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A Game of Ones and Zeroes

An Analysis of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Seminal Comic Book: 'Watchmen'

In 1986, two comic books debuted that would ultimately shape the way comic books were written. Since the 1960s, Marvel comics had reigned in terms of popularity when compared to DC comics. This was mainly due to the fact that Marvel was in tune with the social changes that were occurring at the time like the Civil Rights Movement. It looked as though DC was ready to give up, but that all changed in 1986 when Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) and Alan Moore (Watchmen) debuted their respective projects under the DC brand. Before Watchmen, Alan Moore was mainly an unknown in the comic community, having done only two comics prior (V for Vendetta and Marvelman), it wasn’t until Watchmen where Moore found his place in the comic industry. Frank Miller was already well known after having a successful run on Marvel’s Daredevil, but his work on The Dark Knight Returns established both him and DC comics as forces to be reckoned with. As a result, DC managed to surpass Marvel in terms of popularity due to the comics’ mature content.

For years, comic books have resonated as a form of fiction, often telling tales of Gods who walk among the average populace. Despite the cartoonish nature and ridiculous backstories, superheroes have managed to establish a sense of realism within these confines. It wasn’t until 1985 when comic books and superheroes started to show signs of maturity in terms of the subject matter and the characters within these stories. Prior to Watchmen, comic books were stuck within the confines of fiction, never crossing the line into realism. Watchmen was the first comic book that managed to critique the concept of superheroes within its own genre. Ultimately, Alan Moore managed to break the rule of comic books by giving his comic book a sense of realism and ultimately ushered in a new age of renaissance in terms of storytelling.

“Because there is good and there is evil and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this” (Moore/Gibbons p.g. 24 Chapter 1.) This quote manages to not only describe the character of Rorschach, but the book of Watchmen as well. The concept of mankind and the value of human life as a whole has been a topic that has fascinated many. Many people at one point in life believe it has meaning and purpose. The story of Watchmen ultimately focuses on the three characters of Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and Ozymandias and how they all share the common belief that life is a numbers game. As the story progresses, fans of Watchmen analyze the three characters and determine which spectrum they reside on when it comes to the concept of human life and its value.

For years scientists and philosophers have pondered the meaning of life, often hitting the same brick wall (life is meaningless no matter what we do.) Books like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ book Watchmen have managed to ignite readers with questions dealing with the concept of mortality, the value of human life, and ultimately what happens when someone dies. Upon completing the story, Moore and Gibbons have tasked their readers with figuring out what it all means. The brilliance of Watchmen is not limited to its storytelling and characters, but what the characters symbolize as a whole. Therefore, the ultimate question that Watchmen poses is “What do the characters symbolize?”

Human rights activist Malcolm X once said, “I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against.” The character of Rorschach resembles this quote, often believing in truth and justice. Rorschach’s view on the world is that humanity is unknowingly being led to its own demise. There are certain aspects that should be explored when it comes to the character of Rorschach, primarily being his view on human life as a whole. Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and Ozymandias all share a similar ideology about human life: “It’s all a numbers game.” However, the thing that separates them from one another, is the different spectrums they reside on in terms of the common ideology. For the most part, Rorschach believes that life is a numbers game, but also believes that there is value in human life.

One of the most famous quotes a person learns at a young age is, “The more you know, the further you go”—Dr. Seuss. Knowledge is what enables mankind to make advancements in fields many thought were impossible. The world now has driverless cars and smartwatches that enables people to communicate with one another. But all of these luxuries come at a price, the desire to advance causes many to lose focus on people and the quality of life as well. As mentioned previously, the characters of Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, and Ozymandias all share the ideology that life is a numbers game. In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 graphic novel Watchmen the character of Dr. Manhattan is portrayed as an intelligent/powerful entity who is described as a “Man to end all wars.” Ultimately, readers will investigate why Dr. Manhattan views human life only as a numbers game, and what that symbolizes in terms of reality.

Death is a natural part of human life, but how it’s achieved is where people get in trouble. The Christian faith believes in God, and in the end his subjects will be admitted into heaven. But in other cultures, some view human life as an offering towards their God, often believing that it will bring peace to their tribe. The character of Ozymandias in Watchmen reflects this idea as he envisions/intends to create a utopia. An example of this is throughout the comic, as a young man reads about a pirate who desires to return home and seek vengeance on those who killed his family, ultimately fashioning a raft out of his crew’s corpses. With this in mind, one could notice the parallels between the two and deduct that Ozymandias’s view on life is similar to that of someone who still has a strong belief in God despite suffering a heartbreaking loss.

