Watchmen and Intertextuality:

How Watchmen Interrogates the Comics Tradition

Today, Watchmen is celebrated as an autonomous work — and it is partly on this basis that its greatness rests. Comic-book professionals and aficionados consider it the Citizen Kane of the medium — not universally, but certainly consistently. And indeed, the narrative prospers in good part, despite ostensibly being a super-hero story, because it does not require any previous knowledge of the characters — who have never appeared elsewhere. It is self-contained.

But Watchmen is also intensely intertextual, participating most obviously in the long tradition of the super-hero genre. Indeed, every element of its composition — including even its format — must in some sense be understood as a response to varied super-heroic works. Frequently, these responses are derisive, questioning and deconstructing the genre in which Watchmen, after all, participates. Moreover, Watchmen seeks, in the epic tradition, to incorporate its predecessors.  It does this in two ways:  first, its characters sometimes explicitly reference other characters, becoming less a single character than an archetype of certain kinds of super-heroes, or super-heroes who make different choices; secondly, it radically incorporates the history of comic book publishing itself.

Such intertextuality must be seen as a response to the super-hero genre, itself intensely — even intrinsically — intertextual at a high level.  Before examining the intertextuality of Watchmen, therefore, we must briefly understand the intertextual nature of U.S. super-hero comic books, to which Watchmen responded.

Super-Hero Comics as Intrinsically Intertextual

Super-hero comic books, especially since the rise of revisionism, are notoriously intertextual.  Through the 1970s and 1980s, the rise of fanzines, comic book conventions, and the rise of the direct market led readers, almost entirely free from critical attention, to become an increasingly insular subculture with its own references and terminology.  It is no coincidence that, during this period, super-hero comics increasingly engage in longer narratives, continuing from issue to issue:  the material was evolving along with its audience.  And it is no coincidence that, during this period, super-hero comics grow increasingly insular in their intertextuality.

U.S. super-hero comic books are, in some sense, defined by their intertextuality.  In other words, the fact that Superman can meet Batman in some sense defines the universe in which both operate.  The notion that an entire company’s line of comic books occurred in the same shared universe, implicit since at least DC’s All-Star Comics and its Justice Society in the 1940s but codified in 1960s Marvel Comics, at first took the form of crossovers in which one character appears in another’s book.  This wasn’t a problem when characters rarely changed:  it hardly mattered when Spider-Man showed up at the Baxter Building and met the Fantastic Four.  But as characters increasingly engaged in longer narratives in the 1970s, and as a large continuity built up within these corporate meta-narratives, intertextuality became a big problem.

Classically, super-hero characters exist in a kind of status quo: Superman might, exposed to red Kryptonite, distort into a Picasso painting or lose his powers, but he’ll be returned to normal by the end of the tale, ready for the next episode as if nothing had happened.  Occasional changes to the status quo might be introduced: Alfred the Butler could be killed off, Wonder Woman could be made into a feminist martial artist, Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy could be killed off, and the line-up of the Justice League or the Avengers could be modified. These changes, however, classically simply produced a new status quo:  the episodic adventures continued apace, with the hero returned to his new status quo by each story’s end. A certain theory of change is implied here:  change occurs suddenly and dramatically, but not in quotidian life — even if that life entails battling Doctor Doom.

The 1970s, however, brought an increased concern for realism to U.S. super-hero comics.  Real-world issues, particularly racism and drug use, began to be addressed; the draconian Comics Code of the 1950s was losing its teeth. At the same time, continuing narratives imposed some semblance of change: the Avengers could go into space and get embroiled in an alien war for not one or two but several issues. Green Lantern and Green Arrow could travel the United States, exploring the nation and its problems — still episodic but now grounded in something closer to the real world. The joyful absurdity of the 1960s, in which bizarre characters or devices could appear with little or no explanation, was disappearing. As each comic book’s narrative grew more complex, so the corporate meta-narrative grew a scale more complex: now, when Spider-Man showed up in Fantastic Four, he might have extra arms due to a mutation he had experienced in his own book — and the Fantastic Four themselves might be embroiled in their own storyline.

The rise of non-super-hero comics again in the 1970s — including horror and supernatural titles like DC’s Swamp Thing, House of Secrets, or Marvel’s Man-Thing — also expanded this meta-narrative structure.  It was one thing to imagine a “normal” human being (or at least one without super-powers) like Batman or Green Arrow operating in the Justice League alongside the likes of Superman.  But now one must imagine characters like the supernatural Phantom Stranger sharing a universe with the sci-fi planet-hopping Adam Strange.

Let us imagine this by analogy, because it is only then that we can see how radical this intertextuality really is.  Imagine if television had the same implicit meta-narrative. NBC shows like Seinfeld, Cheers, Friends, The Cosby Show, Will and Grace, E.R., Law and Order, Revelations, and The West Wing would all occur in a shared universe. In fact, the networks occasionally gesture in this direction: Kramer from Seinfeld showed up on Mad About You, and spin-offs obviously occur — suggesting that at least some groups of shows occur in a shared universe. But let us imagine these shows interacting intertextually as freely as they do in U.S. corporate super-hero-dominated universes. When Elaine from Seinfeld gets sick in an episode of that show, she might show up on E.R., cracking jokes amidst the hectic hospital drama. A serial killer from Law and Order might terrorize Phoebe on an episode of Friends, leading Phoebe to testify at his trial on Law and Order.  An ambitious politician who interferes in a court case on Law and Order might appear on The West Wing. When an impasse between President Bartlett and Congress leads to a shutdown of the federal government, most of the NBC shows have running at the time reflect the results. Equally, the entire line might respond to the supernatural signs of the End of Days on Revelation: we might get sitcom characters and police officers, on their own shows, commenting on these events or watching a televised supernatural event on TV — an episode of The West Wing might have the Catholic President Bartlett wrestling with his faith in light of these events. At the most fundamental level, no show may make reference to the second President Bush — after all, in their universe, Bartlett is President. Now imagine if NBC also had shows like Star Trek: the cast might go back in time, go into the bar of Cheers and comment on our primitive science in E.R. Moreover, on their own show, they might comment on the historical importance of the Bartlett administration. We might equally imagine if Columbo showed up in New York City and helped the cast of Law and Order solve a murder. Or if Perry Mason showed up on that show as a defense attorney. Or if Jerry Seinfeld visited his parents in Florida and wound up on Miami Vice.

