Superheroes in Flux–Watchmen Part 1
Milestones for Graphic Literature
Comics, as a genre, are deeply rooted in history and pop culture. In order to understand any part of modern comic books (or graphic novels) one must first understand the history behind them. The two works I will focus on in this essay are Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a story of remarkably normal superheroes, and, to a lesser extent The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s surrealistic work on the nature of dream, imagination, and collective memory revolving around Morpheus the King of Dreams. Like any pieces of literature, comic books such as Watchmen and The Sandman come out of a storytelling tradition with historical implications and a variety of ideological frameworks.
The earliest modern comics, from about 1895 onward, were placed side by side with the daily news articles in newspapers like New York Journal and New York World, semantically coupling the news with comics, thus creating comic strips as commentary to popular culture [ 1 ]. Watchmen, a graphic novel written in the 1980s, is a commentary on history, ideology, and semiotics (symbolism, signs, and the interpretation thereof) as seen through the lens of comic book mythology. Additionally, Watchmen is contemporary with other, groundbreaking comics of the ’80s like The Sandman and needs to be viewed in light of its peers. In Richard Reynolds’s Super Heroes: a Modern Mythology, he states, “Watchmen’s so-called ‘postmodernism’ largely comprises this process of stripping away the accumulation of 50 years of continuity. [Watchmen] transcends the accumulated myths through which superhero texts are read” [ 2 ]. The very title of Watchmen has postmodern metacognitive connotations since it is taken from Juvenal’s famous line, “Quis custodiet ipsos Custodes (Who watches the Watchmen?)” [ 2 ]?
Moore invites us to criticize our own American superhero mythology through satirizing the repeated hero stereotypes, yet he also invites us to appreciate the comic book as a unique textual medium. Watchmen is an example of the virtuosity capable in such a medium. This article traces the history of comic book mythos as it relates to cultural ideology and semiotic meaning by giving examples from Watchmen as an analysis of actual history filtered through the medium of graphic literature.
Evolving Culturally and Ideologically
Superhero comics, as we know them, began with the “big bang” of Superman in 1938. From its inception, the genre was charged with current ideological motives. Superman was created two Jewish boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as a counterpoint to Nazi ideology. Boichel states, “Superman represented a calculated response to the Nazi concept of the Ubermench: an ideal, superior man who would lead the masses to victory” [ 1 ]. However, Superman was only the first of these politically charged heroes. In the early ’30s, “Superman’s virtue was tied to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal politics, America’s 1930s isolationism, and the reality of life in Cleveland where his creators … lived” [ 3 ]. Others like Wonder Woman and Batman came directly on Superman’s heels with their own ideological baggage. Yet even Superman, one of the most enduring icons of American politics, has adapted as the years progressed, changing with American sentiments.
Like gods and religions, superheroes survive only if they can adopt a new image relating to the culture and ideology of the time. Collins states that one of Watchmen’s crowning achievements is its use of “a meta-semiotic re-envisioning not only of the world of the superhero but also the cultures which consumes those narratives” [ 4 ]. In other words, the hero must adapt to communicate with the masses and retain cultural relevance. Superman, like all enduring myths, undergoes such a change. Every fact about his history and abilities stays relatively the same; however, he is interpreted in different ways in order to survive in the marketplace and in the imagination of the masses.
Superman’s first major change took place during the 1940s. Gordon states that “since World War II Superman’s owners have explicitly tied the character to ‘the American Way,’ which is an ideological construct that, among other things, unites two seemingly disparate values—individualism and consumerism—with democracy and labels it American” [ 3 ]. Rather than just sticking up for the little guy (even if it means involving himself in anarchic behavior), the World War II Superman adopts a more conservative agenda, supporting the troops with other star-spangled heroes (Wonder Woman, Captain America). It is therefore no wonder that comic books were almost as popular with overseas troops as they were with American youth [ 3 ].
