Watchmen is a 1986-1987 comic book limited series, collected into a single-volume edition graphic novel in 1987. Original characters were used, since most of them would be unusable for future stories. The series was created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colourist John Higgins.
Moore meant the story as a reflection on contemporary fears, and as a deconstruction and satire on the concept of superheroes, as well as a commentary on contemporary politics. Watchmen depicts an alternate history in which Nixon not only doesn’t resign or is threatened with impeachment over the Watergate scandal (which is never exposed), but enjoys an overturning of the two-term limit and is thus still president by the mid-80s, when the story begins. He is able to do this because such superheroes as Doctor Manhattan and The Comedian help the US win the Vietnam War, ensuring Nixon’s continuing popularity.
Watchmen has received commercial and critical success, recognized in Time‘s List of the 100 Best Novels. According to the BBC’s Nicholas Barber, it is “the moment comic books grew up.” A film adaptation by Zack Snyder came out in 2009, featuring Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson; a video game series, Watchmen: The End Is Nigh, also came out the same year. A TV series continuing the story came out in 2019 on HBO. I’m basing my analysis on the comics and the 2009 movie.
Here is a link to quotes from the film.
II: Alternate History vs Real History
What should we make of the alternate history, with a Vietnam War victory and Nixon continuing on as president well into the 1980s, that is, as a form of political commentary? Here’s my take: what difference does it make, really? Though communism hadn’t yet been defeated as of when Watchmen was written and published, it certainly had been as of the creation of the movie; besides, Vietnam would go over to a market economy, as would China, around the time of the comics’ publication. As for Nixon, when one considers how the foreign and domestic policies of the United States have moved unswervingly in the same neoliberal/neocon direction since the 1973 oil crisis, one can easily see how it has made no difference who’s been sitting in the Oval Office.
…and here’s where the superheroes come in.
Apart from the sheer goofiness of their names (Nite Owl?, Dollar Bill?, Captain Metropolis?, Hooded Justice?, Mothman?), the superheroes are a satire on their whole existence based on the idea that…no…they do not really embody the idea of defending truth, justice, and…wait, actually they do defend the American way. “Who watches the watchmen?” Juvenal once asked of the corrupt men who would guard women against infidelity; though we today find far better application of his words to the defenders of tyrannical governments.
It must be emphasized that, though the liberal creators of Watchmen would have been unlikely to have defended Marxist-Leninist governments (note how the comics’ portrayal of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, moved later in this alternate history to the mid-80s, is still deemed an invasion, rather than an attempt to defend the growth of socialism there against the fundamentalist, reactionary mujahideen), the tyrannical government being critiqued here is the US dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the capitalist, imperialist state led by Nixon, who stands in for Moore’s real Republican satirical target…Reagan!
So, as with John Carpenter‘s film They Live, Watchmen is meant as liberals’ indictment of the GOP specifically, as opposed to being a critique of the entire American two-party system, the military-industrial complex, and capitalism in general, though it should have been meant as such, and it has enough elements in it to be critical of so much bigger a realm of political corruption, as I’ll try to show. For to put what I said above in different words, re-elected Nixon can be a stand-in for not only Reagan, but also Ford, Carter, Bushes Sr. and Jr., the Clintons, Obama, Trump, and Biden.
One criticism of the film’s general faithfulness to the comics is that it was too faithful. Retaining, for instance, the Cold War fears of nuclear armageddon between the US and socialist Russia was deemed by film critics over a decade ago to be too dated for contemporary moviegoers to be able to relate to the tensions depicted. In the 2020s, however, with new Cold War fears of nuclear armageddon between the US and capitalist Russia, moviegoers today can relate all too well to the tensions depicted in the film.
Such fears are what have motivated me to do this analysis.
III: The Comedian Is Dead
The story begins with the violent murder of Edward Blake, the Comedian (Morgan in the film), a man in his sixties who was in remarkably good shape for his age, but no match for his much younger killer, who throws him out of the window of his New York apartment, him falling to his death. The iconic image of his pin of a smiley face stained with a drop of his blood’s a harrowing one, for it symbolizes all that the Comedian in turn came to represent: the idea of superheroes defending the innocent is a sick, cruel joke.
