With the movie version of Watchmen that comics fans are alternately looking forward to and dreading (often at the same time, it seems) coming out today, the blogosphere is full of people offering their two cents about the original Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons work. So why should I be any bloody different?
I think Watchmen is brilliant, but in some ways time has not been kind to it. Many of the ways that Moore undermines superhero genre conventions have been picked up by the mainstream; the sex, lies, and moral ambiguity that were subversive when Moore introduced them can now be found in a Justice League comic. Even some of the then-novel narrative tricks seem a little cute and forced now (“Wow, she says ‘I’m feeling kinda empty,’ and the panel’s a shot of Dr. Manhattan standing in an empty studio!”)
But there is one narrative element (or "nifty trick") in Watchmen I personally have never seen done so well in comics or any other storytelling medium, and that’s the way Moore teases the reader with having to choose a side in the ethical dilemma he poses in the book. It’s a brilliant bit of an author forging reader-fiction interaction, but it’s a great deal subtler than Grant Morrison having Animal Man yell “I can see you!” at the reader, and I never see anybody talk about it.
Okay, I’m going to really really SPOIL the ending here with words and visual aids, so if you’ve not read the book, don’t read on blah blah balh. Here’s Monday’s Sideburns if you missed it, and I am reasonably sure there are no Watchmen spoilers here.
(WE ALL LOVE TO LEAVE SPOILER SPACE IT IS A CONSIDERATE THING TO DO)
Still with us? Then let’s begin.
The super short version of Ozymandias’ master plan up to page 20 of issue #12: Veidt faked an alien attack on New York that murdered three million people, thus scaring the United States and the Soviet Union into a truce and ending the threat of nuclear conflict.
Silk Spectre gives the somewhat predictable and superheroic “You can’t get away with that” remark, to which Ozymadias replies:
Narratively, he’s talking to Silk Spectre, but look at it again. She’s not in the panel, and Ozymandias is facing the “camera” -- he’s talking to you, man. Moore is asking the reader to make a decision: by keeping quiet, you condone Ozymandias’ “final solution” (and it should be mentioned, since Veidt is going to spearhead the rebuilding process, he stands to make untold billions as well set himself up as, essentially, the shadow ruler of this new world), but if you turn him in, you invite nuclear war and the annihilation of all human life.
It’s an uncomfortable, unpleasant choice, even to have to impose on a fictional world, and it’s sprung on you very suddenly. Therefore, it’s something of a relief when that choice is made for you:
Rorschach, of course, refuses, but it’s still three against one. This is the first tease: Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are the characters the reader identifies with as the most normal or sympathetic, or possibly even most genuinely "heroic," so we are invited to believe the right choice has been made. Whew!
After this, Moore teases the reader a few more times. Rorschach threatens to reveal Veidt’s master plan to the world, but Dr. Manhattan zaps him. Manhattan’s parting shot to Veidt is a cryptic “Nothing ever ends,” but you can dismiss that as more of his clinically detached observations -- yeah, okay, atoms and particles keep moving and the Earth keeps turning and the universe is slouching toward entropy. Whatever.
So the story marches on and you get some closure with Nite Owl and both Silk Spectres, and then you see the new New York:
Looks pretty nice, doesn’t it? A lot nicer than a nuclear wasteland would, and look -- we’ve got a US/USSR accord and that really positive-looking Millennium ad. Of course if you look closely, you see the graffiti that says “One in eight go mad” with the “eight” crossed out and replaced with a “3”. In another panel is a newspaper headline: “N.Y. survivors reveal nightmares under hypnosis” and a comic called Tales from the Morgue -- a suddenly death-obsessed culture? Still, the alternative is everybody dies (isn’t it?) and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre said this was okay.
Then, that final page.
We saw earlier (#10) that Rorschach had mailed his journal implicating Adrian Veidt to the right-wing newspaper The New Frontiersman:
And this is paid off in the finale of the book:
Alan Moore, you son of a gun.
He’d lulled you into a false sense of security with the clean-looking NYC, the optimism, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s endorsement, and now he pulls it all away from you. Did you really think it would be that easy? Did you think some superheroes were going to answer this nice and tidy for you? No, Moore is going to force you to choose. He puts you in Seymour’s position (I almost think this is some kind of mean-spirited comment on the appearance of a stereotypical comics fan; oh, Alan Moore, just like Elvis Costello you want to bite the hand that feeds you, don't you?), and where Moore earlier posed the question through Veidt, now he does so through Hector Godfrey: “I’m asking you to take responsibility for once in your miserable life ... I leave it entirely in your hands.”
So you have to choose. You have to write your own little fan-fiction ending in your head.
You can have Seymour pick Rorschach’s journal and run the allegations inside it. Maybe no one believes it, maybe Veidt is brought to justice but the accord endures -- or maybe America and Russia go right for the launch buttons.
Alternatively, Seymour grabs one of the others, The New Frontiersman runs a letter about how the moon landing was faked, and they burn the journal as promised earlier. Peace endures.
There is, of course, the third alternative. Which is you don’t choose, you don’t finish the story in your head. You just let that hand hang in the air, the new version of the minute hand on the nuclear doomsday clock, stalemated inches away from disaster.
Waiting for the end of the world.