sounds kind of like the plot of “The Incredibles” cartoon.)  The main story takes place in the 1985, (but there are plenty of flashbacks to fill in historical details) when a nuclear conflict between the US and the Soviets is brewing.  A mysterious murder of a former superhero leads some of the other superheroes into investigating a “mask-killer” theory….

Warning: spoilers after the jump.

The superheroes investigating the murder and other events eventually find out that Ozymandius, (super-power: incredible intelligence) one of their former allies and now the head of a corporation capitalizing on his fame to sell products like action figures and cologne, is enacting his plot to bring about world peace.  He has seen for a long time that nuclear war between America and Russia is inevitable as long as the two sides are in opposition.  He realizes that the only way to avoid mutual destruction is to unite them against some other enemy.  Therefore, he devises a plan whereby he kills half of New York City, but deceives everyone to think it is an act by hostile alien beings.  His plan works; the US and USSR unite against the common foe.  When the other superheroes figure out his plan, they are persuaded that it is the right thing to do, and they (mostly) go back to their mild-mannered existences, leaving Ozymandius in peace.

When you think about it, the story is disturbing, and I think is meant to be.  Really, the question is, do the ends (preventing nuclear war, at least in the short term) justify the means, no matter what the cost (murdering half of NYC)?  Ozymandius thought they did, and most of the other superheroes agreed.  One mask, Rorschach, has a cut and dry, black and white sense of right and wrong and refuses to go along with accepting Ozymandius’ actions; he is killed by Dr. Manhattan.

Interspersed throughout the latter half of the book (there are about 12 individual issues of “Watchmen,” compiled into the single book I read) is a second story which I believe mirrors the main story arc.   There is a character reading a pirate-themed comic book (yes, a comic book within a comic book) called “The Black Freighter.”  In that story, a sailor is the solitary survivor of an attack by the pirate ship called the (surprise!) Black Freighter.  The sailor goes slightly mad in his struggle to get to his home port in time to protect his family from the pirates, who he is sure are headed there.  When he arrives, he is convinced he is too late; his only thought to to wreak vengeance against the pirates.  He kills a few people, and goes to his own home and starts to beat up his own wife before he finally comes to his senses.  He realizes that everything is fine, the pirates have not yet come — the only monstrous murderer in town is himself.  Horrified at what he has become, he rushes away to the harbor, where he sees the Black Freighter anchored a ways off shore, waiting.  The sailor jumps in the water, swims to the ship, and is welcomed on board by his new-found fellows.

I think that this pirate tale gives the moral to the story about Ozymandius’ plan and the other masks’ complicity.  By being willing to do anything to accomplish what they think is the greater good, they have become supervillians, not superheroes.

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