Superheroes in this story are, essentially, glorified police and soldiers, whom they thus represent. Many people, especially in recent years, have come to feel nothing but contempt for cops, and justifiably so, for the cops’ job is really “to serve and protect” the ruling class. Similarly, the American/NATO military serves nothing more than imperial interests.
This is where the Comedian comes in. With Doctor Manhattan (Crudup), he is the only superhero allowed by the US government to remain so under the Keene Act of 1977, which otherwise banned all “masks.” Though the Comedian was inspired by the Peacemaker, with “a little bit of Nick Fury,” there’s also some Captain America in him, too, as can be seen on his Stars and Stripes shoulder sleeves.
Watchmen the comic and film seem to have anticipated the huge outpouring of superhero films in the 2010s, especially the MCU, with its pitting of the Avengers against armies of alien supervillains, a glorification of war between the “good guys,” or “Earth’s mightiest heroes” as representing the armies of US/NATO imperialism, and the “bad guys,” the Chitauri, etc., as representing any country opposing the Western empire.
Accordingly, we shouldn’t be surprised to see flashbacks of the Comedian killing the Vietcong with Doctor Manhattan, though we feel an unsettling sympathy for Charlie as he gets mutilated and destroyed, unlike those Chitauri. What’s worse, we see what a pig of a GI Joe the Comedian is to the pregnant Vietnamese woman he kills…after refusing to take responsibility for having impregnating her. Added to that is his beating and attempted rape of Sally “Jupiter” Juspeczyk, or Silk Spectre I (Gugino) back in the early 1940s. The Comedian thus represents not only police brutality and imperialism, but also toxic masculinity (elements I linked together here), showing what a cruel joke it is to be a “superhero.”
So, the Comedian is despicable in the extreme; but he is not 100% despicable. There are, after all, his penitent tears while sitting at the bed of Moloch (played by Matt Frewer in the film), who was his supervillain enemy for forty years (Chapter II, comic pages 21-23). The Comedian feels this remorse as a result of learning of the apocalyptic plans of Ozymandias (Goode). Indeed, his maskless confession to Moloch, revealing his secret identity as Blake, puts the retired supervillain in the ironic role of priestly confessor, thus once again blurring the line between good and evil in Watchmen.
The Comedian’s grinning wickedness can be explained, if never justified, in one remarkable way. His oft-repeated line, “It’s a joke,” can be interpreted as a kind of Camus-like absurdism. He knows it’s no good playing the hero in a world where villainy keeps resurfacing after brief defeats; it’s especially no good in a world whose existence is threatened by nuclear war.
For him, fighting crime is like Sisyphus rolling that huge boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom as soon as it’s reached the top, to have to be rolled up again and again, for all eternity. One can never make the world a better place, but one is forced to keep trying. Camus concluded, however, that one must imagine that Sisyphus is happy, as a proposed resolution of the contradiction of man’s search for meaning in a meaningless universe; similarly, the Comedian continues to play the fake role of hero with a smile, knowing full well that it’s “all a joke.” Hence he commits atrocities without batting an eye.
Rorschach (Haley), or Walter Kovacs–who has been, like a noir detective, investigating the murder of the Comedian and has formulated a conspiracy theory about someone out to kill all “masks”–is a similarly amoral sociopath, another example of how Watchmen deconstructs and satirizes the idea of “good guy” superheroes, though his sociopathy expresses itself in markedly different ways. His mother having been an abusive prostitute makes him a literal sonofabitch. This rupture in the normal child’s Oedipal and post-Oedipal development at least in part explains his pathology (it goes without saying that little Walter had no father in the home).
One peculiarity about Rorschach is his omission of definite and indefinite articles when speaking; these omissions are more extensive in the comic than in the film. Given his psychopathological nature, such omissions symbolize how incomplete his communicating is. In other words, he’s not as engaged as most people are in the Symbolic Order, the realm of language, social mores, custom, laws, culture, etc. His refusal to abide by the Keene Act, that is, illegally continuing his work as a “mask,” is a reflection of all this. He doesn’t fit in with society, and it shows when he talks.