The intertextual openness of such a configuration would easily produce a good deal of amusement, encouraging viewers to watch the entire NBC line — or to be loyal to the NBC universe over, say, the CBS or ABC ones. But the implications of such a corporate policy would become quickly difficult to fathom. Viewers might complain when incongruities occur, as when two science fiction shows offer different visions of the future or argue for different explanations of black holes. They might complain when a legal case on Law and Order stems from the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but the changes to that conflict seen on The West Wing are now reflected. And science fiction shows like Star Trek would have to cohabit with supernatural shows like Revelation, producing an incongruity not only of genres but of worldviews.

By the 1980s, the whole meta-narrative structure of mainstream U.S. comic books was bending under the strain:  the intertextuality that had been built into corporate super-hero narratives from the beginning had run amok. There were hundreds of different possible futures that had been depicted over the years — including in extended narratives — and they somehow had to be jived. DC had by far the most complex continuity, having operated its super-hero universe unbroken since 1938. DC had solved the problem of inconsistent universes by placing its earlier stories in a parallel dimension or “alternate Earth,” but the large number of these dimensions — many of which had alternate versions of the same characters — and the commonplace interaction between them produced a good deal of confusion. It is worth noting that this extreme form of intertextuality even incorporated our own world as text: DC’s Flash (and later Superman) visited our own world, including the DC bullpen, rendering our world just one of DC’s complex system of multiple Earths.  DC would wind up trying to reboot their continuity through the mid-1980s mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths, begun prior to Watchmen. The result of this reboot, ironically, would be an even more complex intertextuality: new stories would not only still share the same universe, but would selectively make reference to older stories, often in modified form — leaving readers wondering not only which pre-Crisis stories had occurred in this new universe but in what form they had occurred. Moreover, even when officially ignoring past continuity, these new stories would often nod in their direction, producing a sort of insularity within the insular world of U.S. comic books: those who not only loved and understood the current narratives, but also got the references to past ones.

Alan Moore himself has written a number of times on the intertextuality of corporate U.S. comic books.  In his marvelous introduction to the first collection of his Swamp Thing (a volume entitled, simply, Saga of the Swamp Thing), Moore pretends to address the general reader and introduce this entire notion of a corporate universe shared by various comic book titles, characters, and genres.  In this introduction, Moore seems at once delighted by the possibilities this opens and embarrassed by it — as if he really aspired to be a novelist and has to explain this insular world of corporate U.S. comics at some pains. But his fictional writing on Swamp Thing shows none of this embarrassment. In fact, Moore deserves a good deal of credit for shoring up various diverse stains of the DC universe. While Swamp Thing was ostensibly a horror title, he had the Justice League appear in one early story. Besides their spectacular revisionist depiction (Superman is particularly distant because of his God-like powers, and is capable of counting the atoms of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), this appearance helps to resolve just why the nearly omniscient Justice League does not intervene in books such as Swamp Thing, even when a villain threatens the entire world: such threats are below their radar, not even worth their attention. Additionally, Moore’s use of virtually every supernatural DC character would help to jive their different depictions of magic and apparent lack of knowledge of one another — a move that would profoundly influence later works, such as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Books of Magic.  Moore would do some of the same thing for DC’s outer space characters in the final third of his run.  Clearly, then, Alan Moore not only knew the DC universe but had an interest in its intrinsic intertextuality.

Watchmen as Autonomous Work

Moore conceived and wrote Watchmen in this intertextual context of mainstream U.S. super-heroic comic books. The project was originally conceived as a way of reviving the heroes he had acquired through its purchase of Charleton Comics: characters like Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, and the Question. Previous to Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC had located these characters and their stories on an alternate Earth — thus allowing the Charleton stories to have occurred in their own universe and yet allowing incorporation of this universe into DC’s own meta-universe (or “multiverse”). But Crisis, conceived to do away with this complex structure, was already underway in 1985 as Moore was proposing Watchmen. DC didn’t yet understand what its new single universe would look like — in fact, the company would largely play it by ear, creating some notable contradictions — and certainly had little idea how the Charleton characters would fit into it.  Moore proposed a post-Crisis series starring these characters as a group, rather than individually (as they had been published by Charleton). But DC feared that what Moore wanted to do with these characters, while worthwhile, would ruin them for future writers. Did DC really want a distant Captain Atom or to make the Question psychotic? And so DC suggested that Moore set the series in its own universe, separate from “the DC Universe,” as it is called.

This suggestion made all the difference, and it is nearly impossible to imagine Watchmen otherwise. This separation from DC’s regular continuity allowed Moore the artistic liberties that so separate Watchmen from other works of the time. Moore rewrote Captain Atom as Dr. Manhattan, Blue Beetle as Night Owl, and the Question as Rorschach. Rorschach could be killed off; the Question could not. The hero Ozymandias could kill New Yorkers in any conventional continuity.

On the vanguard of revisionism, Moore expressed interest in “cultural deformation”:  the idea that the presence of the super-hero would deform world culture, a far cry from super-hero comics in which Superman and fabulous technology exist while the world around them remains, eternally, virtually identical to our own.  This revisionist idea may be seen as a science fictionizing of the super-hero genre:  the idea was to take a “what if?” — as in “what if you have a super-hero?” — and extrapolate out the idea along a timeline until the culture around the hero deforms, growing increasingly unrecognizable.  Ironically, while corporate super-heroes generally age only extremely slowly, if at all, the world around them changes with the times: a super-hero could fight Nazis in the 1940s, experience hippies in the 1960s, wrestle with urban plights in the 1970s, and watch Ronald Reagan in the 1980s — all while appearing, more or less, the same age. In order for readers to identify, and to keep these corporate super-heroes current, the world in which their fabulous adventures were set must remain ever current and approachable, as if a foil to the fantastic elements of the story. But the quest for realism, from 1960s Marvel when the Thing could interact with common New Yorkers to the social relevancy of the 1970s, would require a breaking of the super-hero genre to be taken to the next level: realism demanded that the world transform around the super-hero in profound and subtle ways, the revisionists of the 1980s argued. And this was all but impossible in ongoing monthly titles, in which the continuing adventures of super-heroes had to occur ever in an unchanged, yet paradoxically ever-changing present.

