Who Will Save Us Now?:

Dirty Realistic Fiction, Grim and Gritty Superhero Comic Books, and the Legacy of 1986—Part 2

All the reasons which made the initiation of physical force evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative!

I read—and loved—The Dark Knight Returns when I was in the 7th grade, about three years after it was first published.  Some kids at my school got together and started a comic book club, and when I started attending meetings, they were all shocked that I hadn’t read what everyone agreed was the greatest Batman story ever.

And I have to say, I thought it was incredible.  The story took place in the future, chronicling a much older Batman’s final battles after coming out of a ten-year retirement.  I liked seeing Batman’s showdown with Two-Face, whose appearance reconstructive surgery had restored but whose fractured psyche could never be healed.  I liked Batman’s confrontation with the Joker, whose final ploy against the caped crusader was to break his own neck in order to frame his enemy for murder.  I liked the new Robin—a girl, sure, but a resourceful girl who saved Batman’s life after his first battle with the Mutant gang.

Most of all, I liked Batman’s determination and resourcefulness.  Here he was, Bruce Wayne.  A regular man who had trained and conditioned himself for a one-man war on crime, and who—in the breathtaking final chapter– is actually able to take on and beat Superman, who has become a tool of an ineffective government intent on stopping Batman.  All it takes to be Batman, I thought, was determination and moral fortitude.

Of course, the fact that Bruce Wayne needed to be rich enough to afford a sophisticated battle suit that Superman couldn’t easily shred and to synthesize Kryptonite didn’t really occur to me.  Or, perhaps it did, but—as a kid growing up in Ronald Reagan and J.R. Ewing’s America—I just assumed that one day I would be rich too, and that a lack of money was really just a temporary obstacle for anyone driven enough to do the sorts of things Batman does.

My relationship with the book changed throughout the years, as I became older and a more attentive reader and thinker.  As a kid, I was very much aware—and approving—of some of Miller’s political commentary in the book, although I guess I wouldn’t have called it political commentary at the time.  I thought he—like Batman himself—was just targeting bad guys.  Batman went after muggers and rapists, Miller went after effete liberal intellectuals.

Throughout the book, television talking heads sound off on the recently-returned Batman and his war on crime.  I imagine Miller may have been influenced by the public response to the Bernard Goetz subway shootings just two years before, where media figures and the general public heatedly debated whether or not rampant urban violence entitled a private citizen to take the law into his own hands.  In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman’s public supporters—including media pundit (and former girlfriend of Superman) Lana Lang– clash with bleeding-heart types who speak of brutal gang members with filed-down, razor-sharp teeth as “children” and “Batman’s victims.”

The most odious of these criminal-coddling liberals has to be Dr. Bartholomew Wolper, psychiatrist at the Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled (clearly, at some point in the future, the bleeding hearts forced the facility to change its name from Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane).  Against the advice of Police Commissioner Gordon, Dr. Wolper arranges for Harvey “Two-Face” Dent to be released from the hospital after his original, unscarred visage is restored.  Believing that years of therapy and reconstructive surgery have “cured” the criminal mastermind and multiple-murderer, Wolper insists—incorrectly, as it turns out—that Two-Face is ready to re-enter society, and that those—like the Commissioner—who oppose his release are acting out of ignorance and prejudice against the misunderstood mentally ill.  When Two-Face inevitably returns to his life of crime and is apprehended by Batman, Wolper insists to the media that the villain is not, in fact, responsible for his own actions—that the reappearance of Batman in Gotham City is the ultimate cause of Two Face’s brutal rampage.  To prove his point, Wolper attempts to take Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker on a late night talk show to explain how Batman drives otherwise disturbed-but-peaceful people to lives of crime.  As you can probably surmise, the Joker winds up killing the show’s host, other guest, the entire studio audience, and Dr. Wolper himself.  Truly, the last laugh was on Wolper and the other so-called “intellectuals” who insist on treating the murderer like the victim and denying that criminals are responsible for their own deviant behavior.

As I said, when I was a kid, I could appreciate—even agree with—this line of reasoning.  It was morning in America, after all, and the general consensus among all of the adults I knew—family members, people who golfed at the same Country Club my parents belonged to—was that liberals in politics, the media, and the courts had taken us down a dangerous path with “soft-on-crime” policies and “slap-on-the-wrist” sentencing.  Law and order demanded a certain toughness—a toughness these sniveling liberals didn’t possess.  I doubt it’s any accident that the Dirty Harry and Death Wish movies achieved so much popularity at this time, or that Rambo became both a cinema and children’s cartoon star based on the notion that our Vietnam veterans would have been much better off had the U.S. government allowed them to win the war.

