I remember when DC comics first published The Watchmen. Starting in September of 1986 and finishing up in October of 1987, I waited every month in between for the next issue to hit the comic store. I was truly enthralled, greedily devouring the story at the basic narrative level as well as realizing that I was reading a transformative work of art. The Watchmen, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns changed an entire industry. The alteration of content was so complete that the essential nomenclature changed as well. Comic books became graphic novels. When writing it Alan Moore is said to have tried to see it as the answer to a previously un-asked question: What would it be like if superheroes were real people? That perspective is a constant on every page. With that as the guiding principle of its creation I suppose it only natural that I consumed it the same way.
Through the decades that followed the initial publication I’ve re-read the thing at least a half dozen times. It’s a dense piece of work and multiple exposures have yielded a persistently increased level of appreciation for the genius on display. As an added benefit, the spacing of my revisiting has allowed me to experience the story at different places in my own development, leading me to identify with different characters each time I’ve read it.
When the book first broke I was just twenty three. And not a particularly mature version of that age. I remember seeing Ozymandias as the hero. Possessed of entirely unwarranted delusions of grandeur myself, I could clearly see the nobility of his scheme. His good intent made up for his willingness to kill millions in order to see it through. I had the same belief that the tragic nature of the universe could be reversed in the face of brilliant foresight and force of will. Which is a pretty self aggrandizing understanding of the nature of things for a guy living in his parents basement. I was then, and would never be again, so utterly convinced of my own specialness. Just thinking about it now is a red faced, cringe inducing nightmare.
A few years later I had come to see the world as a more confusing place. Having failed to convince the rest of the planet as to my wonderfulness it’s not surprising that Rorschach’s outlook started to make sense to me. Although I was gainfully employed and in a steady (if not stable) relationship I identified strongly with his sense of isolation. The belief that the world had a toxic, amoral quality that could only be addressed on a limited head-on basis was very appealing to me. Rorschach’s black and white view of humanity and his subsequent one man war on whomever fell on the wrong side of that line connected with the angry, shattered innocent in me. The fantasy of being able to punish anybody who had wronged me was a source of grim satisfaction. I’ve never wanted to be a fictional character more than when, after dousing an assailant with hot grease while standing in the penitentiary commissary, he turns on the rest of prisoners and tells them “… I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me.” Which would be troubling under any circumstances. I was twenty-eight at the time. Not a great look for me.
My next trip back happened when I was in my mid thirties. Having gone back to school and created a real career for myself I was in the most positive frame of mind of my adulthood. Trying to be more appreciative for my life as it was instead of focusing on a sense of grievance lead me to more closely identify with Night Owl and Silk Spectre. Aware of the conflicted nature of their lives they are, what passes for normal in the book. Though driven to try and do some good in the world they still have an understanding of the larger-than-life nature of the circumstances that are revealed in the closing chapters of the story. Unburdened by Ozymandias’ narcissism or Rorschach’s rigidity they’re able to make peace with the idea that the only thing worse than everything that has already occurred would be to undo the beneficial effects of the monstrous evil that has just been visited on a misdirected planet. I was at a point where I was learning to accept that not everything in my life that made me unhappy could be changed. I remember finally being able to understand their decision, and not judging it too harshly.
Life is not necessarily a unidirectional, linear path of increasing contentment and so by the time I read through it again I was in my very unhappy mid forties. After a brief period of trying to talk myself into believing that I could alter my life for the better, my default coping mechanism was to try and see a little more humor in the shittier elements of my existence. I think we know where this is going. Although I (fortunately) never descended into the truly horrific violence of The Comedian I sure did understand why he saw things the way he did. How much of our suffering is the result of disappointment born of the inability of ourselves or our surroundings to live up to what should always have been recognizable as unrealistic expectations. Better to understand that the vast majority of the time we are not much more than a punch line in the joke that is life. The Comedian was in his own way, highly aware of his limitations and shy enough of true nihilism to be if not heroic than at least relatable to the dour, middle-aged man that I had become. I know how it sounds. Just focus on the fact that I never killed or raped anyone.
Which brings us to the present, and in a small way a more hopeful version of me. When I started thinking about this piece I thought another reading was due. Having run through the rest of the main characters I was a bit more attentive Dr. Manhattan this time. My favorite moment involving him has always been his soliloquy on the nature of thermodynamic miracles. It’s really a beautiful piece of writing and is the pivotal moment in the arc of his development. All of that remains true for me today. There was, however, another level for me this time. His rediscovering the value of human life is neither a function or cause of some devolution into a more emotionally driven state. It comes from a deeper exploration of his reconstituted being. He doesn’t suddenly revert to looking at things as if he were his old (human) self. In helping the Silk Spectre to finally see more of her own life he comes to place a greater value on life on its own terms. To be able to see things differently without having to become a different person is a gift. I don’t know that I’ve acquired it yet, but I can see that it’s something worth hoping for.