He sees the world as irredeemably cruel, so he believes that he has the right to be as violent and cruel as he likes to other people (e.g., breaking people’s fingers when interrogating them). His superhero name and mask…or “face,” as he calls it, comes from the Rorschach test, a projective test using symmetrical inkblots (like the shifting black images seen on his white “face”) to bring out features of a patient’s unconscious thoughts that are projected onto the ink blots when he’s asked what he sees.
So his black-and-white “face” represents the kind of projection we all do, not just his own projecting of his viciousness onto the world, but also our projecting onto him when we see his “face,” or onto anyone else. (Consider the scene in the film when, broken out of prison with the help of Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II, he finds his “face,” puts it on, and facing the prison psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Long–played by William S. Taylor– who has used the Rorschach test on him, he asks, “What do you see?”) He is a mirror to us as much as we are a mirror to him. Rorschach, in his permanent hostility to all those around him, personifies the alienation that is almost universal in our world.
The fact that his mask is black and white also represents his own psychological splitting, his black-and-white view of the world: if something isn’t totally pure and innocent, honest and just, it’s so fetidly evil that destroying all manifestations of that evil is perfectly defensible (the fact that he stinks becomes yet another projection onto that fetidly evil world he sees). Hence, “not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” The splitting into black and white means projecting the black outward and keeping the white inside…or so Rorschach thinks he’s doing; yet one cannot deny one’s Shadow, so he behaves as hideously as all those he condemns and maims.
V: Nite Owl II
Upon learning of the murder of the Comedian, Rorschach first goes to the home of Nite Owl II (Wilson), or Dan Dreiberg, to warn him about his theory of a “mask-killer.” Though based on the Ted Kord version of Blue Beetle, Nite Owl is in many ways a parody of Batman, with his use of gadgets and his “Owlship” (reminding us of the Batplane), nicknamed “Archie,” short for Archimedes. Dreiberg’s father left him a lot of money when he died, allowing him to afford such things, rather like orphan billionaire Bruce Wayne. His class status as a bourgeois ensures that Dan, like the other Watchmen, will always have, if not right-wing politics, at least liberal ones, as a reflection of his wish to protect his class interests.
Still, of all the Watchmen, Nite Owl II (as well as Silk Spectre II, or Laurie Juspeczyk–Åkerman) is the most moral. He and she do the one act of saving the lives of innocent people in danger in the whole comic, rescuing people from a tenement building on fire and taking them aboard Archie (Chapter VII, comic pages 23-26). When he and the Comedian are trying to handle the rioters back in the 1970s, he’s in the role of the “good cop,” trying to reason with the rioters, while the Comedian is the “bad cop,” beating the crap out of them (Chapter II, comic pages 16-18), if not killing them.
After warning Dan, Rorschach goes to tell Adrian Veidt, formerly Ozymandias, now the wealthy owner of, among other businesses, a toy company that, in selling Watchmen action figures, is capitalizing on the whole superhero phenomenon. Here we see more of the comics’ satire on superheroes. Like Dan, Adrian shows skepticism over Rorschach’s “mask killer” conspiracy theory (Chapter I, comic pages 17 and 18).
Well, naturally Adrian shows skepticism: as we learn in the end, he is the mask killer.
He’s the one who breaks into Blake’s apartment, beats him up, and throws him out the window. Adrian’s the one who deceives Doctor Manhattan into thinking that contact with him caused his colleagues, his former lover, Janey Slater (played by Laura Mennell in the film), and Moloch to develop cancer, giving the godlike superhero such guilt feelings that he leaves for Mars for some peaceful solitude, thus ensuring he won’t interfere with Adrian’s plans. Since Rorschach is also piecing the plot together, Adrian must get rid of him, too–by framing him for the murder of Moloch and putting him in prison. Finally, Adrian stages an attempt on his own life to make himself seem above suspicion.
And what’s Ozymandias’ plot? To kill millions of New Yorkers with a monster he’s had biologically engineered so that the leaders of the US and the USSR, joining forces to defend the world from alien invaders, will relent from nuclear war. Thus is world peace achieved!