Breaking Watchmen from DC continuity allowed Moore to express these ideas. Perhaps most obviously, he could never make Richard Nixon President in the 1980s, implying that Nixon had successfully orchestrated Woodward’s and Bernstein’s murders. But the idea of cultural deformation was best embodied in the appendix to Watchmen’s chapter IV, ostensibly the introduction from Milton Glass’s Dr. Manhattan: Super-Powers and the Superpowers. “The superman exists and he’s American” is its mantra: global politics is ever changed because the United States has Dr. Manhattan.

Taken as a science fictionizing of the super-hero genre, Watchmen has two poles, two “what ifs” from which its narrative is extrapolated. First, what if, in 1938 during the Great Depression, a man took to the streets in a hood to fight crime, inspired by the pulps and the earliest super-heroes? He becomes known as Hooded Justice, and a number of others follow in his wake. Secondly, what if, in 1959, an experiment gives a man super-powers? He becomes Dr. Manhattan, and his presence changes everything.

I discuss this aspect of Watchmen's alternative universe construction in more detail in my essay in Minutes to Midnight.

But the text suggest that both of these crux points themselves stem from an earlier “what if”: we are shown, albeit briefly, a ketchup bottle labeled “Heinz 58” — an alteration in the name set around the turn of the century. Clearly, distinctions between our own universe and that of Watchmen go back quite a ways, and we are left to postulate some single subtle difference — a butterfly’s wings flapping, for example — which eventually led to all others. Such is the autonomy of Watchmen as text: it is not only full of history, constructing a remarkably fleshed-out world, but it invites us to imagine this world even more fully.

This autonomy — this lack of intertextuality — is crucial to getting at the realism the revisionists sought.  As Einstein’s quotation, which provides the title of chapter IV (which is focused on Dr. Manhattan), makes painfully clear, Dr. Manhattan is all thoroughly realistic:

The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.  If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.

We may — indeed, must — read Dr. Manhattan as an allegory for the atomic bomb and how it deformed history. His name and origin both recall the Manhattan project.  But, if we are honest with ourselves, is Dr. Manhattan any stranger than the atomic bomb? He may well be more real than the atomic bomb:  humanity has long dreamed of super-powered men, from Greek heroes to Medieval knights — it is the atomic bomb that is the stuff of fiction. Those in Hiroshima or Nagasaki might feel differently, but to the rest of us the atomic bomb is a concept, a Cold War anxiety, the stuff of disaster movies and sweaty insomnia, dramatic historical footage and abstract argument. Dr. Manhattan is no less fantastic than the deformed, science fiction world in which we find ourselves. This is clearly a far cry from the lack of realism present in super-hero universes, filled with super-heroes and supernatural elements: as an autonomous text freed from this intertextuality, Watchmen could create an autonomous universe as controlled as its nine-panel grid.

None of these revisionist ideas could be given expression without severing Watchmen from the traditional intertextuality of corporate super-hero universes.  In this sense, as I have already suggested, it is the text’s lack of intertextuality that is most notable.  Nowhere in the text must one know the history of the super-hero genre in order to understand the story, which may be read as a science fiction tale.

This autonomy has served Watchmen well, especially in comparison with other revisionist works.  The other contestant for prime revisionist work, if not greatest graphic novel ever, is generally Frank Miller’s Batman:  The Dark Knight Returns. It is worth noting that this story, about an older Batman returning from retirement, also takes place out of normal continuity. But starring a well-established character, it inevitably participates in the history of that character.  Moore himself implicitly makes this point in his introduction to the collected Dark Knight Returns:

[Miller] has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of comics fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine that character without contradicting one jot of the character’s mythology.  Yes, Batman is still Bruce Wayne, Alfred is still his butler and Commissioner Gordon is still chief of police, albeit just barely.  There is still a young sidekick named robin, along with a batmobile, a batcave, and a utility belt. The Joker, Two-Face and the Catwoman are still in evidence amongst the roster of villains.  Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it’s all totally different.

Although Moore’s point is to praise Miller’s revisionism, he ends up implicitly making an argument for the superiority of Watchmen based on that text’s autonomy.  Those who don’t know the characters Moore references can still enjoy The Dark Knight Returns, but will get considerably less out of Miller’s revision of these elements.  Moreover, not only does Superman appear in Miller’s work, but Green Arrow — although the latter is simply called “Ollie,” a reference to Oliver Queen.  Wonder Woman’s costume appears, and references to “Jason” imply the death of Batman’s second Robin, Jason Todd.  So, although it is exists in its own continuity, The Dark Knight Returns remains a Batman story — one more autonomous, but hardly as autonomous, as self-contained as Watchmen.

Watchmen as Intertextual Response to the Genre

1.  Watchmen’s Autonomy as Itself Intertextual Response to the Genre

Of course, the autonomy of Watchmen is, ironically, itself intertextual. It is certainly crucial to understand Watchmen as a self-consciously autonomous work — one eschewing the normal intertextuality. But at the same time, a different type of intertextuality is being invoked:  one cannot understand the relevance of these artistic moves without understanding what they are rebelling against. Indeed, the very notion of Watchmen’s autonomy — or that this autonomy is even notable — must be understood intertextually as a revisionist response to the earlier and continuing tradition of comic book series with a high degree of formalized intertextuality.

