30 Years Later, Watchmen‘s Unacknowledged Optimism PersistsMain Art by Dave Gibbons Comics Features Watchmen
“Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
Three decades to the month have passed since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons put those chilling words into the mouth of Dr. Manhattan, delivering the atomic man’s parting wisdom to humanity before he leaves to create life on other planets. In the 30 intervening years, Watchmen’s influence on comics and the movies they’ve spawned has reached unfathomable depths. For better or worse, it (alongside Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) killed the unperturbed, morally pure superhero and gave us hundreds of stories that lurk in the gray areas, so many that Moore himself became upset with the bevy of writers pursuing grit for grit’s sake.
I don’t need to sit at my computer and tell you how amazing Watchmen is on its literary merits; in case you needed a reminder, check it out on Time’s list of the 100 best English-language novels (not just comics—novels) published since 1923. I do have a personal testament I’d like to add, though: back in high school, I was a quiz bowl nerd. Among the many categories of questions my teammates and I had to answer was literature, which typically meant fine literature—your Nerudas and Hemingways and Shakespeares of the world. The only graphic novel I can ever recall being asked about in quiz bowl? Yep, you guessed it. Ten points for you.
It’s customary to reminisce on a classic work whenever it celebrates an anniversary, but in the case of Watchmen, I think a retrospective couldn’t come at a better time. Thirty years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union were still locked in a seemingly interminable power struggle. Osama bin Laden was leading a group of guerrilla warriors against the Russians in Afghanistan, and “fundamentalist Islam” was an enemy that had briefly taken over the American consciousness during the Iranian Revolution, but had lain dormant ever since. Everything else, from the trending world AIDS epidemic and the way we shared information to the culture that received such a loving homage in Stranger Things, was different, too.
But if you reread Watchmen, the most important difference you notice between its world and our own is that the Cold War, and especially the escalated fear of nuclear warfare that characterized the Reagan years, dominates the novel’s spirit. In fact, had villain Adrian Veidt not unified the world by killing three million New Yorkers with his fake alien attack, the story suggests that America and the Soviet Union would have blown each other to bits soon thereafter.
Veidt, who formerly went by the moniker Ozymandias, and his plan are an element of the book I’ve struggled with a lot over the past year. It succeeds, of course, putting his (former?) friends in agonizing moral checkmate and resulting in the death of the uncompromising doom-and-hellfire vigilante, Rorschach. But the ending seems to be a bit of a cop-out, a departure from Watchmen’s reverent realism just to bring about the most convoluted “happy” ending ever conceived. There’s no chance in hell that Veidt’s plan would succeed in uniting today’s world. Religious extremists might claim the alien as a sign of coming apocalypse and redouble their efforts to bring about their kingdoms of god. The United States and China might find some economic common ground, but would Vladimir Putin be a team player? Kim Jong-Un might just finally say “fuck it” and, in a drunken rage, launch all his nukes at South Korea and Japan. Regardless of what would actually happen, 2016 has shown us enough deeply rooted schisms, in both global and domestic politics, that you’d have to be naive to imagine even the most explicit of extraterrestrial threats holding humanity together for more than the lifespan of a few tweets.
The prevailing bipolar geopolitical situation of 1986 wasn’t comfortable, but it was certainly simpler.
Still, from Dr. Manhattan’s final aphorism, we know that any peace Veidt may have achieved would have been temporary. Nothing ever ends; the cycle of competition and violence will always start anew, because humans are innately self-interested creatures with strong tribalistic tendencies. We form groups and we fight each other, and when the conflict ends with either victory or a settlement, we find new groups and new fights. The most effective way to unite people, according to tenets of social psychology, is a superordinate goal, and unfortunately when superordinate goals succeed in bringing disparate people together, they’ve just created a fresh in-group that will still view outsiders with suspicion. The only way to keep all of Earth on the same side, forever, would be to engage in a ceaseless war against aliens, the way the International Fleet did against the Formics in Ender’s Game. The way Oceania did against Eurasia—sorry, Eastasia—in 1984. War is peace.
More likely, we’ll eventually dig ourselves so deep into a mess that we fulfill the most dire answer to the Fermi paradox and drive ourselves into extinction.
That’s a pretty terrifying conclusion. But the reason Watchmen remains so brilliant, and continually relevant, is that it balances its darkness with a beacon of hope—or, rather, several beacons of hope. The book’s heroes aren’t heroes in a traditional sense; they all have far too much baggage, far too many blatantly detectable imperfections to fall into that category. Nite Owl’s a bit of a lout. The Silk Spectre is mired in a fake, loveless union. Ozymandias is a mass murderer and the world’s most condescending intellect. Rorschach can’t see moral ambiguity. Dr. Manhattan’s more or less indifferent to humanity. The Comedian is a sadistic, nihilistic rapist.
When push comes to shove, though, they care about Earth. This planet and its people are beautiful enough, in their deeply flawed, self-destructive way, to convince the omniscient Dr. Manhattan to return from an idyllic Martian clockscape. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre get off their asses and hop back into world-saving mode because it makes them feel alive. Rorschach—who promises at the story’s start that he will answer the rabble’s cries for help with a whispered “No”—can’t help but constantly fight to bring about the moral panacea he so badly craves. Even Ozymandias’ war crime is a carefully considered utilitarian scheme; in his own detached way, he’s devoted to saving humanity.
Over the past half-decade, we’ve witnessed a resurgence of highly visible, massive-scale activism—emphasized by groups like Black Lives Matter—the likes of which hasn’t loomed so large in the national conversation since the ‘60s. At times (especially on college campuses) it’s gone a little overboard, but on the balance, it’s been a heartening response to the so-called “me”-ness of millennialism. It would be so much easier and more comfortable for people to just check out. Yes, every epoch has its crises that have made society want to curl up in a ball under a blanket and wait for end times, but 2016 moves much faster than 1986 and is therefore objectively more unpredictable and far scarier. And world events haven’t helped matters; Donald Trump remains a presidential candidate, robots threaten to replace millions of workers and global temperatures hit record highs again (let’s be real, climate change is the greatest existential threat we’ve ever known). But despite these challenges, the rising generation of Americans knows it’s cool and desirable to care about making the world a better place. Building massive glass clocks on another planet, as Dr. Manhattan realizes, is not the proper response.
Watchmen sees the world as it really is: a real-life manifestation of the Doomsday Clock ticking slowly, steadily, unstoppably toward its own destruction. The series’ own use of the Clock, which ends at 11:59 in the twelfth and final issue despite Ozymandias’ efforts, underscores this point. Any attempt to delay or reverse the timer, even one as drastic as faking an alien attack, is destined to fail in the long run. But crucially, that doesn’t mean we should abandon hope and embrace our ultimate fate. Deciding to care about humanity, struggling in vain to impede its demise was the right call during the Cold War, it’s still the right call today, and it will remain the right call until we finally go ungently into the good night.