Watchmen critiques this Golden Age of politically-charged characters by showing a darker, pathological side to extreme patriotism through Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian, two superheroes in the text. The Comedian, Edward Blake, shows a terrible side of Superman’s patriotic spectrum over his long career with the U.S. government, from World War II until his death in 1985. Dr. Manhattan, the counterpoint of Blake who embodies the good traits of Superman, says, “I have never met anyone so deliberately amoral” [ 5 ]. Though he remains as patriotic as Superman or Wonder Woman, Blake’s career-long acts of violence, ranging from rape to mass murder, show the dirty laundry of patriotic superheroes; the sexism and xenophobia of the ’40s and ’50s, and the institutional corruption and upheaval of the ’60s to the ’80s.
Dr. Manhattan reflects on Blake’s consistent moral degeneration in Vietnam saying, “As I come to understand Vietnam and what it implies about the human condition, I also realize that few humans will permit themselves such an understanding. Blake is different. He understands perfectly … and he doesn’t care” [ 5 ]. The picture in conjunction with this text adds much to the reading of Dr. Manhattan’s words. Blake is standing in the middle of brutal combat with a crazed look in his eyes, wearing a costume of stars, stripes, and an ironic smiley face pin—a disturbing parody of Captain America. In retrospect, Moore uses the Comedian to comment on the implicit problems and disturbing undertones in the superhero concept.
Signifier and Signified
Speaking of the visual elements which enhance the text, it’s important to note that the Comedian is not the only superhero whose costume has inherent meaning. He and many other superheroes change costumes with the times as a signal of the change in decade and cultural aesthetics. During World War II, Blake’s costume is a jester’s motley with a small mask, emphasizing his handsome features. After Vietnam, he wears an iron mask hiding his face, which is scarred in a perpetual ironic sneer. His motley is also replaced with black fatigues sporting American flag stars and stripes, as well as the ubiquitous yellow “smiley face” pin, which appears as a motif throughout the text. Blake’s original jester costume shows a unique awareness that the superhero is a joke, though he is also a superhero. The later costume retains a symbolic understanding of the irony of his superhero status. The smiley pin and the stars and stripes show both his crazed patriotism and his dark sense of humor, which are even more pronounced as the years progressed.
Additionally, Blake’s transformation from beauty to ugliness after World War II to Vietnam shows his vices, present yet hidden in the Golden Age (sexism, racism, violence), are externalized afterward. For instance, during the “Golden Age” itself, Blake tries to rape Sally Jupiter, the Silk Spectre. He begins this violation with the words, “C’mon baby. I know what you need. You gotta have some reason for wearin’ an outfit like this, huh?” squarely placing the blame on Sally for “seducing” him [ 5 ]. As the rape attempt continues, Blake’s depiction does as well. His handsome features become uglier and his presence more dominating in each panel. Even when Sally is rescued by fellow hero, Hooded Justice, her rescuer says, “Get up … and for God’s sake cover yourself,” showing that even the heroes and rescuers of the time have no sympathy for female victims [ 5 ]. This scene shows, primarily through Blake, that even in a time filled with nostalgia there are ugly things underneath the surface of what is historically remembered as a good time to be alive.
The Comedian’s counterpart, Dr. Manhattan, deserves a serious analysis as well. Jon Osterman, before he accidentally becomes the atomically-charged blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan, confesses to his girlfriend, “Well, you know … my dad sort of pushed me into it [being a research scientist]. That happens to me a lot. Other people seem to make all my moves for me” [ 5 ]. Even after his transformation, Jon lets everyone else decide his weighty fate as insurance against nuclear war. Though the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan both serve the government, the Comedian does so with a thorough sense of self-serving individualism while Dr. Manhattan does so out of a sense of logical duty. Both of these heroes represent patriotic behavior at different ends of the spectrum.
While the Comedian derives a sense of presence and power from his costume, changing it with his personality over time to emphasize both his individualism and patriotism, Dr. Manhattan is apathetic about his appearance. Reynolds states, “Doctor Manhattan, omnipotent super-being, spends his 25 years career shedding piece-by-piece the all-enveloping costume provided for him by the US government. At the end of the book he chooses to go naked” [ 2 ]. This transformation at the end shows Jon to be the truest of all the superheroes. Jon illustrates the paradox of a powerful savior who is necessarily aloof.
