Reading “Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…”

I’ve read Watchmen about four times now, and one thing that puzzled me in the past was how this issue was meant to be primarily about Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias.  The subplot of the chaos that erupts on the street corner is so compelling, and so essential to the plot of the series, that I often forget that most of this issue is built around Veidt monologuing to various listeners about his life and master plan.

Adrian Veidt understands the real world almost as well as he understands the fictional world he lives in. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

If there’s a defining trait for Veidt as a character, it’s hubris.  He actually hews pretty closely to a classically tragic hero; in addition to his overwhelming self confidence, Veidt is one of the richest, most well respected people in America and he’s driven by his hubris to carry out a plan that in a more traditional superhero narrative would culminate with his disgrace and potential demise.  Moore and Gibbons aren’t interested in that model though, so while we’re going to see some interesting shades of Veidt filled in in the last issue of the series, in this one he’s very much someone who has decided to commit a heinous atrocity for what he believes are the best reasons, and he’s aware enough of the conventions of the story in which he exists to take steps that would prevent anyone from foiling him.

Veidt’s story is intriguing simply because it is utterly devoid of tragedy.  The closest thing to a serious hardship that he experiences is the death of his parents when he’s relatively young, and even that is described more as an opportunity for Veidt to prove himself rather than as something that haunts him.  If you discount the fact that he wants to murder millions of people to scare America and the Soviet Union out of nuclear war, Adrian Veidt comes across as a perfectly well-adjusted, if smug, person.  This is an important feature of Veidt’s personality to remember, because when he discusses his time as a superhero, he makes it clear that he became disillusioned with the lifestyle’s approach to justice almost immediately.  Unlike Nite Owl and Rorschach, who do superheroics as something of a passion project, Ozymandias was always meant to be a means to a larger end.  Instead of these characters, Veidt explicitly places himself in the same category as Edward Blake.

Like Blake, Veidt believes himself to be a person who sees the world for precisely what it is, but in place of cynicism he adopts a stance of idealism.  The irony of this idealism is that it’s not rooted in optimism about humanity writ large but in Veidt’s own capabilities.  He’s totally convinced of his capacity to manipulate the entire world into a lasting peace, and while he appears dispassionate as he explains all the steps in his master plan, there’s an undeniable sense of zealotry and narcissism.  Veidt believes utterly that only he is capable of resolving the world’s chief problem.  In terms of the scope of what he wants to do, he’s totally megalomaniacal; he just happens to be doing it because he genuinely wants to save the world.  This is really where the differences between Blake and Veidt end though.  Blake is a thoroughly violent man who has built his whole life on violence in small, intimate doses; people who know the Comedian know he is not someone to be trifled with.  Veidt, while maintaining the appearance of a more genteel person, is the same, only on a larger scale.  His chief power is his intelligence, and he uses that to create access to other forms of power for himself, which he wields ruthlessly; Veidt exposes multiple people to enough radiation to give them cancer, arranges a failed assassination attempt on himself that results in the deaths of his personal assistant and the assassin in order to avoid suspicion, systematically murders every person who can potentially be connected to his plan, and destroys half of New York City.  In most cases he won’t beat you senseless himself (except for Blake, whom I suspect Veidt personally murders as a bit of revenge for the humiliation of losing to the Comedian when he was an inexperienced adventurer), but Veidt makes it starkly clear that he is a dangerous man if you get in the way of his ambitions.

Malcolm’s arc is a really brief one, but where he arrives in this moment is one of the best in the whole series. Shame we don’t get to see the journey from his moment of despair in his last appearance. (Artwork & letters by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

Running parallel to Veidt’s reveling in his moment of triumph is the last story of the New York street corner.  We get to see the stories of several of the ordinary people who have been interacting with the superheroes in passing come to a head just before Veidt’s alien crashes into the city and kills them all.  We see the news vendor finally connect with the boy who has been reading the pirate comic after weeks of his lonely observations about the state of the world; we see the detectives who were so close to catching Dan Dreiberg as Nite Owl choosing to intervene in a street fight while they’re off duty; we see a cabby who frequents the news stand caught in the heat of the moment as her girlfriend breaks up with her; we see Malcolm Long, Rorschach’s prison therapist, finally assert to his wife Gloria what he’s come to value after being exposed to the worst of humanity.  All these thoroughly mundane stories culminate with this moment of ultimate intersection and concern.  Just before Veidt turns them all into collateral damage, they demonstrate the hope that humanity can somehow learn to care about itself.  It’s a poignant moment where empathy cuts through all the noise of life, and I’m generally of the opinion that it represents the moment that Moore was most interested in arriving at as he wrote Watchmen.  It’s the moments of clarity in the lives of ordinary people that are special and worthy examining, not the big flashy spectacles of people in costumes.

What more fitting moment do you need for this idea than a man, thoroughly convinced of his own specialness, casually murdering millions of people so that he can say he saved the world?

“My name is Ozymandias king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” (Artwork by Dave Gibbons, colors by John Higgins)

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