Watchmen #12: A Stronger Loving World
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn and lettered by Dave Gibbons
Coloured by John Higgins
After the sprawling murder mystery that is central to Watchmen ended last issue with the cast in Antarctica, Chapter Twelve shows us the full extent of the true horror behind the plan that the deluded billionaire Adrian Veidt believes to be his triumph. The issue begins with Laurie and Manhattan at ground zero while Veidt is back at his base rambling at Rorschach and Nite Owl about his gamble to kill half the population of NYC just to get people to be nicer to each other. The issue itself is about showing the atrocity of his action, further illustrating the moral fallibility of unmonitored superheroes, and wrapping up loose plot threads.
This final chapter of the story shows us the end result of Adrian Veidt’s actions. Rorschach and Nite Owl reel with disbelief while Laurie Juspeczyk and Doctor Manhattan are onsite in the city, the streets teeming with dead bodies. Rorschach and Nite Owl gaze on in horror as Veidt celebrates his grim victory of having killed half of the population of New York to prove a point. Manhattan engages in a short chase with Veidt, who brutally murders his own beloved pet in an attempt to kill Manhattan. When that fails, he somewhat pathetically seeks moral approval from Manhattan, possibly the least moral entity on the planet besides Veidt himself. Manhattan murders Rorschach, but his diary makes it out to the world regardless in the last moments of the story.
Rorschach’s escalation into extremism has its conclusion here as he insists he’s going to tell everyone the truth, accepting that Manhattan will vaporize him before he is allowed to do so. Indeed, the scene of the vigilante Rorschach screaming “DO IT” at the existentialist Manhattan is one of the best remembered moments of the series. While both characters have their point, the lesson we can take from this scene today is that the inflexibility of Rorschach and the detached meandering of Manhattan are equally flawed and equally destructive. Rorschach is not correct – humanity is not what he thinks they are, humanity is both better and worse than the swirling chaos that he sees, but that is true of Manhattan also.
It has been the default for some to view Rorschach as the hero of the series, but he could only even remotely seem to be so in contrast to characters like Veidt, Manhattan, and the Comedian, who, like Rorschach, are all monstrous in different ways. Ultimately, Watchmen is a story about incredibly flawed human beings that could have done real good in their world but ended up nearly destroying it. There are no heroes in Watchmen. Even the best of the group either rejects their own heroism to survive or, in the case of Rorschach, sacrifices his own life just to prove a flimsy moral point. His ideological inflexibility leads him to die on the least relevant hill that presents itself throughout the entire story.
It’s important to observe that Watchmen is a tale of extremes and that it generally refuses to take a side morally among the members of its cast and the actions it portrays, but that its characters are generally rewarded for evil actions. Rorschach is killed but Veidt completely evades justice despite proving himself to be an unrepentant mass murderer. Even Manhattan’s existentialism is extreme, going so far as to completely lose touch with reality. The willfully antimoral Manhattan is defined by his supposedly benign stance when in truth he is incredibly destructive. He was a terrible husband, not a good friend, and a very bad partner to Laurie. He is omnipotent, yet he does nothing to protect her from seeing things that will undoubtedly traumatize her in this issue. His disregard for her well-being is repeatedly emphasized throughout the series, leaving no question that their relationship history was traumatic for her.
The theme of a genius man that steals labor and energy from his much younger partner while subverting her interests in the pursuit of his own is an exhaustively familiar one, but Laurie never achieves significant catharsis on her own terms that would justify the presence of this trope. Manhattan’s omnipotence is his excuse for his distance. To call him emotionless would be absurd, he simply locks his emotions, refuses access, then finds himself so closed off to even his own partner that he forgets she needs to breathe, or that she maybe shouldn’t be at ground zero observing thousands of dead bodies on the streets of New York. Manhattan’s callousness is the other side of Rorschach’s disgust.
