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Superhero Comic Books Are Good Literature! Part 3: Watching the Watchmen

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Many comic book scholars, nerds, and shop owners alike feel the alpha and the omega of this view of superhero comic books as Good Literature is Alan Moore’s masterpiece, Watchmen.  

Now widely considered one of the best superhero stories ever written, Watchmen was originally released as a twelve-issue maxi-series in 1986-87.  It is set in an alternate, or even dystopian, reality.  The year is 1985; Richard Nixon is still president and has been for more than our standard two terms.  The United States won the Vietnam War thanks to the help of the only character with true superpowers in the book, Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman), and superheroes, or as they like to call themselves, “costumed adventurers”, in the United States have been forced to A) quit, B) work for the government, or C) go underground.  For an added layer of intensity, the world is on the brink of nuclear war.

One of the bonuses of writing a story that incorporates several pictures on a page is the ability the writer has to address many different events simultaneously.  Each page can have any number of panels, and Moore uses this to his advantage, by throwing several events at his readers at once.  For instance, Watchmen begins with the murder of one of the government-sponsored superheroes, The Comedian (Eddie Blake); a discussion between the detectives investigating it; and the diary entries of an underground hero, Rorschach (Walter Kovacs), as he tries to solve the case.

Very good class; that does sound like the beginning of a journey, or perhaps a Hero’s Journey . . . .

In the first chapter, “At Midnight, All the Agents . . .”, Rorschach, whose mask is a constantly moving replica of the actual Rorschach Ink Blot Test, symbolizing quite poignantly, (particularly in this chapter) that everyone sees him differently, seeks out all the heroes in and around New York City, regardless of status, to inform them of The Comedian’s death as well as his intent to investigate it as a homicide with a message.  He suspects someone is after “costumes.”  Through this clever exposition and Moore’s primary use of an objective point of view (the kind you usually get when you watch a movie—no thought bubbles, no narration save the few diary entries), readers are taken on a tour of the world of New York superheroes in Watchmen’s 1985.

Rorschach’s first stop is the home of Nite-Owl II (Daniel Dreiberg).  Nite-Owl is pudgy, middle-aged, retired from the life of a costumed adventurer, and clearly pathetic.  But he is not a stereotype.  In his behaviors and actions, he is more like a Jungian archetype on a journey from being the Orphan and surviving difficulty to being the Warrior and proving his worth.  Archetypes often come up in Good Literature because they are solid manifestations of real “types” of people.  The Orphan symbolizes the disjointed man, drifting, not connected to anything or anyone.  Whether his disconnectedness is through loss of family or identity is open for interpretation, and how that Orphan reacts to his situation is as well.  It is enough to say here that Nite-Owl behaves in such a way—forlorn, depressed, confused, and only happy when talking with his mentor, the first Nite-Owl, about his glory days—as to show the readers that he embodies this archetype.  

As the story progresses, Nite-Owl grows.  He sees his faults and begins to deal with them.  He makes some mistakes, he has some problems, and he reacts to them realistically, at times weakly.  But in the end, he emerges a hero, a hero with faults, problems, and foibles that solidly cement him in the zone of REAL—and the possession of real characters, if you remember, is one of the legs of our definition of Good Literature.

Come back next week for more analysis of the characters in Watchmen!  It only gets better!

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