As I grew older and became a liberal myself, I began to see the flaws in Miller’s presentation.  To buy his criticism of liberalism, you have to believe in the overly-sensitive, “I’m OK, You’re OK/ Tolerate Everything, Because Everyone and Everything is Equal” strawman liberalism that doesn’t actually exist outside of Miller’s Gotham City or Rush Limbaugh’s feverish rantings.  I easily know dozens, if not hundreds, of people who identify themselves as liberal, yet not one of them has ever suggested that John Wayne Gacy was simply misunderstood or that Richard Ramirez, “The Night Stalker,” could be safely reintegrated with society someday.

To be fair to Miller, he’s not just making fun of liberalism—the book is filled with conservative caricatures as well (one supporter of Batman proclaims, “I hope he goes after the homos next”; Ronald Reagan—who is still president—is a wig-wearing buffoon who brings the country to the brink of nuclear war).  I didn’t notice these commentaries when I was a kid, but they are obvious when I read the book as an adult.

Batman, of course, stands apart from these dualities, representing a third way—a way based on common sense and justifiable violence.  The cowardly softness of liberalism leads to teenage gangs pillaging the city; the idiocy of cowboy conservatism nearly leads to the destruction of the world.  In such an insane world, dressing up like a bat and fighting criminals might just be the only rational choice one can make.

The problem, for me, comes in the last chapter.  Having established that Batman lives in a hyper-stylized world where political reality has the depth and sophistication of your average political cartoon, Miller suddenly injects… well, a sense of realism into the narrative.  Oh, sure the media and politicians are still idiotic, but the people on the street suddenly seem to exist as realistic characters as the world stands on the brink of nuclear destruction.  Complete devastation is avoided as Superman causes the Soviet missile aimed at America to explode over an uninhabited desert, but the resulting EMP shockwaves hit Gotham City, knocking out all power.  As a result, some of Gotham’s citizens begin to riot, while others come together to try to promote patience and peace.  Some express their fear.  Some doubts.  And in the end, some express their regrets over how they behaved the night the lights went out and others express gratitude to their fellow Gothamites who helped them survive.  As a result, this part of the book seems less like an explosive squib targeting the excesses of two ideologies, and more like a quieter, more reflective piece of literature.  It’s compelling—moving, even—but it somehow feels out of place.

During the blackout, Batman and Robin unite the now-warring gang members and convince them to follow Batman’s example and employ their outrage and violence in a more “positive” direction—that is to say, keeping the peace and punishing wrongdoers.  And at the book’s end—after stately Wayne Manor has been destroyed, Bruce Wayne’s fortune has disappeared, Alfred the loyal butler has died, and Batman has faked his own demise—we see Batman, no longer wearing his cape and cowl, leading his “army” through the subterranean caverns that had once been known as “The Bat Cave.”  Here, they will build their own new community, free of liberal hypersensitivity and conservative buffoonery—the law will be Batman’s sensible understanding of justice and personal responsibility.  And here they will also train their bodies and minds, presumably in preparation for bringing Batman’s law to the world above.  Bruce Wayne has, in effect, “gone Galt”—though with the promise to come back to set things right, someday.

As a kid, I liked the idea of Batman training an army of young people to bring justice to a world that sorely needs it.  As an adult, the idea of somebody attempting such a thing scares the shit out of me.  Here we have Batman, this intense but inspiring figure, working with young people who lack guidance and have already demonstrated that they have no problem with violence.  Batman, who doesn’t need fancy book-learning to know right from wrong, and who has the will and the strength to impose his sense of justice and morality on others, becomes the charismatic leader this muscle will follow and obey without question.

Yeah.  What could possibly go wrong?

Geoff Klock has written that

…  Miller fully accepts the political ramifications of the genre’s core principle of vigilante justice—superheroes wear masks and are not hampered by legal red tape, such as probable cause, but Miller is the first to amp this up so we can see it for what it is.  Miller’s Batman is an unapologetic fascist: in the process of an interrogation, he threatened a man he had already left in a neck brace and crutches and mocked him when he claimed ‘I got rights’… We must accept Miller’s Batman as he is, or reject him as he is—knowing that if we reject him, we reject the whole genre.

In light of Superman’s moral compromise and a lack of any other noble or heroic characters, Klock says, “Miller demands that we side with his Batman.”