There have been arguments made that Laurie’s influence over Manhattan makes her the most powerful and therefore the most empowered person on the cast and all I can say is, that is a gross misunderstanding of what empowerment actually means. In truth, Laurie is likeable, but her character is far from a feminist icon, and that is to the detriment of the story. Her relationship with her mother is smoothed over here with no effort or depth. She and Dan finally make love while in their superhero costumes, which she does apparently mostly for his benefit. She forsakes her identities to tie herself to her male partner, which was her main problem at in the beginning of the story. As such, she shows very little character development over these 12 issues. She has a very different feeling around her own time as a superhero than Dan has around his and gently coaxing Dan to make decisions and be a person is essentially her role in their relationship. All we know of Laurie’s needs is that they aren’t Manhattan, but even that choice is more about him than about her.
It is often said that comics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the mid-’80s changed comics forever. Looking at it from a brutally honest place, it’s a hyperbolic claim that fails to examine the full truth of the time. Comic books, in general, had been rapidly maturing by the release of Watchmen, and books like Green Lantern / Green Arrow, The Question, and even Batman had taken a decidedly more morose and violent tone than ever before. The impact of these dark futuristic tales for readers can’t be denied, but the story itself ultimately leaves us with nothing but dead, deconstructed heroes and a plan gone terribly wrong. In its moment, Watchmen was a hugely important tale to tell, but it was never going to be the last word on superhero comics.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know the mood these books helped to set at DC wasn’t always for the better. All of the books mentioned above struggled with misogynistic caricatures of their female characters. If anything, books like this undoubtedly added to an atmosphere that made comics uncomfortable for a lot of women, and the casual violence against and gross objectification of women would continue to build to something of a fever pitch in the ‘90s that (some) modern creators are still dismantling to this day. How, when, and if at all public exploitation of women has changed over decades is a sprawling subject, and the misogyny of this story isn’t terribly different than that of most stories of the time.
That does not exempt it from commentary, nor does it lessen the impact of the comic on following generations of comic writers for better and for worse. Shocking moments of violence against women to communicate a male hero’s story continue to appear in comics to this day, written by people that idolize Moore’s work, even as Moore himself has shifted blame to editorial and expressed regret for certain moments of violent misogyny in his writing for DC.
There has been a lot of discussion about misogynistic themes in Moore’s work of the time, but one more benign aspect of that is that his female characters unfailingly have directionless lives. Things might not be super fun for Rorschach, but at least they’re interesting. Women never have that same character growth and as a reader, Moore’s women have a tendency to have excruciatingly boring lives in which their only interests are in feuds with other women and the men that have actual character arcs. Again, this is not unique for media of this time, but as we celebrate revolutionary works we must also examine that so often their breakthroughs and moral commentary are explicitly intended for men.
As an onlooker, Laurie’s life is basically Hell. The fact that the story traumatizes her enough that she decides to have a more optimistic view of her Hell does not disregard its strongly Hell-like properties. In some ways, Laurie’s story is about overcoming her own personal angst to appreciate life more, but she had some pretty valid criticisms of her life that were never really addressed. The fact that the conclusion of this story more or less has her taking on a more humble, quieter role in partnership with Dan means that we lose Laurie’s one definitive characteristic – her temper. Her sense of moral outrage, which, if well-written, could have made her the most interesting and indeed the most morally relevant character on the cast. Instead, her once strong stance is eroded reduced to blithe forgiveness and living a life on the lam with the overall inoffensive Nite Owl. It is unquestionable that this is a better partner for her, but outside of that, Laurie’s personal journey consisted of very few if any self-propelled decisions.
As for Laurie’s mother Sally, this final moment of her is perhaps one of the most perplexing moments of the series. I have spent a lot of time in my life looking at this page and wondering what exactly the message the creative team is trying to send and how that correlates or contradicts what is shown at face value. It is decades later, and Sally continues to blame herself and mourn her rapist, who we are told she did engage in consensual sex with after the attempted rape. Of everyone she has ever known in her life, this is the man she continues to keep an autographed photo of immediately next to her. We saw that she refused to allow him around his daughter and would not forgive or trust him again, but she continues to apparently love him or care for him all this time later.