Now, purist fans of the comics will be infuriated with me for saying this, but I believe the film’s changing of the alien monster to energy blasts, seemingly from Doctor Manhattan, on not only New York but also a number of other major cities around the world, was an improvement. Wiping out so many more people makes it all the more horrific, and energy blasts coming from a harnessing of Doctor Manhattan’s power, by virtue of the godlike hero’s name’s association with the Manhattan Project (and therefore associating his power with nuclear weapons), creates an ironic genocide by power thus associated in order to prevent a genocide by nuclear weapons.
Ozymandias imagines that his plot, as horrific as it is, will be a necessary sacrifice to prevent a horror killing billions, because apparently, the American and Soviet governments will be deterred by this horror from ever going to war with each other. Why, however, should we believe that world peace, let alone a lasting one, will be guaranteed by this “sacrifice”? Ozymandias himself acknowledges that man’s savage, violent nature will inevitably lead to his destruction. One doesn’t have to be “the smartest man in the world” to know that that savage, destructive nature won’t be tamed forever just because of the massive deaths caused by the monster, or the energy blasts. Let enough time pass by, and all those deaths will slowly fade from memory, and our bloodthirsty, competitive habits will reemerge.
Kiling millions to save billions, therefore, must be Adrian’s rationalization, rather than his real reason, for killing all those people (I wonder if any of his businesses’ competition were wiped out in New York, with his full knowledge?). Like the Comedian and Rorschach, Ozymandias is yet another superhero psychopath (recall how easily he disintegrates his pet Bubastis in his attempt to do the same to Doctor Manhattan), but with some narcissism mixed in. He identifies with great leaders of ancient history: Alexander the Great, and later Ramses II, called Ozymandias by the ancient Greeks. We’re reminded of Shelley‘s poem, in which we read the famous lines, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
In his narcissistic imagination, Adrian thinks he’s achieved the ultimate act of greatness in creating world peace, paradoxically, through a huge massacre. We are to look on his works (supposedly not knowing they’re his works) and despair, on the one hand, at the huge number of deaths he’s caused, and on the other hand, at the great accomplishment–supposedly thus–of what has been deemed impossible to accomplish…a lasting world peace. The “mighty” would envy him for his great feat.
Yet, just as the giant statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem has been reduced to mere fragments of rubble by the passage of time, so will Adrian’s peace by mass murder–by the passage of time–fade away into oblivion with the innate human urge to resume competing and waging war. His peace will come crumbling down; in fact, it may crumble quite soon if Seymour (played by Chris Gauthier in the film), at New Frontiersman, takes Rorschach’s journal from the crank file and, reproducing in a newspaper article the contents that have resulted from Rorschach’s investigation, expose Adrian’s whole plan as a hoax (Chapter XII, comic pages 31 and 32).
Now, New Frontiersman is a right-wing newspaper (as made blatantly clear on pages 275-278 in the graphic novel), and Rorschach’s giving of his journal to them indicates his sympathies for their politics. Indeed, he often speaks disparagingly of “liberal sensibilities,” which, contrary to popular belief, are not left-wing, but centrist, swaying only temporarily to the left or to the right depending on the political climate of the time (consider, for example, how liberals were left-leaning peaceniks in the 1960s and 70s; but when Trump was elected, they started banging the war drums against Russians, leading to our predicament in the 2020s). Other masks, like the Comedian, are similarly right-wing, “practically a Nazi,” according to Adrian.
Now, Adrian is deemed one of the “most consistently left-leaning superheroes,” according to a 1975 article by the liberal Nova Express (pages 377-380), so virulently hated a publication by the editor of New Frontiersman. Still, as the wealthy owner of several companies, Adrian is merely a bourgeois liberal and a member of the capitalist class, so he hardly merits the moniker of “leftist.” He’s no more “left-leaning” than billionaire George Soros, who may critique the excesses of unregulated capitalism from time to time, but who also used the “Open Society” to help dissolve the Soviet states. Only a far right-wing moron would call Soros a ‘communist’; it’s equally absurd to imagine that Adrian, an admirer of rulers during the ancient slave/master class contradiction, is anything approaching a socialist.
