Years after the Keene Act outlawed vigilantism, the old crime fighters who used to dress up in costume are, if not dead or gone crazy, approaching middle age and wondering what it was all for. Only a few stay active, now working for the government. Only Rorshach continues to wear his mask and elude the law. But now it seems that someone might be eliminating the old superheroes and all of them are in danger.
Watchmen is celebrated as a classic comic, a product of the 1980s that questioned the superhero genre and the impetus behind it. It is easy to latch on to its grittiness and darkness, to think that Moore wants readers to understand that superheroes are not shiny and flawless, but humans who age, drink, sleep around, and even commit atrocities. However, the story is not all darkness and it would be a mistake to think that everything from here on out must be The Dark Knight in order to be real, “serious” art. In the end the story still suggests that the individual might find a way to make a difference.
The story focuses on a diverse cast of characters and their reasons for donning funny costumes and fighting crime. In this world, only one person has super-human abilities. The rest are ordinary individuals who trained hard to reach peak physical condition or who have the brains to design cool crime-fighting gadgets. But they aren’t Superman, and that makes the people of their world wonder what drives them. Why dress up as an owl and go out into the night to punch people? Is there something wrong with these people?
It’s a funny question to ask when in many cases we take the superhero genre for granted and may not question not only what drives a hero, but also whether what they do can be justified. Rorshach in particular engages in excessive violence to pursue his personal vision of justice, breaking fingers to gain information from the underworld, and killing people in brutal and uncomfortably creative ways. Readers may want to sympathize with him and his quest since they receive generous access to his mind through his journals. He seems like the pov character readers are supposed to like. But his actions are just as bad, if not worse, than the actions of many of the individuals he wants to punish. So, the story asks, what on earth is a superhero anyway? How can we tell the difference between a hero and a villain?
Watchmen is undoubtedly an uncomfortable book, one full of graphic violence, sex, and other material that many readers do not associate with comics, which, for some reason, still seem to carry a bit of social stigma for being “juvenile.” I won’t engage with arguments about that here, since I think it should be obvious by now that comics are a sophisticated art form and that text isn’t obviously an inherently higher or more intellectual art form or means of communication. Just suffice it to say that this work is not for children. But it is a work that will challenge you.