Again, this is the character we saw openly shoot a Vietnamese woman that was carrying his child much earlier in the story. This is one of the moments where the distant narrator takes a side by not taking a side. Choosing to show this moment out of context and failing to delve into what Sally actually went through while giving the Comedian one last moment of emotional staying power in her life lead many readers to view Sally as weak and confused, and it gives further credence to the harmful myth that abused women choose and enjoy to abuse without giving a further look on where that myth comes from or who benefits from perpetrating it. It’s possible that this was meant as a look at the complexity of forgiveness, but without any real context from Sally, it sends a bad message.
The Comedian is forgiven and absolved of his actions in a way no one else in this story is. Certainly not the entirely innocent Silhouette, who is brutally murdered off-page when in bed with her girlfriend and then is casually insulted by Rorschach of all people later in the story. For The Comedian, an entire lifetime of evil is brushed aside in the end simply because he was concerned about his own soul in the last moments of his life. The beginning of the story, in which the Comedian fails to laugh and shows real fear, paints him in an immediately sympathetic light, then the creative team deconstructs his evil throughout his funeral.
As a storytelling approach, this is brilliant. On the other hand, by the end of the story, the message that has been sent is forgiving of him while going well out of its way to indict Sally as complicit in her own assault. Comedian himself is a blank slate, and no context is given him besides his evil actions and those last moments of humanizing terror, then the bizarre scenes in which Sally tries to reconcile her clearly conflicting feelings about him. Under deep examination, the commentary falls apart, and we’re left with only questions as to what exactly these scenes are trying to communicate about abusers and their survivors.
My personal stance on Watchmen is that it is brilliant in many ways but ideologically disappointing in others. There is no disputing the technical mastery of these pages. Structurally, this comic does exactly what it intends to do with a clarity seldom seen in any medium. Yet, technique is not heart, and the heart of this story is somewhat more difficult to pin down. I question the adult men at comic shops that recommended me this comic to read when I was a teenager. I don’t think there is sufficient context around the abuse of women in this story to make it obvious that it isn’t condoning said violence.
I question what this comic has to say about women, but what it has to say about particularly Queer people. The image of the murdered Silhouette and the association with her as a shadow or ghost troubles me, and it is not eased by the abusive lesbian relationship later shown between minor characters or the frankly homophobic implications around Hooded Justice early in the series. The treatment of these characters is generally regarded as social commentary on the very real societal problems of gay people during this time, but in contrast to the clarity of purpose of the rest of this series, it is notable that the murkiest moments are those involving Queer people and women and the trauma they bear at the hands of male characters.
I wonder if the deconstruction of morality key to the heart of Watchmen serves the same function today as it did 30+ years ago, but I don’t believe that it does. As we now exist very soundly within a world of deconstructed moralists turned villains, it has reflected a shift in the public consciousness that very nearly makes the commentary of fallible heroes redundant. This is now the norm, in fiction and in life. That said, I do believe that all revolutionary works are predestined to become old hat somewhere down the line due to oversaturation and repetition of themes, and the works themselves are seldom to blame for that.
Mostly, I’m interested in the ways the text has been interpreted over the last many several years since its initial publication. The after effects of this “grim & gritty” turn in comics led to an era in which women generally stayed out of comic shops entirely. You can’t directly blame Watchmen anymore than you can blame any single work for any market trend (this is why it is likewise impossible to give Watchmen credit for bringing more “adult” themes to superhero comics – it remains but one of many). Stories like this helped usher in a larger audience for comics, but the brutality against female characters that is associated with the medium before, during, and after this time period did nothing but further the narrow interpretation of women that has continued to permeate comics for decades.
The final chapter of Watchmen is told fluidly and gracefully, which in some ways defies the irrationality of the story itself. The sharp tonal changes from scene to scene show us that these moments are microcosms in a macrocosm that is only now revealed. As we are tempted by resolutions, the open-ended question of the series remains. Who is right and who is wrong? You have to decide that for yourself.
Sara Century is an artist, writer, and filmmaker, among other things. She’s the co-founder of the Queer Spec publishing company and its anthology Decoded Pride as well as being a cohost of the podcast Bitches On Comics. Check her website for more or follow her on Twitter here!
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