Thursday, August 09, 2018

We don’t need another hero: Nearly 25 years later, Alan Moore’s Watchmen remains a stirring warning against absolute power

NOTE: I wrote this, according to the time stamp on the file, back in 2009. It was published by a libertarian student organization called Young Americans for Liberty. It doesn't seem to be otherwise webbed anymore, so here it is again:

You can tell a work of fiction is influential when other writers are still grappling with its implications nearly a quarter of a century later — usually with limited success.

Since its publication in the mid-1980s, Watchmen has been the poster child for pop art that transcends its origins. Having garnered accolades usually reserved for highbrow literary fiction, Watchmen is the reason we now refer to comic books as graphic novels. It birthed countless newspaper stories with unfortunate headlines like “Bam! Pow! Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore.” It changed the aesthetics of superhero comics, both for better and for worse. And this year, of course, it inspired a major motion picture that, if nothing else, perplexed audiences expecting the next The Dark Knight or Iron Man.

While Iron Man and The Dark Knight both deal with issues of power and corruption, they ultimately side with their vigilante protagonists. Superheroes, those movies tell us, are a good thing. Watchmen, however, remains admirably faithful to its source material and comes to a different conclusion. Its costumed crusaders are, at best, powerless when it comes to doing good and, at worst, make the world a far more dangerous place. If, as Lord Acton said, power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then unaccountable superhumans with near God-like powers are not necessarily a good thing to have around. Like a powerful central government that is able to dominate local governments or an imperial presidency that co-opts powers properly belonging to Congress, superheroes upset existing power structures, and not always in a good way. “Who watches the Watchmen?” It’s a question with no obvious answer.

It is little surprise, then, that libertarians have latched onto Watchmen, claiming it, along with the works of Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, and the 1960s cult-favorite television series The Prisoner, as part of libertarianism’s artistic canon.

The graphic novel, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, is set in an alternate 1985, in which the existence of superheroes has turned the United States into a virtual dictatorship. President Richard Nixon, having engineered the repeal of the 22nd Amendment, is in his fifth term, and corruption and chaos are rampant. As gangs terrorize the streets, the U.S. and the Soviet Union plunge toward seemingly inevitable nuclear annihilation.

The main point of divergence between our 1985, which turned out comparatively well, and the 1985 of Watchmen is the existence of Dr. Manhattan, the one costumed hero in Watchmen who possesses superhuman abilities. With Dr. Manhattan’s help, the U.S. wins the Vietnam War, a victory that Nixon uses to become all but president for life. The Soviets, meanwhile, regard Dr. Manhattan as such a threat that they’re willing to risk nuclear war to avoid U.S. domination. In Watchmen, the old adage “Better dead than Red” might as well be “Better Armageddon than American.”

Dr. Manhattan, in short, changes everything. As one character in the graphic novel observes, “It is as if — with a real live Deity on their side — our leaders have become intoxicated with a heady draught of Omnipotence-by-Association, without realizing just how his very existence has deformed the lives of every living creature on the face of this planet.”

Dr. Manhattan is the literal embodiment of amoral power. Following the accident that gives him his superhuman abilities, Dr. Manhattan gradually becomes more and more removed from his humanity. Time, for him, has no real meaning because he can see past, present, and future simultaneously. As a result, death has no meaning for him, either. As such, he is the perfect tool for the politicians who would seek to exploit him.

It’s also no surprise that the U.S. government in Watchmen maintains a monopoly on superheroes. A law bans costumed adventurers except for those who work for the state, namely Dr. Manhattan and the equally but more aggressively amoral Comedian. The only masked crimefighter working, illegally, outside of the system is Rorschach.

Of the characters in Watchmen, Rorschach comes closest to being a real libertarian, although Moore’s portrait of libertarianism isn’t exactly flattering. Rorschach is brutal, smelly, and, most importantly, psychotic. Moore bases him on The Question and Mr. A, two characters created by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, an adherent of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Despite his antiauthoritarianism, Moore is still a man of the political left, and his Rorschach is a not-at-all-subtle critique of Ditko’s “right-wing” libertarianism.

Libertarians, however, tend to focus on the positive character traits hidden beneath Rorschach’s psychosis. Rorschach believes in truth and justice, and he is uncompromising in his pursuit of them, which is why he continues to work outside of the government even after the government criminalizes costumed vigilantism. He is, whether Moore likes it or not, the moral center of Watchmen, and readers — not just libertarians — gravitate toward him. Rorschach remains the book’s most popular character. Rorschach may be insane, but at least he sticks to his principles, even in the face of death.

Even as Moore’s Rorschach was capturing readers’ imaginations, Frank Miller’s daring interpretation of an old mainstay was doing the same, and for the same reasons.

Published at about the same time as Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns covers many of the same themes and is no less influential. It casts a middle-aged Batman in the Rorschach role of uncompromising individualist and Superman in the Dr. Manhattan role of government stooge. Yet despite the shared dark tone of both works, the similarities between Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns end there. Moore’s only solution to the problem of Dr. Manhattan is for Dr. Manhattan to leave Earth, leaving humanity to its own fate. Miller, however, has faith in superheroes, so long as it is the right superhero.