Jon does not derive power from the name or costume the government gives him. Instead, he chooses to go naked at the end, showing that he chooses to be a savior of humanity rather than a patriotic icon. When Adrian Veidt, a former ally, reveals that he has staged a fake alien invasion and mass murder to avert nuclear war, forcing all humans to join forces against a mutual enemy, Jon is the only one willing to side with Veidt. He says, “Logically, I’m afraid he’s right. Exposing this plot, we destroy any chance of peace, dooming earth to worse destruction” [ 5 ].
Dr. Manhattan makes a decision for the greater good showing that he is every good thing Superman is supposed to be. Yet this version is not perfect: even the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan must sacrifice the few for the many in a realistic way. Even an omnipotent character who does not age; who sees the past, present and future simultaneously; and who harnesses atomic power cannot save everyone like the classic Superman does. Why? Because the time of World War II and patriotism is over, and post-Vietnam skepticism shows that no individual good is morally absolute. Dr. Manhattan realizes the moral dilemma and is only capable of viewing humanity objectively in order to save it, something none of the other human heroes around him are willing to do.
Jon is a servant to the United States, but he is also an outsider to conventional humanity who must be incorporated and used for the “greater good.” It is not unusual for comics of any era to focus on the “melting pot” concept of the American identity, where outsiders pick their allegiances within the gestalt. For instance, Superman and Wonder Woman also have outsider status, which is gradually incorporated into the American whole. The only difference is that Superman and Wonder Woman are specifically immigrants. This incorporation of a superhuman “other” serves two propagandist purposes: to contrast a difference between Americans and “others,” and to exemplify the correct way to be a true American, rather than the descendant of another country.
Smith states that “Wonder Woman, princess of a sovereign nation of warrior women who journeys to America, has illustrated the struggle between maintaining one’s ethnic identity and adapting to life in a new culture” [ 6 ]. Wonder Woman gives up her power as princess of an Amazon nation for a servile role towards the United States, implying that it is better to be a servant to American ideals than to be a powerful outsider. Although comics of the Golden Age promote this ideal without irony, Watchmen critiques that ideology through characters like the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, and most prominently through the Silk Spectre.
The Outsider Looking In
Sally Jupiter, the Silk Spectre, is a direct parody of Wonder Woman and plays on the idea of an outsider immigrant. She is a Polish arrival to the U.S., and is often denying the connotations of her ethnicity. When a fellow hero teases her about being Polish, saying, “Perhaps the Poles thought so too [that they shouldn’t get involved with the war], eh? You agree, Sally?” She replies, with a warning sneer, “Well, I’m sure I wouldn’t know anything about what the Polish people think!” [ 5 ]. Despite her efforts to hide her ethnicity, her accent colors all of her dialogue. Although she wants to be taken seriously as a crime fighter, her sexy costume implies that she is no more than a glorified pin-up. Sally’s ultimate solution is to sell herself as a sex symbol and a publicity stunt; embracing the misogynistic views of the day in order to be incorporated into the American whole.
Many scenes depict Sally in conversation with her daughter Laurie, who has become the new Silk Spectre. Laurie’s views are significantly more progressive than her mother’s, and the dialogue between them represents the conflicting ideologies of first- and second-generation superheroes. For instance, Laurie takes back her polish last name, correcting anyone who dares to call her “Jupiter.” When a fellow hero says, “Good evening, Miss Jupiter,” she corrects him saying, “That’s Juspeczyk. ‘Jupiter’ was just a name my mother assumed because she didn’t want anyone to know she was Polish” [ 5 ]. In addition to adopting a pride in her heritage, Laurie refutes the misogynist views her mother has come to terms with. When Sally shows Laurie a piece of “pin-up” art among the memorabilia she has collected, Laurie says,
“Oh, God! Mother, this is just gross! Somebody sent this to you?” Sally responds, “Being reminded that people used to slobber over me? Sure flattering. Why not” [ 5 ]?