Moreover, one could argue that revisionism itself — and the revisionist choices made in Watchmen — are also intertextual, albeit in a different way. As a loose movement of creators working in the super-hero genre, the revisionists responded to that genre’s history, often finding it silly or defective. Though the same can be said for all movements, the history to which the revisionists were responding was especially particular, even insular. It relied upon the increasing moves towards realism, particularly of the 1970s. But it also stretched back further and looked outside of the medium.  Moore himself has cited MAD’s “Superduperman” as a source for his revisionism, particularly his seminal early revisionist work Miracleman (a.k.a. Marvelman). And, of course, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are jointly also understood for what they spurred: a decade or so of dark, ugly, violently psychotic super-heroes — which themselves spurred reconstructionism, with its self-conscious return to the freer, more fun spirit of earlier years. But Moore and the other revisionists were also looking towards novels and literature, seeking to infuse the super-hero genre with elements of science fiction, of psychological realism, and even of poetry. This desire would lead Moore, a few years after Watchmen, to turn his back on super-heroes altogether: in expanding the super-hero genre to purposes other than exaggerated fisticuffs, Moore eventually came to realize that super-heroes were themselves extraneous to the stories he wanted to tell — and thus produced the likes of From HellWatchmen’s influence on the genre has been profound, and even Moore could not escape it; he would not return to the genre until he himself joined the early reconstructionists, a less formalized movement — and even then, his works would be seen as pale masterpieces next to Watchmen. But these are only other ways in which Watchmen, as super-hero narrative, participates strongly in the history of its highly intertextual genre.

But it does reveal the way in which the revisionists, in seeking to create new and autonomous super-heroic texts, ultimately confirmed the genre they were revising. In generally eschewing the formalized intertextuality of monthly super-hero comic book publication, the revisionists were themselves intertextual. And for all its narrative autonomy, Watchmen is no different.

2.  Watchmen’s Format as Intertextual Response

Indeed, the very format and style of the series — its narrative contents, covers, and titles — exists in intertextual play with the usual format and style of traditional super-hero comic books. Since the 1950s, U.S. comic books generally ran 20-24 pages, including a letter column in the back and numerous advertisements. Watchmen issues ran 32 pages with no ads:  even the back cover and the two inside covers were given over to stylistic representations, such as blood slowly dripping down onto a clock, the hands of which slowly advance to noon or midnight — which in the narrative represents the Apocalypse, presumably nuclear. At least as dramatically, the first eleven issues conclude with pages given over to prose works, artifacts actually from the universe of Watchmen – such as extracts from Hollis Mason’s book Under the Hood, reflecting on his time as a super-hero. The last issue, because Gibbons preferred it, instead opens with a series of splash pages (or single-image pages) — a style traditionally used (especially in DC comics of the 1960s and 1970s) for the first page of a super-hero comic book to draw in casual readers. Even the format of the book refers to that of traditional super-hero comics, self-consciously moving away from their embarrassing obviousness towards some like the issue as art object.

The cover to Watchmen #2.

The covers themselves reference traditional super-hero comic books through absence. Those comics tended to have bold logos and dramatic images, often of the character engaged in fighting. Watchmen self-consciously employs a minimalist strain in its covers:  the title, in a relatively simple font, runs sideways along a single image that also serves as the first panel of the narrative proper. And each directly reference an alternative, less subtle possible cover. The first cover, the Comedian’s happy-faced button in a sea of blood, avoids the obvious dramatic image of the dead Comedian. To kill a major character in the first issue is a shocking enough reversal, but to kill a character and not even place him on the cover was unthinkable. The second cover, a cemetery statue in the rain so that it appears to be crying, avoids the image of a character crying dramatically over the Comedian’s body. The third cover’s nuclear symbol avoids depiction of a nuclear bomb blast. The fourth, of a photograph and footprints on the Martian landscape, avoids the dramatic image of Dr. Manhattan on Mars. Rather than showing Rorschach accosting Moloch or getting captured, the fifth cover depicts the puddle and reflection into which Rorschach steps to enter Moloch’s house. The sixth, a Rorschach blot, avoids the obvious image of Rorschach under arrest, or perhaps fighting with policemen. The seventh cover, a reflection of Night Owl’s vehicle in one half of his goggles, avoids showing that vehicle in flight, as seen in the issue. Hollis Mason’s award, a close-up on which serves as the eighth cover, will horrifically be used to kill him at the issue’s end — but instead of showing the murder on the cover, Watchmen gives us the innocuous object that will be transformed into a murder weapon. Rather than show the dramatic collapse of Dr. Manhattan’s artificial city on Mars, during a fight between him and Laurie, the cover shows the bottle of Nostalgia perfume in flight, en route to cause that collapse. The tenth cover shows us a radar screen with a reading tells us we’re at defcon four, summoning concerns that we’re looking at incoming missiles, but we’re actually not being shown what we think we are:  we find out on the very first page that the radar blips are Air Force One and Air Force Two — though we later see the war room projections about nuclear war that were not, in fact, shown on the cover. Moreover, the two blips recall the title, “Two Riders Were Approaching,” a reference to Night Owl and Rorschach in the Antarctic, approaching Ozymandias’s base — another dramatic image that the cover avoids. Rather than showing this, or Ozymandias’s beautiful arboretum being filled with snow, dramatically burying his dead employees, the mostly white cover shows a smudge of the arboretum as seen through the snow-covered glass. Finally and most obviously, the last cover shows a close-up of a clock dripping with blood — rather than the copious dead bodies all around it, as seen on the Apocalyptic first page.