Miller’s Batman is a quasi-libertarian anarchist, a genius hero who, like the characters in Rand’s novels, uses his brain to thwart the brute, physical power of Superman and the state. And like the image of the student standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, Miller’s version of Batman as an ordinary man prepared to stand up to seemingly omnipotent power has endured, inspiring everyone from libertarians to politically apathetic fanboys to subsequent Batman writers.

The libertarian/Randian themes are even more explicit in Miller’s follow-up, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. In the sequel, Miller brings in Ditko’s The Question as a mouthpiece for Objectivism, of sorts. The difference here is that Miller’s version says, “I’m no Ayn Rander! She didn’t go nearly far enough!”

But can libertarians put their faith in even a libertarian superhero? The treatment of Batman post-Miller raises lots of red flags. Just as Miller’s Batman developed a contingency plan to take down Superman, Batman, as portrayed in more recent comics, has formulated plans to deal with just about any superhero who, for whatever reason, might go bad. Unfortunately, time and again, Batman’s plans have fallen into the wrong hands, with disastrous results. For example, in the recent series Countdown, Batman creates Brother Eye, an artificial intelligence to watch over all of Earth’s superpowered heroes and villains. Yet, as one might guess from Brother Eye’s Orwellian name, this ends badly when a covert government agency takes control of the A.I. for its own purposes.

As a new generation of comic-book writers picks up and runs with the ideas Moore and Miller first explored, it seems there is need for a libertarian critique of even “libertarian” superheroes. Ultimately, even superheroes who operate without government sanction, so as to preserve their independence and integrity, run into problems because they still serve a law-enforcement function. They’re still appendages of the state, if only unofficially.

Marvel Comics’ recent Civil War story arc illustrates the point. After a botched operation in which a team of young superheroes accidentally kills 600 civilians, the political leaders in Marvel’s fictional universe take a page from Watchmen. They pass a law outlawing all costumed superheroes except for those who agree to register with and work for the federal government. The Superhuman Registration Act splits the superhero community, with pro-registration heroes lining up behind Iron Man and anti-registration heroes backing Captain America.

Although it is never spelled out so explicitly in Civil War, the pro-registration side has a point. What are superheroes, anyway, except unauthorized, unaccountable law enforcement agents? Superheroes don’t obtain search warrants. They don’t read suspects their Miranda rights. If they screw up, they don’t face disciplinary action. And it’s almost impossible for a wronged party to sue them for misconduct. Just try serving a court summons to the Hulk. In short, all of the real-world problems associated with police misconduct are potentially worse when it comes to superheroes. They exist outside the rule of law.

Against that possibility, the Superhuman Registration Act seems, in libertarian terms, to be the lesser of two evils. Of course, as libertarians are fond of pointing out, the lesser of two evils is still evil. Any law that can be abused eventually will be abused. In our world, Republicans constantly pass laws they would never trust Democrats to enforce and vice versa. Each side, when out of power, complains that the other is abusing the powers of government. Yet when the sides swap places, the incoming party never repeals the laws that the other side abused.

In the Marvel Universe, Iron Man currently finds himself on the outside, on the run and wanted for crimes he didn’t commit. Meanwhile, the villainous Green Goblin, in his civilian identity of Norman Osborn, has become leader of the government’s registration effort. If there is any consolation, it’s that Iron Man may have learned his lesson. After all, he is one of the smartest characters in the Marvel Universe, which puts him leagues ahead of our real-world politicians.

For all their efforts, no one writing superhero comics has yet come up with an answer to Moore’s critique of superhero power. Moore’s own solution isn’t really conducive to writing ongoing superhero comics. He sends Dr. Manhattan packing. Dr. Manhattan decides to leave our galaxy — end of story. When all else failed, Moore opts for abolition, which is, of course, what one would expect of any anarchist, of either the left-wing or the libertarian, anarcho-capitalist variety.

Perhaps that is why Watchmen maintains its resonance with libertarians, despite Moore’s antipathy toward much of libertarian thought. Unlike Miller, Rand, Ditko, and others who gave us idealized libertarian supermen who could fly in and save the day, Moore takes a more radical, yet more realistic approach. His hero-turned-villain, Ozymandias, is named so as to evoke the image of the broken idol in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem of the same name. Essentially, Moore is telling us to put not our faith in idols, even if they’re wearing a smile and spandex.

The Watchmen movie and the renewed interest in the graphic novel couldn’t have been better timed. Several comic-book artists have taken to depicting President Barack Obama in superheroic terms. Alex Ross’ painting of the president striking a Superman pose emblazons posters and T-shirts. Spider-Man and Obama do the fist bump in a recent issue of Amazing Spider-Man. And for his part, the new president seems happy to play up his heroic image, as when he posed with the statue of Superman in Metropolis, Ill.

Whatever your politics, if you’ve grasped the message of Watchman, images like that ought to have you at least a little worried.

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