Reading “At Midnight, All the Agents…”

Watchmen is a strange story.  It’s built on the foundation of decades of superhero tropes: costumed adventurers, impossible science, clear lines between right and wrong.  Full appreciation of this story only comes when you’re aware of the conversation that’s happening with all of these storytelling devices.  At the same time, Watchmen‘s purpose is to tear down its own foundations and expose the flawed assumptions that are necessary for superhero stories to make sense.  It’s a highly cynical piece of fiction; we see from each of our characters’ introductions that they’re all flawed people trying to make sense of a world that’s rejected a core part of their identities, and the conclusion that we’re meant to draw is that their efforts are ultimately futile.

The first issue of Watchmen is a roll call of sorts; in its twenty-six pages it introduces us to the main cast of characters: Edward Blake, the Comedian, whose murder opens the story; Rorschach, a vigilante who continues to operate alone without sanction since superheroics have been outlawed; Dan Dreiberg, the former Nite Owl, who’s trying to lead a quiet life as a retired superhero; Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias, who made his identity public and left crime fighting before it became illegal to head his own international business; Jon Osterman, Dr. Manhattan, the only superhero to develop real superpowers and the only one still working as an operative of the United States government; and Laurie Juspeczyk, the Silk Spectre, who has the most ambivalent feelings about her time as a superhero.  Each of these six characters has some heavy baggage as a result of their experiences, and they serve to demonstrate very different approaches to coping with that baggage.

The actual plot of the story revolves around Blake’s death.  Initially the police investigate it as a botched burglary, but Rorschach, upon learning Blake’s secret identity, theorizes that someone is targeting former vigilantes and decides to warn his old contacts.  The story spins on from there, and we’re left with something of a whodunnit structure; Blake was still an active agent when he was murdered, and it’s unlikely that he could have been killed by anyone outside the masked hero community, or so Rorschach theorizes.  Everyone else tries to rationalize that as a political operative Blake probably had more enemies than just the people who used to run around in costumes, but the sense of doubt is apparent in all of them (this feeling is further complicated by the fact that Rorschach’s sudden visit to his old associates also triggers bouts of contemplation and reminiscence in most of them).

The plot isn’t that important though.  As we proceed through the series there will be twists and turns that will be interesting and noteworthy, but the important thing to understand is that this is a series built on the strength of its characters more than anything.  Alan Moore’s kind of an eccentric figure in comics, and he’s said for decades that he finds the superhero genre to be very immature.  Watchmen feels very much like Moore’s definitive statement to that effect; we’re going to see him tear down each character in turn and build a case that the mental health of anyone who would take up costumed vigilantism might be suspect.  What I’m going to be thinking about as I do this (fourth) read through is questioning whether Moore approaches the issue of mental health in a compassionate way; it’s one thing to say that people with a disposition towards superheroics might display signs of mental illness, but it’s totally different to say that people with mental illness might have a disposition towards superheroics (especially in the world of Watchmen where superheroics involve making some highly questionable choices that don’t necessarily feed into prosocial outcomes and often result in explicitly criminal behavior).

Watchmen: Where regular people cower in fear when they have close encounters with superheroes. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

To that effect, things are not off to a great start here.  Rorschach serves as our main point-of-view character for this issue, and it becomes clear from his ongoing journal entries that he has a significantly skewed view of reality.  Rorschach presents in this issue as the most explicitly fringe of the superhero cohort.  He still works as a vigilante nearly ten years after it was outlawed, and we see through his interactions with the others that he’s poorly socialized.  He breaks into homes without apology, takes food from Dan’s pantry without asking, and casually derides the decisions of his peers to stop wearing masks to their faces.  Rorschach believes strongly in his own sense of morality, but Moore spends the entire issue undermining Rorschach’s perspective with subtle nods to the decayed state of the world under an empowered Nixonian America that never withdrew from Vietnam (the fifty-first state!) or went through the public crisis of questioning the honesty of its elected leader.  Law-and-order has been the zeitgeist in Watchmen‘s world for over a decade, and despite what Rorschach believes, its done nothing to mitigate the social problems that it was intended to fix.  There’s more to be explored with Rorschach in future issues, but here he comes across as a highly unreliable witness whom everyone else at best pities and at worst openly disdains.  Worse still, Rorschach is portrayed as a figure of extreme terror among the populace; one scene where he visits a bar looking for information on Blake’s death has him casually break the fingers of a bystander who has the temerity to make a joke about his body odor over the bartender’s pleas that he not kill anybody.  So we have in this first issue the depiction of a man with a skewed sense of reality and poorly developed social skills who openly engages in criminal activity and tortures people for information without remorse.

Like I said, not a great start.

Each issue of Watchmen ends with an excerpt from various in-universe documents that help to offer greater context for the workings of the world that Moore and Gibbons present in their series.  The first issue has two chapters from the memoir Under the Hood by Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl.  We meet Mason briefly in this issue as he and Dan Dreiberg have a standing Saturday night meeting to drink and reminisce about their times as superheroes.  Mason retired back in the ’50s and wrote a tell-all book explaining the dynamics of the first superhero group to arise in the Watchmen universe, the Minutemen.  These first two chapters barely offer any information about that period, instead giving us a story from Mason’s childhood about a man who committed suicide after he discovered his wife had cheated on him and a little bit of history of the advent of the superhero movement.  The significance of the first story isn’t immediately apparent, but as we go along through the series we’ll see a pattern of similar dramas in miniature emerge; Moore’s indictment of superheroes is frequently counterbalanced by his fascination with the struggles of everyday people.  I think this is the first example.

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