Of course, the titles of the twelve issues come from quotations given at the end of each chapter.  The sources are disparate, partaking equally of literary and popular culture — appropriate for a graphic novel that elevates the pulpy super-hero comic book to a literary masterpiece that structurally and philosophically surpasses Homer.  The chapters’ quotes come (in this order) from Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Genesis, Albert Einstein, William Blake, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Job, Eleanor Farjeon, C. J. Jung, Bob Dylan again, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and finally John Cale.  In postmodern fashion, these quotations are themselves doubly quoted in the title, which takes at most only a few words from these longer quotations.  But there is a way in which these quotations, particularly the highbrow ones, implicitly reference the super-heroic tradition:  just as the covers consciously eschew the fight scenes typical of comic book covers, so the titles consciously eschew the sort of exclamation-laded titles common to super-hero comic books.  Indeed, often the portion of these quotations that serve as the title don’t even reference the most obvious portion:  for example, the quote from Job that serves as chapter VII’s title contains the phrase “a companion to owls,” which might be seen as referencing Night Owl, the focus of that issue; yet the portion quoted is “a brother to dragons,” implicitly a reference to Night Owl’s flying, fire-spitting vehicle. Whereas traditional super-hero comics tended to be overly direct, here the titles are at times overly indirect.

The series’s title itself comes from a quote from Juvenal’s Satires: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes,” translated as “Who watches the watchmen?” It is a supremely literary title, one full of resonance from politics to parents to police. But the quote is not taken directly from Juvenal, but rather the 1987 Tower Commission Report: it expresses nuclear anxiety.  Thus the title seems postmodern, a quotation of a quotation. It also may be seen as expressing Moore’s literary anxiety, appropriating his title for his masterful exhibition of Greek balance from classicism. But the title also plays with the expectations of comic book readers:  super-hero comic book titles are generally the name of the periodical’s super-heroic protagonist or group of the same, and readers may well expect the title to designate the name of a super-team. While the book does feature two super-teams (the Minutemen and Ozymandias’s proposed Crimebusters), neither are named the Watchmen.  thus does the title already undermine the super-heroic tradition. The title is not only intertextual, but super-intertextual: it manages to reference Juvenal, nuclear anxiety, the literary tradition, and the super-heroic tradition all at the same time.

3.  Watchmen’s Characters as Responding to the Genre

These disparaging references to the super-hero genre are by no means limited to the format of the series.  Watchmen’s characters have a certain sadness to their frequently drooping faces:  they are often depressed people, seen often enough in daily life.  But the series’s characters themselves often express derogatory views of the super-hero tradition.

Dan Dreiberg, the Night Owl, is particularly prone to these expressions. In chapter VII, he admits that “being a crimefighter… was just this adolescent, romantic thing” (page 7); the reality, however, is that “it’s all crap dressed up with a lot of flash and thunder. I mean, who needs all this hardware to catch hookers and purse-snatchers?” (page 8). It is worth pointing out that the world of Watchmen has few super-villains, which might give Night Owl more of a sense of purpose. Implicitly, given the book’s realism, Moore is making the point, while one might strain to imagine someone becoming a super-hero for various psychological reasons, few would dress up in costumes to rob banks with mad plans to take over the world. Despite all of the apparent pessimism of the series, there is something hopeful about human nature in this: it implicitly points out that the traditional super-hero series, in which villains vastly outnumber heroes, argues — despite its bright colors and happy people — that most people, given such powers, would use them for ill. Still, when Dan shows Laurie a prototype exoskeleton in chapter VII, Laurie observes, “That sounds like the sort of costume that could really mess you up.”  Dan replies, “Is there any other sort?” (page 8).

The traditional — and radically superficial — criticism of super-heroes is that they are adolescent power fantasies.  But it is notable that Fredric Wertham infamously argued for a sexual component.  In his 1954 Seduction of the Innocent, in part responsible for the comics industry’s imposition of the censoring Comics Code Authority, he argued that Batman and Robin existed in a homosexual relationship and that Wonder Woman, whose stories frequently involved her or others being put in bondage, was a sadomasochistic sexual figure.

Moore suggests that, at least for some, the dressing-up and role-playing of the super-hero recall sexual games.  The first and perhaps best illustration of this is the end of the comic book portion of the first issue, in which Dan Dreiberg (Night Owl) and Laurie Juspeczyk (the second Silk Specter) reminisce about a bothersome super-villain who liked to be hit, moaning hard as they beat him.  Perhaps ironically, this sexual psychosis ended when it ran into another psychosis — that of Rorschach, who we’re told threw the villain down an elevator shaft. But this villain is hardly unique. The Comedian is a rapist, though this hardly motivates his homicidal tendencies towards adventuring. In a touching epilogue in chapter XII, we realize that Sally Jupiter (the first Silk Specter) loved the Comedian despite that he tried to rape her:  she didn’t want it, but she was interested in him — he was right about that, even if his response wasn’t. Both Hooded Justice and the Silhouette are homosexuals. In his autobiography, Hollis Mason writes that some became costumed crimefighters “for a kind of excitement that was [...] adult if perhaps less healthy” (chapter II).

But the fullest expression of this sexual motivation, however, is found in Dan Dreiberg, the Night Owl.  He keeps a photograph of the Twilight Lady, one of his former costumed villains; in it, she is posed sexually on a bed, dressed in leather and holding a riding crop.  Drieberg is himself impotent; his attempt to have sex with Laurie in chapter VII is awkward and vails (pages 14-15).  He confesses that he feels “powerless” and “impotent” in the wake of global events (page 19). But after a night of adventuring in costume, he and Laurie have sex like movie stars, complete with his airship shooting flame as if ejaculate (page 27).  Afterwards (page 28), basking in the afterglow, Laurie asks, “Did the costumes make it good?” Dan replies, after a brief pause, “Yeah. / Yeah, I guess the costumes had something to do with it. It just feels strange, you know?  To come out and admit that to somebody. / To come out of the closet.” He soon adds that he felt “so confident[.]  It’s like I’m on fire.  And all the mask killers, all the wars in the world, they’re just cases — just problems to solve.” And suddenly, the conservative, shy, reluctant Dan Dreiberg wants to break Rorschach out of jail.

"Did the costumes make it good?" Watchmen interrogates the super-hero genre, asking about the intersection of super-hero costumes and submerged fetishes.