For Laurie, embracing her heritage and refusing to be commodified as a sex symbol are equal parts of a single dilemma: trying to repair the sexist and xenophobic views of the first generation.
Dan Dreiberg, who is the second-generation Night Owl (a blatant parody of Batman), converses with the previous Night Owl, Hollis Manson, whom he idolizes. The very first chapter of Watchmen shows the two Night Owls waxing nostalgic about their crime fighting pasts, though each of their experiences are so different. Hollis jokingly tells Dan, “Hey, watch the language! This is the left hook that floored Captain Axis, remember?” [ 5 ]. Hollis’s recollection of his own strength illustrates the physical virility and power of the first Night Owl compared to Dan, his brainy yet less physically imposing replacement. His reference to “Captain Axis” also indicates that the Golden Age heroes had a real opponent to unite against, namely, the Nazis. In other words, superheroes just are not what they used to be after the Golden Age. Even if they share the same name, they have the added concern of fighting a much more abstract enemy, causing them a looming anxiety which they cannot defeat.
Dan confesses the anxieties of an unseen enemy to Laurie later in the novel saying,
“[I had a dream where] we were kissing, and then this nuclear bomb it just … we burned up. We were gone. Everything was gone … It’s this war, the feeling that it’s unavoidable. It makes me feel so powerless. So impotent.” [ 5 ]
In Hollis’s war there was a tangible enemy (“Captain Axis”) and a tangible evil (Nazism). In Dan’s world, the threat of nuclear war and arms race one-upmanship is something on TV, being invisibly dealt with by governments and ambassadors. This threat, which has the ability to destroy the whole world, is faceless, nameless, and more lethal than any of its predecessors. The second-generation heroes are failed heroes because they are fighting something which they do not entirely understand, which cannot be bested through physical strength. They are bound to lose before they even begin. Though the second wave are less successful as superheroes, they are more interesting people because of their humanity, making a deeper, more complex narrative.
The dialogue in Watchmen, between first-generation heroes and their second-generation successors, who adopt their names and don their costumes, is a commentary on the nature of Golden Age heroes versus their later interpretations. Their marked changes in story, costume, and personality, after the gender rebellion of the ’70s, the Vietnam War, and the general feelings of disillusionment with perfect super-beings in the American readership, generated significantly more human and complex revisions of the classic icons [ 6 ]. This new version of the comic book, with very complex human characters, obtained a greater literary status in the 80s with comics like Watchmen and The Sandman; raising the bar for comics as a literary genre.
Semiotics, Language Games, and Comics as a New Literature
Comics have caused something of a controversy in mainstream culture, as graphic novels began to win awards previously reserved for “serious” literature. Watchmen claimed both the Hugo award and a spot on Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels. Even more impressive was when Neil Gaiman won the prestigious Howard Philips Lovecraft award in 1991 for his work on The Sandman. The event was a milestone for graphic novels’ validation as a literature. Prestigious science fiction author and notorious curmudgeon the late Harlan Ellison addressed the controversy in an essay about the comic work:
“So infuriated were the Faithful at such a choice having been made by a blue ribbon panel of experts who couldn’t be suborned or shamed into overlooking excellence, that the Great Gray Eminences who run the FantasyCon from behind their nightshadow veil of secrecy, have rewritten the rules so that, heaven forfend, no ‘comic book’ will ever again be nominated, much less have an opportunity to kick serious artistic butt” [ 7 ].
Although many prestigious writers and critics like Ellison (and the ambiguously named “blue ribbon panel of experts”) side firmly with Neil Gaiman and his graphic medium, the naysayers have a point. How can someone call a half-visual, half-verbal work a piece of literature if there is no precedent or established criteria for judging it as such?