If one wishes to call Adrian a liberal, fine. We’ve seen plenty of liberals in today’s world joining the choruses of condemnation of Putin and all things Russian in response to his provoked invasion of Ukraine. These same liberals are, knowingly or unknowingly (the latter being no excuse, as evidence of the provocations has been made public for years), cheering for a government that has Nazis in it, as well as in their military. (I go into more detail about this issue in these posts, Dear Reader, if you’re interested: rehashing these arguments is beyond the scope of this article.)
That Western liberals are rooting for Ukraine and manufacturing consent for continued war with Russia is a dangerous game, risking a very possibly nuclear WWIII. Such an understanding of Ozymandias’ politics helps clear our minds as to why this liberal, fantasizing about an ideal world, has massacred millions in a manner comparable with nuclear war in order, paradoxically, to prevent it. Recall how atomic bombs killed hundreds of thousands in two Japanese cities (rationalized as having prevented far more deaths), far fewer than Adrian’s mass murder in New York City.
VII: Doctor Manhattan
The next heroes Rorschach goes to warn are Doctor Manhattan and Silk Spectre II, the couple being in a sexual relationship and living together in the Rockefeller Military Research Center, where Doctor Manhattan works for the government. When Rorschach tells them the Comedian is dead, Dr. Manhattan says he already knows, and that “the CIA suspects the Libyans were responsible.” Though the CIA presumably wouldn’t have known of Adrian’s plot (of course, knowing the nature of the CIA, and of at least some billionaires’ CIA connections, it’s quite possible that they might be in on it), their scapegoating of Libya sounds most convenient for their purposes.
Laurie feels no love lost for the murder of the man who tried to rape her mother, breaking her ribs and almost choking her; but Rorschach just trivializes the “moral lapse” of a man who died serving his country, a typically jingoistic and insensitive opinion from a right-winger (Chapter I comic page 21).
As for Dr. Manhattan, he is similarly unmoved by Blake’s death, since “life and death are unquantifiable abstracts.” As the only superhero of the Watchmen with superhuman powers, this nude blue demigod is emotionally numb from his deeper understanding of ‘the broader scheme of things,’ as it were, a numbness that will alienate Laurie from him and make her run into Dan’s arms later.
Dr. Jon Osterman became Doctor Manhattan as a result of a freak accident in the test chamber–in which he was locked–in the intrinsic field chamber where he and his fellow researchers worked. (He went there to retrieve a watch he’d fixed, that of his lover, Janey Slater.) In that chamber, his body was torn to pieces…pieces too infinitesimally small to see (Chapter IV, comic pages 7 and 8).
He reassembled himself (just like the repairing of her watch) in stages: first, a brain, eyes, and nervous system emerged; then, his circulatory system; next, a partially-muscled skeleton. Finally, he appeared before Janey and the other research staff in the cafeteria in his full, new form–blue, hairless, muscular, and naked, glowing with a “sudden flare of ultraviolet” (Chapter IV, comic page 10).
Osterman’s ordeal is obviously Christ-like in his agonizing death and resurrection, giving him a kind of “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44), if you will, and as a kind of “second Adam,” it’s fitting that he goes about “naked…and…not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25), just like the two lovers in the garden before their fall from grace. So his disintegration into the void was a kind of harrowing of hell…but also, paradoxically, a brief experience of the no-thing-ness of nirvana.
The sublation of the dialectical opposites of heaven (or, if you prefer, nirvana) and hell can be a way of interpreting what Wilfred Bion called O, and what Lacan called the Real. It’s a place of bliss as well as of trauma. Osterman has experienced both, almost simultaneously, and he’ll never be the same again.
Having experienced such extremes, he is distanced from the normal feelings of human attachment that are a part of samsara. He scarcely feels the fire of desire that causes dukkha, suffering; so his resurrected, god-like incarnation grows cooler and cooler emotionally. Death and suffering no longer trouble him all that much. He can still feel some emotion (hence his guilt over Janey’s cancer, a particularly powerful exception for him), but feelings are scanted for him, at best.
Small wonder he can walk as a giant through the jungles and rice paddy fields of Vietnam and destroy Charlie without flinching. Such is his nirvanic indifference to the differences between life and death. This indifference, of course, is most useful to the American government. As an American god, Doctor Manhattan should be terrifying to the world. As a metaphoric nuclear weapon personified, he’ll keep the Soviets at bay.