In this chapter, focused on Dan, the sexual motivation and the power fantasy truly merges:  Dan’s impotency is caused by the crisis in modern masculinity, as we’re all supposed to be so damned polite in a world of cubicles and open debate over nuclear war — and, as a man, Dan needs to feel powerful, capable to get it up.  The thrill of being a super-hero, of saving lives from a fire, makes him feel like he can make a difference even in the modern, compartmentalized world.  The super-hero, a queer figure, exists outside of the usual boundaries:  he is both avenger of wrongs and illegal vigilante, both violator of dress codes and someone wearing a uniform instead of a costume.  In this sense, the super-hero is indeed an adolescent male power fantasy.  But male power fantasies, Moore remind us, always have a strong sexual component:  the dream of leading armies is closely tied to the dream of the harem.

It is one of Moore’s intertextual responses to the super-hero tradition and its critics such as Fredric Wertham.  And it is worth noting that the public, in Watchmen’s world, also has such suspicions.  In chapter IX’s prose section, an interview with Sally Jupiter, the reporter asks, “How much would you say that it’s a sex thing, putting on a costume?”  Moore’s answer, at least in Watchmen, is a decent amount.

Watchmen as Synethesis and Expansion of the Genre

But Moore’s intertextual references in Watchmen to the super-heroic tradition are not limited to general references to the tradition of U.S. super-hero comic books as a whole.  Rather, while the text remains deceptively anti-intertextual because of its autonomous narrative, I would argue that Watchmen references the whole history of the U.S. comic book.  As the poetic epic — also often in twelve books — has been thought of as a compendium of a nation’s history, so Watchmen may be seen as an attempt to synthesize all of the super-hero’s history.

This may be seen as a clever response to the problem of intertextuality.  Intertextuality comes in various forms, and most readers prefer such references to be unobtrusive.  This fact that may be observed in literature as well, and it is precisely for this reason that few have made it through such modernist classics as Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake (which no less than Borges called “unreadable,” in his speech entitled “Blindness”) or even Pound’s Cantos with their obligatory annotations that are at least as voluminous as the texts themselves. As an autonomous work, Watchmen carefully avoids this kind of unreadability: occurring in its own universe, it avoids dependence upon other super-heroic works. While an incredibly dense work, both symbolically and structurally, it remains readable. But behind the veneer of an autonomous, readable narrative, Watchmen is busy absorbing into itself all of comic book history.

1.  Watchmen’s Characters as Archetypal

Let us begin with Watchmen’s characters.  We have already seen how Moore based the series on the Charleton characters that DC had acquired. I would like to argue that, freed from the constraints of using these characters within DC continuity, Moore not only created a text remarkable for its narrative autonomy. Rather, freed from using these characters at all, Moore did not simply rename the Charleton characters but alter them, transmuting them into archetypes, pulling into them elements of various other super-heroes. In accordance with his whole project of deconstructing the super-heroic tradition, Moore can thus use these newly archetypal characters to pose certain questions of these various strains of that tradition.

Rorschach, Watchmen’s most influential character, seems drawn from Batman — but the dark, urban Batman re-envisioned by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns and Year One rather than the happy, campy Batman of the late 1950s and early 1960s. But it recalls other non-powered vigilantes who operate on the fringes of the law, including Marvel’s outright homicidal Punisher. But in appearance, Rorschach was most clearly influenced by the Question, as previously mentioned: the Question wore a faceplace without features, which Moore has divorced from the original to great poetic effect.

With Rorschach, Moore pushes the archetype of the costumed vigilante. We are left to contemplate the character’s morality: Rorschach is severe but not insane, and his violence stems from his understanding of the world — particularly the experience of finding a kidnapped girl murdered and fed to dogs. Rorschach broke, and I am reminded of how often those who have come home to find their families murdered, or experienced some similar witnessing of clearly meaningless human cruelty, have lost their faith in an instant. Rorschach’s willingness to die at the end, at once noble and suicidal, demonstrate a refusal to compromise that we would have trouble dismissing as anything but heroic. Are we, as Rorschach believes, merely comfortable in our air conditioned homes, so divorced from reality that we would not kill a child killer — or that we believe in God?

Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) was born in 1939, the year Batman debuted.  His wealth, and position as head of his own corporation, also recalls Batman. So too does his perfected human body and skills as a gymnast. But he does Batman one better:  he is so intelligent and driven to prove himself that he disposed of his fortune simply to prove that he could earn it back. On the other hand, his base in the Antarctic further recalls Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude. Moreover, he has a certain optimism that recalls that of Superman — even if his decision to kill half of New York to stave off nuclear war involves a moral compromise that Superman would never make.

With Veidt, Moore makes us ask whether his actions were moral — and if this is where vigilantism, at least in the intelligent, must lead. Is Veidt a villain?  Certainly, he plays this role in terms of his role in the narrative — as nothing so clearly illustrates as when he buries the employees he’s murdered in the snow, not unlike some James Bond villain. But his motives are good, even if his sense of morality is conditional. Indeed, he can also be seen as having the courage to accept casualties, and there is something in his planning of it all that we may admire. Perhaps most crucially, as (villainous?) embodiment of conditional morality, Veidt represents the polar opposite of Rorschach. Both might be murderous, but it is Rorschach who is uncompromising in his morality. Veidt shares a similar sense of enlightenment, but his is more that of the general sitting in luxury while ordering necessary murders from a distance. If we do not agree with Rorschach’s uncompromising vigilantism, how do we avoid siding with Veidt? After all, it is Veidt, not Rorschach, who kills innocents — albeit for a greater good.

The Comedian, whose death spurs the narrative, recalls Marvel’s Captain America. This Captain America, however, is not a veteran of World War II but of Vietnam — and that, it seems, makes all the difference. If Captain America liberating a concentration camp may be seen as embodying the America of World War II, the unforgettable scene in which the Comedian casually kills his pregnant Vietnamese mistress seems to embody a critical view of Nixonian America and the era of Vietnam and Watergate. Watchmen thus seems to argue that Captain America, an anachronistic poster-boy of World War II patriotism, is obsolete in a post-Nixon American environment — and, indeed, Captain America’s own writers have struggled to use the character to investigate social ills.