Graphic novels bring semiotic richness to the canon in the same way that a play or a movie does; through the combination of words and images which creates a text dependent on image, and images dependent on text. For instance, in one installment of The Sandman, a character named Barbie mourns the death of her friend Wanda, and the disturbingly real dream which has both killed Wanda and changed Barbie irreparably. Barbie states: “That one night’s dream I pick at, scab-like, in my head. Most dreams vanish at day-break. You forget. Not this. I don’t forget … over and over and over …” [ 8 ]. Although the words themselves are powerful, the pictures add essential meaning to the text. In the words of John Berger, in his essay “Ways of Seeing,” “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled … Yet the knowledge, the explanation never quite fits the sight” [ 9 ].
Although Berger is not specifically talking about comic books, the statement is particularly apt for this example, which unsettles the readers’ assumptions of both language and images by blending the two. For example, Barbie is deliberately drawn to resemble a Barbie doll in the earlier portions of the book, with surreal, large blue eyes, blonde hair, and a perfect body. However, in the later portions of the book, Barbie is drawn to look more and more like a real person, with rough hands and bags under her eyes, as her selfishness and shallow materialism dissolve in her painful, character-altering trials. The words are important but the picture of a downtrodden Barbie at the end of her plight carries considerable meaning coupled with the text.
In the scene described above, Barbie is dressing for Wanda’s funeral. In the absence of an actual mourning veil, Barbie draws one on her face with eyeliner. Though the audience sees/reads her doing this, it is easy to forget that it is drawn on and not an actual veil within the text. In the preface to this installment (which is fittingly called A Game of You), Samuel R. Delany says,
“In The Sandman a mourner draws the threads of a veil on her face in a restroom with an eyebrow pencil—and, because it’s a comic book, we, the readers, can’t tell the difference between it and a ‘real’ veil—but all the characters can and comment on it constantly (‘What’s that on your face?’)” [ 10 ].
In this way, Gaiman draws attention to the text as a comic book and emphasizes the unique semiotic qualities of the genre. Barbie draws her veil on while saying “I don’t forget … over and over and over,” which emphasizes her tortured insanity through the repetition of “over” and also through her peculiar actions. In Delany’s words, Barbie enters a “world almost as heavily laced with ironies are our own,” where Gaiman draws our attention to the surrealism of his medium as parallel to the ironic surrealism of the real world [ 11 ]. As the audience forgets that Barbie’s veil is not real, they align themselves with Barbie’s perspective where the real and the pretend cannot be separated anymore, just as text and image cannot be separated. This middle ground of perception is something comic books manage notoriously well.
In Watchmen, the same semiotic games are at work, playing with the space between words through a visual medium. When Dr. Manhattan flees to Mars in order to escape the pressure of living with humans, he reflects upon his past. Dr. Manhattan has a four-dimensional sense of time; he views all occurrences past and present simultaneously. Although he describes his sensation of time in the dialogue, the repeated images show the patterns in his memories and in history. He says, “On the cover [of Time magazine] there is a damaged pocket watch, stopped at the instant of the blast, face cracked …” then the next panel says, “… hands frozen” [ 5 ]. The first panel shows the cover of Time, but the second panel shows his girlfriend, Janey, handing him a cold beer for the first time. This semiotic coupling of the frozen clock hands and Jon’s “frozen hands” show that just as the hands of the clock are unable to tell time, so is Jon unable to tell time. The hands are frozen just as Jon feels his hands are “frozen” in time, moved only by destiny and not of volition.
While comics are notably the product of their culture, the culture is also affected by what began in said comics. Marcel Danesi views comics from a cultural-semiotic perspective saying:
“Even before the advent of television, comics set the style for clothing, coiffure, food, manners, and mores. They have inspired plays, musicals, ballets, motion pictures, radio and television series, popular songs, books, and toys. Modern discourse is permeated with idioms and words created for the comics” [ 12 ].
Comics, as a genre, have truly permeated American culture. In the new millennium they have entered the mainstream of American culture in unprecedented ways. The mythos of comic books does not stop at the page, but has been transferred to movies, television and other new media—which would have been unthinkable during the 1940s. With a greater variety of venues available for these mythologies than ever before, I hope to see where future researchers take the genre, for at the moment it is too early to tell. Of specific interest is the democratization of comic book mythos through the internet and video games. The internet, where self-publishing and blog communities abound, can offer a wealth of interpretations which do not favor a single, well known, author and artist. This has changed and will change the mythos, semiotics, and historical implications of comics considerably.