It’s not just about genre, though.  By insisting that “we side with his Batman,” I think that Miller is actually arguing that we side with Batman’s political philosophy in opposition to the political philosophies that govern our culture (and which he has caricatured in his book).  We are meant, I think, to understand the ending of The Dark Knight Returns as a happy one—Batman and his army of violent teenagers are going to build their own underground Utopia and then, when the time is right, deliver that Utopia to those of us who still live in the world above.

(Some of Miller’s recent public statements about political issues—particularly his harsh criticisms of leftwing political movements– lend support to this theory, I think).

Of course, one thing left unexplored in The Dark Knight Returns’s happy ending is the fact that Utopias don’t really exist, are impossible to create, and inevitably turn the would-be Utopian into a monster.  Miller doesn’t seem to realize this—or, at least, he doesn’t take these realities into account in his book—but Moore and Gibbons demonstrate a keen awareness of these facts in Watchmen.

Fearful Symmetries!

As I said before, Watchmen was originally published as a 12-issue monthly miniseries by DC Comics beginning in 1986.  My friends and I didn’t really like Watchmen as much as we liked The Dark Knight Returns—the book featured characters with no previous publication history, so we couldn’t enjoy the fanboy thrill of watching Batman pummel Superman.  Still, most of my friends enjoyed Watchmen somewhat—what it lacked in familiarity it more than made up for with violence, sexuality, and an uncompromising hero who, even in the face of Armageddon, wouldn’t back down.  Most importantly, the book’s mature subject matter reassured us that what we were reading was, in fact, more sophisticated than our English teachers and our more beautiful classmates might have thought.  Comics were literature, Watchmen demonstrated, and more importantly, comics could be cool.

The story of Watchmen might seem deceptively simple.  The United States has outlawed costumed crime fighting after decades of gaudily-dressed adventurers patrolling the streets and dispensing vigilante justice.  The only active “superheroes” (although that may seem like an odd label to put on these people) are The Comedian/ Eddie Blake (a cynical, violent rapist), Dr. Manhattan/ Jon Osterman (a blue-skinned, God-like man who is growing ever more detached from humanity), and Rorschach/ Walter Kovacs (a psychotic vigilante with fascist leanings who has killed at least two people prior to the story’s opening).  The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan work as operatives for the U.S. government—The Comedian covertly, and Dr. Manhattan as a one-man nuclear deterrent whose massive powers effectively frighten all of America’s enemies into submission.  Rorschach, on the other hand, operates outside the law and is hunted by the police—for good reason, certainly, although as a kid I identified Rorschach as the hero of the book.

The book is also concerned with quite a few masked crime fighters who have retired from their vigilante activities.  Most importantly there are Nite Owl/ Dan Dreiberg (an inventor who used technological gadgets and equipment to fight crime), Silk Spectre/ Laurie Juczpek (a woman pushed into superheroism by her mother, herself a retired adventurer), and Ozymandias/ Adrian Veidt (a highly trained gymnast, fighter, philanthropist, and multi-millionaire).  Night Owl has become a lonely man, impotent and out-of-shape.  Silk Spectre has been Dr. Manhattan’s romantic companion since prior to the book’s opening.  Ozymandias has been planning, for quite some time, to save the world from nuclear annihilation by orchestrating a hoax that will leave millions of New Yorkers dead, but will also unite the world against the perceived new threat.  As a kid, I identified Ozymandias as the villain of the book.

Upon first reading Watchmen, I missed most of its political content and nuance, just as I’d missed those same qualities in The Dark Knight Returns.  People have already written volumes on Watchmen—I highly recommend Sara J. Van Ness’s excellent book Watchmen as Literature and Andrew Hoberek’s Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics for those interested in thoughtful and learned approaches to the book.  I’m not interested in duplicating the scholarship that’s already out there, but I do feel like I have to discuss just why I think this book is so incredible, why I think it ought to be taught in any class focused on graphic narrative, and why it continues to have an impact on me.

Appreciating Watchmen does require a certain suspension of disbelief that, I think, some critics are unable or unwilling to indulge.  For these critics, the presence of people wearing capes or giant, naked blue men with the ability to destroy and create things at a molecular level automatically disqualifies the work as “art.” As Van Ness wrote about Watchmen’s critical reception at the time of its initial release, “Simply put, few had confidence in the superhero narrative’s potential to reach a ‘high point’ beyond a popular television series.”  Even after the book had achieved recognition and acclaim (appearing on Time’s list of the 100 Greatest English-Language Novels written since 1923, becoming the subject of scholarly articles and even university classes), some still insisted that a narrative that relied on such fantastic elements couldn’t possibly be considered artistic.  As Anthony Lane wrote in his review of Zach Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation of the book:

[There] is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who is buff, buck naked, and blue, like a porn star left overnight in a meat locker. Whether his fellow-Watchmen have true superpowers, as opposed to a pathological bent for fisticuffs, I never quite worked out, but this guy is the real deal. He was once a physicist, but, after an unfortunate mishap, he found himself reintegrated as a radioactive being, equipped to peer into the future, nip to Mars for the afternoon, and divide into multiples of himself for nuclear-powered group sex…
“Watchmen” … harbors ambitions of political satire, and, to be fair, it should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear—deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation—is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along.