But the Comedian also embodies a certain amorality that stands as another response to the awareness of the absence of God, a consciousness Rorschach shares. But whereas Rorschach’s atheism takes the form of doing good for humanity, now freed from the sort of moral uncertainty that would keep one from killing a child-killer, the Comedian’s atheism takes a very different form. If, given the obvious horrors of this world, we accept the premise of God’s shocking absence (or at least the absence of any divine intervention) — and, in terms of the narrative, we must — do we take Rorschach’s path or do we, like the Comedian, simply laugh, cozy up to power, and do what we will?

Night Owl, as previously stated, was drawn from Blue Beetle: both, like Batman, were rich, used gadgets, and had a secret lair. Moreover, Night Owl’s costume reflects Blue Beetle’s, and his flying owl vehicle recalls Blue Beetle’s flying beetle vehicle. As there were two Blue Beetles, so there were two Night Owls. Like Adrian Veidt, the original Night Owl, Hollis Mason, was born in 1939 — the year of Batman’s debut. One should remember, however, that Batman has become a kind of archetype for the non-powered hero, so similarities between him and any non-powered hero should not necessarily disturb or distract us; moreover, Batman has gone through many and varied incarnations over the years.

As previously seen, Moore uses Night Owl to embody the kind of pathetic — but I would argue also sympathetic — reasons for donning a mask and fighting crime. But this exists on the level of us as readers questioning super-hero narratives — here, those narratives are also employed, like Wertham, to question us. Why do we enjoy such narratives — even, for some of us, read them compulsively? If we can realize the closeness of the super-hero outfit and a leather costume worn for sex — if we notice that relationship between Dan’s costume and that of the woman whose photo he keeps — we had best not laugh too loudly at poor Dan. After all, what does it say about us that we’re reading a story filled with such costumes? If watching violence suggests some enjoyment of it, some closeted desire for same, doesn’t watching costumed adventuring such an equally vicarious experience?

Dr. Manhattan, as previously mentioned, was drawn most directly from Captain Atom.  But he also reflects Superman, who has become the archetype of the tremendously super-powered hero. While Superman has rarely been depicted as being as aloof and inhuman as Dr. Manhattan becomes, it is worth noting that Moore does not make Manhattan immediately so distant — rather, he evolves, deformed by his power and his superhuman consciousness. His costume, and increasing lack thereof, also reflect this same evolution — but this also recalls the sleek, almost featureless costumes of the Silver Age, such as Flash’s classic red one. The simplicity of design reflects the purity of power — pronounced, in Dr. Manhattan’s case, and combined with consciousness.  The text also makes reference to “Wally Weaver [...] Dr. Manhattan’s Buddy” (III.13), a clear reference to “Jimmy Olson, Superman’s Pal.” Additionally, when we first meet Dr. Manhattan, the sign for the military base on which he lives contains a reversed form of Superman’s “S” logo (I.19.1).

With Dr. Manhattan, Moore asks about the nature of super-power — and perhaps power itself. The most crucial question, in terms of the super-hero tradition, is this:  how does a superman retain his humanity? Certainly, it would not be as easy as Superman casually assuming a human persona and comfortable playing the hick on the farm. When one can, as Superman can in Moore’s employment of him in Swamp Thing, count the very atoms of the atmosphere, how does one view humans? But this same sort of questioning goes beyond the super-hero genre. Power may corrupt, but it can also render one inhuman.  But since Watchmen uses super-heroic archetypes to question God, what does Dr. Manhattan imply about God? Dr. Manhattan seems nearly omnipotent and omniscient. How would a God with such attributes understand humanity — and human suffering? Would he care for a dead girl as a human would? Is such human caring possible with such power and such knowledge?

Watchmen in many ways denigrates the super-heroic tradition. But in questioning the super-hero genre, in making his characters archetypes of kinds of costumed vigilantes and expanding these characters’ intertextuality from the Charleton heroes to all super-heroes, Moore has ironically re-infused the genre with meaning. The questions Moore poses cause us not only to re-evaluate the genre but to question our role within the universe, and this is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay of a genre.

2.  Watchmen’s Taking in of Comics History

While Watchmen transforms its characters into archetypes, pulling in all of the super-heroic genre and interrogating it, Watchmen also pulls in all of comic book history, including those works beyond the super-hero genre. Indeed, Watchmen’s epic incorporation of comic book history is in some sense quite literal: Moore makes clear, within his narrative, how that tradition has evolved differently within the world of Watchmen.

We have already seen reference in the narrative itself to Fredrich Wertham, but it is worth noting that Wertham did not succeed in castrating the comics industry in Watchmen’s world. In the prose section of the fifth chapter, Moore offers us an excerpt from Treasure Island Treasury of Comics. It suggests that, in a world in which super-heroes are a reality, the super-hero comic books that in part inspired the first masked adventurers quickly lost their popularity. In their place, pirate comics have flourished alongside science fiction and horror. One must here understand that many have lamented — and continue to lament — the dominance of the U.S. comic book market by the super-hero genre, a situation analogous to the disproportional dominance of films — especially popular ones — by, for example, the Western. Chapter V’s prose text refers to E.C. Comics, whose horror comics’ explicit illustrations helped spur the controversy over comics. In the mythology of American comic book history, many have lamented the demise of E.C. and seen it as representing a diversity of genre and seen in it an attention to quality that super-hero comics of the period lacked. It is worth noting that Moore seems to side with those who see the imposition of the Comics Code Authority as an attempt by publishers such as DC to shut down publishers like E.C. rather than a self-censorship necessary to placate the public. In Watchmen’s world, which may be read as a utopian alternate history of the America comic book, E.C. was never put out of business and some diversity of genres continue to thrive.

This alternate history even incorporates some names with which comics historians should already be familiar: Joe Orlando is the most obvious example, and Gibbons has gone as far as to create art in his style to accompany the fictional artifact, but luminaries such as Julius Schwartz, Gil Kane, and Alex Toth also receive mention. Even institutions such as the Overstreet Price Guide find reference. So too does DC Comics, the publisher of Watchmen.  Rather than unveiling new Silver Age titles in 1960, the DC of Watchmen’s world unveiled Tales of the Black Freighter. In this utopian version of comics history, by 1984, when Treasure Island Treasury of Comics was supposedly published, DC was reduced to reprinting this particular comic.