A similar democratization of the superhero is the video game, which allows anyone to play and interpret a character through one’s own actions. By using Watchmen and the Sandman as examples, we can definitely see where comics have been and speculate where they might go in the future.
The second part of this article will address the phenomenon of how comics have developed a web of influence in mainstream culture, reaching far beyond the initial medium to become movies, games, and spin off series, among other things. Although the phenomenon offers a great expansion of the medium and experiential opportunities for new writers, authors, and creatives to breathe a different kind of life into past characters, it also allows corporate interest to demand that the new iterations go in a direction contrary to the original author’s vision. One of the most visible examples of the controversy is Alan Moore’s case with DC Comics and his distaste for new iterations of his original work (such as the Watchmen movie and comic book prequels). We will explore, in light of this particular case, the power struggle and the new works of art through the lens of literary theory. Where does the relevance of author’s intent end and the freedom of audience interpretation begin? Just as this paper addresses the medium’s past of literary and real world crossroads, so will the next address its present and possible future.
- “Originally a stand-in for DC’s “The Question,” Rorschach has become a polarizing and iconic figure for generations of viewers and readers.” Source: https://www.polygon.com/comics/2019/10/15/20909951/watchmen-comic-alan-moore-politics-characters-explained. Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. The Deluxe Edition. New York, NY, DC Comics, 2013.
- “Much as the protagonists of The Watchmen were a commentary on heroes in contemporary books, their predecessors, featured in Minute Men and in Watchmen’s flashbacks, were the same for the Silver Age.” Source: https://static0.cbrimages.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/watchmen-minutemen-header.jpg . Darwyn Cooke, et al. Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre DC Comics, 2013.
A true Renaissance woman, Katherine’s a studious nerd across a wealth of disciplines. When not inhabiting her bellydance persona, she loves to wash off the lipstick, throw on her glasses, and inhale a new subject or technique. From dance, literature, art, neurobiology, or linguistics, she’s invested and taking notes. Her passions are constructive something— whether it’s new choreography or various written forms. Recruited out of TempleCon, she’s been a staunch contributor. Her series “Chasing At Shadows” analyzes comic adaptations and other fiction through the lens of film Noir.
- Biochel, Bill. “Batman: Commodity as Myth.” In The Many Lives of The Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media. Edited by Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio. Routledge, 1991, pp. 4–17.
- Reynolds, Richard. Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology. University Press Mississippi, 1994. pp. 105-117.
- Gordon, Ian. “Nostalgia, Myth, and Ideology: Visions of Superman and the End of the ‘American Century.’” In Comics & Ideology, edited by Edited by Matthew P. McAllister, Edward H. Sewell, and Ian Gordon. Peter Lang, 2001. pp. 177–194.
- Collins, Jim. “Batman: The Movie, Narrative: the Hyperconscious.” In The Many Lives of The Batman, pp. 164–188.
- Moore, Alan and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. DC Comics, 1987.
- Smith, Matthew J. “The Tyranny of the Melting Pot Metaphor: Wonder Woman as the Americanized Immigrant.” In Comics & Ideology, pp. 129–150.
- Ellison, Harlan. Introduction, The Sandman: Season of Mists, by Neil Gaiman. DC Vertigo: 1992.
- Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman: A Game of You. DC Vertigo, 1993.
- Berger, John “Ways of Seeing.” In Seeing and Writing 2. Edited by Donald McQuade and Christine McQuade. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. p. 623.
- Delany, Samuel R. “Preface: Skerries of the Dream,” Jan. 1993, The Sandman: A Game of You, by Neil Gaiman. DC Vertigo, 1993.
- Delany, Samuel R. “Preface: Skerries of the Dream”, Jan. 1993, The Sandman: A Game of You, by Neil Gaiman. DC Vertigo, 1993.
- Danesi, Marcel. Understanding Media Semiotics. Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 79.