Although I found Snyder’s film to be rather dreary and uninspired, I don’t share Lane’s derision for the ideas behind the film, a derision he reveals in the mocking tone he employs throughout his review.  It seems to me that Lane values verisimilitude above all else when it comes to appreciating the construction of a narrative.  Maybe it’s because I’m an essayist and read a lot of nonfiction, but when it comes to fictional narratives, I don’t really have a problem with the idea of people who can fly or punch through walls.  It seems to me that the one advantage that fiction writers have over nonfiction writers is that they are not in any way shackled to the real world, the way an essayist or memoirist is.  So, really, why not have a buff and blue naked man drifting around in your book?

But the character of Dr. Manhattan isn’t what I want to focus on here.  I’m more interested in the ways Moore and Gibbons frame their story so that certain themes and ideas are presented and reflected upon in terms both visual and verbal.  To be more precise, whenever I read Watchmen as an adult, I’m always impressed by the way certain scenes, lines, images, and even characters seem to reflect other scenes, lines, images, and characters in the book.  This idea of reflection is represented in the art (frequently, characters regard themselves in various reflective surfaces, and occasionally entire scenes play out with the panel focused on a mirror, so that the characters are inverted) and in the writing (most notably, Chapter Five is titled “Fearful Symmetry,” a reference to William Blake that also calls to mind the concept of patterned self-similarity, as a reflection is similar to the person gazing into the mirror).

This phenomenon is probably most evident in the “comic book-within-the-comic book” effect that is employed in most of the book’s chapters.  As the central characters begin to investigate the murder of the Comedian and Ozymandias’s plan is slowly revealed, one of the books secondary characters, Bernie— a young boy who hangs around a neighborhood newsstand while waiting for his mother to come home from work—reads a comic book titled Tales of the Black Freighter.  In the story-within-the-story, a good man is shipwrecked after being attacked by the pirates onboard a ghostly vessel (the aforementioned Black Freighter).  Certain that the pirates intend to rape and plunder the town where he and his family live, the sailor fashions a grotesque raft made of the remains of both his ship and the corpses of his murdered companions, which have become buoyant and bloated with gas.  The sailor believes that he can save his town, and that his monstrous actions—which include killing people he believes are pirates when he successfully reaches the shore—will be forgiven, even justified, once he has safely protected his family and neighbors from the larger evil of the Black Freighter.

Similarly, Ozymandias believes that his own actions—fooling the people of earth into coming together to face an extraterrestrial menace he has manufactured—is for the greater good.  Though his plan involves the deaths of over three million people—the New Yorkers on the scene when Ozymandias unleashes the alien monstrosity he constructed upon the city—Ozymandias is certain that this will prevent a nuclear war that would destroy all life on the planet.  Furthermore, this destruction will usher in a new era of peace, cooperation, and tolerance—the Earth will become a Utopia.

As I said before, though, Utopias don’t—can’t—really exist.  The difference between Miller and Moore, though, is that Moore seems to know this.  The sailor who thought himself justified in his brutality is horrified to discover that the people he attacked and killed were not pirates at all, but were instead innocent townspeople, friends and family members.  He realizes, in the end, that he has become the type of murderous savage he had hoped to destroy.  Realizing he is damned, he runs from the town and goes back towards the sea, where he sees the sinister Black Freighter drifting towards him.  In the end, he understands that the Black Freighter was after more than money and possessions—the unseen, demonic forces upon the ship wanted his very soul.  And ultimately, that’s exactly what they got.  Resigned to his fate, he begins to swim towards the horrifying ship from hell.