Perhaps most importantly in this context, Moore seems to argue for the connection between comic books and literature when he has Shea, a fictional comic book creator, leave DC over a creative dispute and succeed as a writer outside of comics. We are told that he quit comics but went on “to write such classic novels as the twice-filmed Fogdancing. One may see here the literary anxiety of comic books, and it is worth remembering that Moore wrote his own novel, Voice of the Fire, though to less commercial success.

But of course, Moore incorporates this E.C.-influenced history of comics into the narrative proper, juxtaposing (in chapters III-XI) panels supposedly taken from DC’s Tales of the Black Freighter with panels showing the characters themselves. In Watchmen’s narrative, a boy sits on the street reading pirate comics instead of super-hero comics, and we are invited to imagine the corresponding change on his still-forming mentality. These juxtapositions of both image and caption, with captions from the fictional comic sometimes appearing over narrative panels, and vice versa, quite literally makes the two texts comment upon one another. But while the Tales of the Black Freighter panels clearly comment ironically upon the narrative of Watchmen, Moore is also putting Watchmen in dialogue with comic book history.

But while this is the clearest example, Watchmen’s incorporation of comics history hardly stops there. Adrian Veidt’s advertisement for the “Veidt Method” of body-building, which appears among the prose material, is clearly a version of the famous Charles Atlas advertisements in comic books. These advertisements classically featured a scrawny boy tormented by bullies on the beach only to bulk up ridiculously and win the girl. They are so well remembered in comic book history that comic book writer Grant Morrison based his own character, Flex Mentallo, on the transformed man of the ads.

Watchmen has even been responsible for changing our understanding of comic book history. Sally Jupiter (the first Silk Specter) proudly displays a Tijuana Bible starring herself. Moore’s responsibility for helping comics historians to rediscover the Tijuana Bible can hardly be overestimated:  these comics of the 1930s and 1940s, frequently starring celebrities or illegally featuring copyrighted characters in various sexual situations, are now seen as a forerunner of the undergrounds of the 1960s.


On Watchmen’s second to last page, we see a poster that has gone up on the streets of New York since the disaster. It shows a blonde man and a blonde woman, seemingly clad in togas, and it reads as follows: “This is the time. These are the feelings. Millennium.” Under this is the Veidt logo, and the implication is that the perfume — or perhaps a scent for both sexes — has replaced Veidt’s perfume named Nostalgia. It is a perfect, and potentially painful, symbol of what Moore has done in Watchmen.

Nostalgia reigns during the narrative, and its epic incorporation of the whole super-heroic narrative, and even of comics publishing history, is fundamentally a nostalgic act. This may be seen as a profound example of Harold Bloom’s notion of the anxiety of influence, in which artists seek anxiously to outdo their predecessors. But the ending invites us to look forward to the future of comic books, with or without the super-hero. Having established with Watchmen that the graphic novel may attain the level of a masterpiece in any medium, dealing anxiously with the problem of that medium’s dominance in the U.S. by super-heroes and at the same time redeeming that genre, Moore now invites us to transcend Watchmen.

It is a masterful move — and a humble one in such an apparently daring, if not artistically arrogant text.  Watchmen has itself exerted a profound anxiety of influence over subsequent comic book creators, who can not imagine creating a masterpiece of with such multiple levels of meaning, such symmetry, and such subtlety.  But here, at the end of Watchmen itself, this epic that subsumes its genre’s history does not presuppose itself as the last word. Rather, it bequeaths to us a masterpiece and tells us that “this is the time” and “these are the feelings.”

The final image goes a step further. Just as Dr. Manhattan goes into space and suggests that nuclear tensions have not disappeared forever, so the last page suggests that the conservative New Frontiersman will run Rorschach’s journal, exposing the events of the whole narrative to the world. Watchmen takes in everything — even its own sequel. But the same journal has also served as narration in Watchmen and may be seen symbolically as the text itself. As if to emphasize this, the assistant reaching for it in the final panel has the symbol for the narrative itself:  a smiley face dashed with blood — or, in this case, freshly spilled ketchup. His boss at the New Frontiersman, who may be read as an analogue of Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson, gets the last word:  “I leave it entirely in your hands.”

Besides suggesting its own sequel on a narrative level, the panel works on a meta-narrative level as well.  Most obviously, Moore here literally leaves Watchmen in our hands, ending his epic with a nod to the critics, a recognition that history will judge its place in the literary tradition.  But more metaphorically, Moore is leaving us the whole of the super-hero genre and the medium of the comic book itself.  Looking to the future, having nostalgically incorporated the past, Moore bequeaths to us not only his epic but the medium itself.  He invites us to write our own epic, to reinvigorate the tradition he has incorporated, to do our part — in whatever way we choose — for a medium we now know, if we did not know before, to be capable of masterpiece.

It is, perhaps, the supremely intertextual moment.


Borges, Jorge Luis. Everything and Nothing. Trans. Donald A. Yates, James E. Irby, John M. Fein, and Eliot Weinberger. New Directions, 1999.

Miller, Frank. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. DC Comics, 1986.

Moore, Alan (writer); Gibbons, Dave (art). Watchmen.  DC Comics, 1987. Serialized in 1986-1987.

Moore, Alan (writer); various (art). Saga of the Swamp Thing. DC Comics, 2000.

Wertham, Fredric. Seduction of the Innocent. Rinehart and Company, 1954.

Wolfman, Marv (writer); Pérez, George and various (art). Crisis on Infinite Earths. DC Comics, 2000. Serialized in 1985-1986.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

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  1. Luis Mina says:

    Wow. Man, I know I praised you on your Wolverine article…but this….it synthesizes all the vague half-formed notions I had about Watchmen into a complete whole that’s just…..the experience of having someone complete your thoughts for you and take them down to their conclusions is amazing. Thank you.

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