As the personification of a nuclear weapon, capable of destroying all life, he’s the opposite of what a superhero is supposed to be. As someone so indifferent to human life that it doesn’t matter to him if nuclear war wipes it out, Doctor Manhattan is that much less of a superhero.
It is only when he realizes so good a person as Laurie, Silk Spectre II, can come–by a one in a billion chance–from the mating of Sally, Silk Spectre I, with her near-rapist, the super-despicable Comedian, such good from such bad, that Doctor Manhattan sees the birth as a miracle, and therefore he can see value in human life once again. So by this paradox, he finds the willingness to go back, from his isolation on Mars, to Earth to prevent nuclear war between the US and the USSR.
But he arrives too late to stop the monster…or, according to the film, the energy blasts to be blamed on him.
Heroes meant to prevent calamity either fail to prevent it in Watchmen, or they outright cause it…the superhero concept is further satirized and deconstructed.
VIII: The Black Freighter
A subplot running throughout the comics, but not included in the film (apart from deleted scenes), is a comic book story–read by a young man sitting by a newspaper vendor who’s always prating about the end of the world (and providing copies of New Frontiersman to Walter Kovacs when he isn’t in his Rorschach outfit but is carrying around a sign saying “The End Is Nigh”)–from Tales of the Black Freighter. (This begins at the start of Chapter III.)
The protagonist of the story–curiously not a comic book superhero, since a decline in the popularity of “masks” over the years has replaced them with, in this case, for example, seamen–has found himself the sole survivor of his crew from a shipwreck resulting from an attack at sea by the Black Freighter, or as he calls it, the “hell-bound ship.” (Chapter III, comic pages 1 and 2) Overwhelmed by the sight of his wrecked ship and the bodies of his dead crew strewn on the shore, and also fearing the hell-bound ship sailing to his hometown of Davidstown, where his wife and daughters will be killed before he can get there, he vows revenge and is obsessively driven to get home to achieve it.
When he realizes that making a raft from wood won’t be buoyant enough, he decides to make one with the body parts of the dead crewmen he’s just buried. This ghoulish act is the first example of foreshadowing in the story, for the Black Freighter has heads nailed to its prow. In his overzealous quest to avenge evil (if he can’t stop the ship from killing his family, that is), the protagonist will become the very evil he’s trying to prevent. He’s projecting his own potential for evil onto the Black Freighter (Chapter V, comic pages 8 and 9), just as Rorschach projects his evil onto the world.
Further foreshadowing of him becoming that evil is when he, on his raft of rotting corpses, grabs a seagull among many trying to nip at the dead flesh and savagely eats it alive. We see a picture of him (Chapter V, bottom right of comic page 9) with a wild facial expression and gull’s blood dripping from his mouth.
It’s interesting to note, in connection with the moral degeneration of the protagonist, how the newspaper vendor standing by the kid reading the comic has said, from the beginning, that the US should nuke the USSR. Is his attitude not a perfect parallel of that of the comic’s protagonist? So eager to kill the bad guys that he talks like a bad guy himself. The same is true of the Comedian, Rorschach, and Ozymandias, all self-righteous psychopaths who think they have the right to end human life.
Eventually, the protagonist reaches land and gets to Davidstown. Since he’s narrating the story, and he’s been through a harrowing, traumatizing, and disorienting experience, his judgement will be shaky at best. Therefore, he is clearly an unreliable narrator. What he perceives to be happening next should be observed with due skepticism.
He sees a man and a woman walking along near the beach. It’s at night, so it’s dark and not easy to see. Still, the protagonist is sure this man is a moneylender from Davidstown whom he recognizes, and the woman is his paramour. Moneylenders were despised people back around the 18th/19th century, when this story takes place, so it’s easy to see the protagonist vilifying this man as an abettor to the evil crew of the Black Freighter. (Chapter X, comic book pages 12 and 13)
He kills the lovers, then disguising himself as the man and putting the woman’s body on her horse, he rides into Davidstown with her. (Chapter X, comic page 23) Again, this use of a corpse with transportation is a foreshadowing of his eventual identification with the murderous crew of the Black Freighter, with heads on its prow.