Although Ozymandias doesn’t quite reach the same epiphany, there is an indication that he may come to understand the horror of what he has done, the truth about what his idea that “the ends justify the means” really is.  After the surviving heroes agree to not reveal what he has done for fear of shattering the peace and dooming the planet to nuclear war, Ozymandias tries to explain himself to Dr. Manhattan, who at this point has concluded that he no longer has any reason to stay on earth.  “I know people think me callous,” Ozymandias says

but I’ve made myself feel every death.  By day I imagine endless faces.  By night… well, I dream of swimming towards a hideous… No.  Nevermind.  It isn’t significant… What’s significant is that I know.  I know I’ve struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity… But someone had to take the weight of that awful, necessary crime.”

Ozymandias, of course, doesn’t realize how his words echo the meta-narrative presented in earlier chapters, but as readers, we know the fate of men who commit murder in service to what they perceive as “the greater good,” and can conclude that Ozymandias’s dream of a peaceful world where he will live out the rest of his days in comfort and happiness is not going to come true.  We can be doubly-certain that his plan will come to ruin when we reflect on his name, and what Percy Shelley told us happened to works that “ye mighty” were warned to despair over.

As I said before, when I was a kid, I felt like the story was quite simple—Rorschach was the hero, Ozymandias was the villain.  Rorschach—like Miller’s Batman—was uncompromising in upholding what he knew was right, regardless of what the liberal media or the inefficient law enforcement officers might say.  In the end, he even sacrifices his life, so devoted is he to not being complicit in Ozymandias’s crime.  Ozymandias, on the other hand, killed three million people.  It seemed quite simple to me.

But the thing is, Moore’s book—unlike Miller’s—isn’t really simple at all.  Casting Rorschach as a hero is especially problematic, given the fact that he is a) a fascist and b) a psychopath.  Moore himself revealed in a 1988 interview with Christopher Sharrett, “Of course, my main inspiration for that character’s voice was the notes Son of Sam gave to the police.”  Like Miller’s Batman, he has a very clear sense of right and wrong, but unlike Miller’s Batman, I don’t think readers are actually supposed to agree with him.  He has killed people—violent people who some might argue deserved to die (organized criminals and child murderers), but human beings nonetheless.  He tortures people to get information, but the people he tortures don’t always have the information he needs.  He even assaults several police officers at one point—people devoted to protecting the city who are tasked with arresting him for his murders.  He doesn’t take any joy in this violence, but he feels like it is necessary—that the ends justify the means.

“What we were trying to do with Watchmen,” Moore said in the Sharrett interview,

was primarily to avoid a sort of baby-bird school of moralizing where the readers sit with their beaks open as they are force-fed certain predigested morals by the writer.  We wanted to avoid the type of adventure fiction where the character who wins all the fights ends up with the white hat and is seen as the hero.  Instead, we invented six characters, each of whom has a radically different view of the world.”

It’s easy to look at the book and think of Rorschach and Ozymandias as binaries, two figures on opposite ends of the spectrum, when it comes to their views of the world.  Rorschach is a slovenly right-wing thug who skulks around tenement buildings, alleys, and sleazy bars.  Ozymandias is a soft-spoken left-winger who has built a fortune for himself and who wears nice suits.  But they’re not binaries—not really.  They are, in fact, mirror images of each other—inverted, yet fundamentally the same.

Consider the way the book begins, with this entry from Rorschach’s journal:

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach.  This city is afraid of me.  I have seen its true face.  The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown.  The accumulated filth and all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll look down and whisper “no.”

The book opens with Rorschach fantasizing about an apocalypse that will purge the streets of its citizens.  The book ends with Ozymandias making that fantasy come true.  Granted, Rorschach wants to punish the world whereas Ozymandias wants to save it, but they are both men who believe that they know what is best for the rest of society, and they both are willing to employ brutal methods in order to get closer to their visions of a perfect world.

If that’s not enough to illustrate their similarities, there’s also the fact that both of them seem to have a strange fondness for purple suits.

It’s worth noting that the only marginally “heroic” people in Watchmen—Nite Owl and Silk Spectre—don’t actually seem to fight crime, except in order to defend themselves against muggers.  While their colleagues obsess over punishing the city for its vice or saving the world from human folly, we see these two characters rescuing the tenants of an apartment building that has caught on fire and breaking their friend Rorschach out of jail.  Although the book ends with the suggestion that they are going to continue with their adventures, it does seem as though their motivation is not to build a better world—as Rorschach and Ozymandias would—but is rather to help people who live in this world in smaller but certainly no less significant ways.

The superhero, Watchmen tells us, cannot really save us.  The best thing we can hope for is that he or she might be able to help from time to time.

To be concluded!

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William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Utne Reader, The Normal School, The Mary Sue, College English, and The Missouri Review. His book—a collection of personal essays titled Fractals—is forthcoming from Lavender Ink.

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