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Eve Tushnet has written a good essay on Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Now I’m almost tempted to reread Watchmen… Her stuff on symmetrical patterns in the text is making me think of Jorge Luis Borges’s labyrinths—symmetrical patterns and labyrinths as metaphors for reality, reality as an unsolvable puzzle we are driven to solve.

I’d make the “two unsuccessful replacement gods” Eve mentioned a trio, adding Nixon, responsible for outlawing masked vigilantes (along with Keene of Keene Act fame, I suppose) and for coming dangerously close to starting a nuclear war with the Soviet Union for the sake of whatever American ideals still exist in the world of Watchmen. Not only masked vigilantes and big blue superguys threaten the world with their attempts to impose a moral meaning or pattern. Adrian Veidt, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Dan and Laurie, Nixon, all have an asymmetrical power relationship with the rest of the people in the world—I mean, they’re potentially better equipped than others to create and manipulate patterns of meaning in the world. Veidt and Nixon are especially similar, in that they both choose methods of acheiving their goals which kill millions of people.


  1. Four Color Hell says:

    Eve Tushnet’s Shakespearian take of the Watchmen (interesting, but more so when it deviates from its Shakespeare comparison) has prompted a hail of Watchmen related blogging. John Jakala, and Steven Berg follow up, and Jim Henley goes on an unhol…

    — 29 January 2004 at 12:39 am (Permalink)

  2. Zoot Organizing Kit says:

    From the hip,
    _Watchmen_ is a great enough artistic achievement that it’s worth considering that _even if the authors meant it to tackle particular real-world referents_, we miss the mark when we read it purely as a cold-war drama (), or, as here, the reading of Nixon.

    _Yes_ to the commentary about asymmetrical power in the narrative: perspicacious.

    _No_ to the reading by which Nixon is choosing methods to achieve his goals (on behalf of an idea of America) that will kill millions of people. This is just too simplistic.

    First of all, Nixon in the book _resists_ the admonition that he should go to war immediately. “So what do we do?” Nixon: “We sit. And we wait.” [I don’t possess a copy of the book, so sorry: I’m quoting from memory] And the Soviet Union is the aggressor in the incipient war. This is not a black-and-white Cold War condemnation of America-gone-bad, or an unalloyed portrait of Nixon as monster.

    Nixon in real life may have been fully the rat he appears to have been (a rat among the rats we call politicians, as if we do other than choose them, and as if we are somehow better for staying out of the ring). But _Watchmen_’s fictional Nixon just does not bear the weight of the moral judgement we find leveled here.

    The mapping of the pirate tale to Adrian Veidt is a good reading, but we would be foolish to take it, again, as too narrow in its referentiality. Remember also that Rorschach “disguised alter ego” carries the sign that says “The End Is Nigh,” not Veidt, so we could read the message alongside Rorschach’s life story as well. And consider the possible outcome of Rorschach’s book (undoing Veidt’s putative “good work”).

    I conclude that the pirate story is not *just* about Veidt.

    As for Cold War commentaries on America, Nixon, et alia: Their justice aside (and the more just we take them to be, the more likely we are to miss the point as it refers to our own lives and countries), authors *may* start out with a narrow referent in mind, and find they have something far bigger on their hands. I know I work like that sometimes.

    But just as often I would be a little bothered at the presumption–and I mean “presumption” in its full range of sense–that I was writing a work of fiction about some *particular* thing other than itself. Parody is a *very* low, very easily produced art form. Satire is just a notch higher. This sort of reductionistic simplification says more about what we bring to the table as readers than it does about an author’s intent.

    Should we entertain particular referents to give focus to our readings? Sure. Should we take our literalistic mappings seriously, without a grain or two of salt? Hell no.

    But it’s damn good to see some commentary going up about this fine graphic novel.

    Take care,

    — 29 January 2004 at 5:12 pm (Permalink)

  3. Steven says:

    It’s been at least a year since I read Watchmen, so I’m barely even writing from memory… I’ll give response to your points as best I can, ZOK, considering that I don’t really know why you’re talking about “literalistic referents” and “allegory” here.

    Hmm. If Nixon’s response to the blatant Soviet aggression (as I recall) is to sit around and wait, that doesn’t strike me as much better than responding with more aggression and violence. No, Watchmen is not a straightforward portrait of America’s evil or Nixon’s monstrousness (or the USSR’s evil or Veidt’s monstrousness or Dr. Manhattan’s monstrousness). It seems born from a particularly 1980s apocalyptic worldview in which the Cold War is pretty much going to doom the world, and it doesn’t erally matter which superpower nation is right because we’ll all be dead and irradiated either way. Is Watchmen about just the Cold War? No… Of course it’s not some simplistic allegory of real-world politics. There’s lots of interesting stuff going on with Jim Henley’s “literature of ethics” and that asymmetrical power balance, Watchmen is dealing metaphorically with this stuff.

    As for the pirate comic, I despised it. Whatever it adds to the text, I just didn’t care and thought it unnecessary to add this layer of metametaphor.

    — 29 January 2004 at 7:30 pm (Permalink)