Finally in Davidstown, he gets to his home and, thinking the murderous pirates are there, he attacks one to avenge his family…only to realize he’s actually killed his own wife. (Chapter XI, comic page 6) The Black Freighter never reached Davidstown (has it been only a figment of his imagination the whole time, a projection of his own, inner evil?), though the ship is later seen approaching the shore by the despairing protagonist, who has returned to the beach. He gets in the water, swims to the boat, and joins the crew, being as evil as they are. (Chapter XI, comic page 23)
To return to the main story, after Ozymandias has released the monster (which, by the way, can also be representative of a nuclear holocaust, through associations with such kaiju as Godzilla) on New York, a mass murder that one TV news reporter compares to “Hiroshima but with buildings”(Chapter XII, comic page 25), he tells Doctor Manhattan about a dream he’s had, “about swimming towards a hideous…” (Chapter XII, comic page 27)
He doesn’t finish his thought, though, because, as should be obvious to us, he’s referring to the Black Freighter. Like the protagonist of that story, Ozymandias has become the very evil he claims he’s wanted to prevent…though he won’t let his guilt surface to his conscious mind (it can appear only in his unconscious, in dream).
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history,” meaning the triumph of “free market” capitalism as the highest and final stage of human civilization. But as Doctor Manhattan tells liberal capitalist Ozymandias, “Nothing ever ends.” (Chapter XII, comic page 27)
We all imagined (myself included, at the time), in our naïveté, that the end of the Soviet states would not only usher in freedom and democracy around the world, but also, in ending the Cold War, put to rest our fears of nuclear annihilation. Yet since the early 1990s, we’ve instead seen life get shittier and shittier, with increasing income inequality, the capitalist class controlling most of our access to information, a homelessness epidemic, worsening financial crises, government surveillance (and surveillance capitalism), rampant imperialist wars, and militarized police. The end of socialist “totalitarianism” has only led to a very real capitalist totalitarianism. In the past, the West feared the rule of Stalin and Mao, but we don’t need to fear them: now we’re ruled by the likes of Gates, Musk, and Bezos.
Our “heroes” of the past–Soros et al–have become the very evil they fancied themselves to be fighting.
Furthermore, just as we see on the pages of the Watchmen comics, the doomsday clock is set just a few minutes before midnight. All one needs to do to see the grim reality I’m describing is to watch the reckless nuclear brinksmanship going on with the US and NATO’s proxy war with Russia, using Ukrainians as cannon fodder. And as if that weren’t madness enough, the Western imperialists are planning to play the same game of nuclear chicken with China, using the Taiwanese as cannon fodder.
The end of the world is nigh…where are Walter Kovacs and his sign when we need them?
Just as Ozymandias imagines dropping a giant squid-like monster on New York City–or, as in the film, using energy blasts seeming to come from Doctor Manhattan, killing not only millions in the Big Apple, but also in London, Paris, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, etc.–will save billions by killing millions, so do some of the warmongering imperialist psychopaths in our world imagine using smaller nukes will defeat Russia and China without wiping out the entire world. MAD indeed.
Not only are we headed unswervingly towards WWIII and nuclear annihilation, we are also blinded to this reality by the Russophobic and Sinophobic propaganda of the Western bourgeois media, who keep the truth from us just as Doctor Manhattan kills Walter Kovacs to keep the truth from the world about Ozymandias’ plot. That Western propaganda is like the tachyons used to blind us Dr. Manhattans to the dire future we face, causing us to do nothing to prevent it.
The anti-Russian partisans of the DNC, as well as the anti-Chinese partisans of the GOP, see the politicians of their respective parties as superheroes defending the US…yet, who is watching the watchmen? In their hate of their version of the Black Freighter, be it China, or Russia, or both of them, these Western politicians have built their raft of corpses–from all their previous warmongering–and they’re on their way to Davidstown.
Not enough of us yet know that these Western politicians will soon swim to that hell-bound ship and join their bloodthirsty crew…will there be enough of us to stop them before it’s too late?
As we can see, Watchmen, in its comic and movie forms, is extremely relevant to our troubled times today.
Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins, Watchmen, Burbank, CA, DC Comics, 1986-1987