According to today’s standards and, the average life expectancy is 78.7 years (28725 Days, 689,400 Hours, 41,364,000 Minutes, 2,481,840,000 Seconds.) Within that time frame, an estimated 250,000 - 300,000 people die within a day. This equation is how Dr. Manhattan sees the world, composed purely of numbers. One of the best examples of this is when Janey Slater tells Manhattan, “Jon, you know however damn thing in this world fits together except people!” (Moore/Gibbons p.g. 5 Chapter 3). If a person were to apply this equation in terms of religion and human mentality, one could notice the similarities between Manhattan and someone who has given up on their religion.

Within the average human lifetime, a person will experience heartbreak and loss causing their view on the world to be shaken. Ultimately this is what surrounds the comic book of Watchmen, not understanding the value of human life until it is too late. In the end, this is what the research paper will focus/investigate: the characters of Watchmen and how they resemble humans at different points in their lives. Rorschach resembles those who suffer from loss and ponder the concept of life, but ultimately sees that it has value. Dr. Manhattan resembles people who suffer loss that they cannot recover from and are left believing that there is no God, and Ozymandias resembles people who ultimately view life and the loss of it as part of a bigger plan.

In 1859 the Christian Bible established its first poetic book in the Old Testament called The Book of Job. The story follows a man named Job as he suffers God’s wrath despite not doing anything wrong, and ultimately poses the question, “Why do the righteous suffer?” The character of Rorschach ultimately ponders this thought when being offered a proposal by Ozymandias that will allow him and the other masked adventurers to live in his new utopia, if they keep quiet about what had to be done in order to create such a world. However, if a person were to apply this scenario to a real-world counterpart such as a mass shooting and all the victims used encourage socio-political change, would they not ask the same question?

On September 11, 2001, two commercial airlines were hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the world trade center. Days later George W. Bush declared “a war on international terrorism,” resulting in the beginning of the Iraq War. There are groups such as the 9/11 Truth movement that believe the government knew about/orchestrated the impending attack, and used it as a reason to invade Iraq and hunt down Saddam Hussein. The character of Ozymandias reflects this ideology when revealing his plan of creating a utopia to Rorschach and Nite Owl, explaining that he has faked an alien invasion in order to unite the superpowers against a common enemy. In the end, both Bush and Ozymandias believed in sacrificing human lives in order to create a world that was free from terror as long as nobody asked questions about the war and how the peace was achieved, and the ones who did ask questions suffered the same fate as Rorschach.

One of the most controversial arguments that plagues America is the topic of whether or not abortions should be legal. The reason for such a divide in the country, is the fact that some people view it as an act of killing an unborn child, while others view it as a way to rectify a mistake due to irresponsibility. Many could notice the resemblance in the ideology of Dr. Manhattan when compared to those who are in favor of legalizing abortion. Those who are in favor of it, view the unborn child as just another number to the ever-growing population. However, when this issue is present it is easy to see the people who resonate with Rorschach and the others who resonate with Dr. Manhattan, but it does not matter because the question still stands “is this the right thing to do?”

The choices a person makes ultimately end up defining who that person is. A lot of the choices are not solely based on the issue at hand, many people tend to look at both the outcomes by making a pros and cons list. According to the article Means, Ends, and the Critique of Pure Superheroes by J. Robert Loftis, this process is known as consequentialism. This thought process ultimately resonates within the character of Ozymandias, primarily attempting to justify his actions by basing them off of the consequences. Therefore, if someone were to apply the same thought process with the value of human life as well as the loss of it, they would be able to identify whether or not that person lived a good life based on the actions they made throughout their life.

One of the main reasons why Rorschach is such a popular character is his ideology/work ethic. He has been described by previous students as a “dirty Batman,” often reflecting his philosophy of deontology. According to the article mentioned previously, deontology is acting in ways that express essential moral rules. This means that a person believes their actions are morally acceptable, no matter how heinous. Despite the fact that Rorschach believes that there is value in life, readers may wonder if he is really a hero despite the violent acts he has committed. Ultimately, the question that is being posed is what prevents Rorschach from crossing the line between hero and murderer?

Dr. Manhattan: “A Man To End All Wars”, prior to the incident he was just an intelligent human. Like everyone else he fell in love and suffered from heartbreak, but what caused him to lose all feeling towards the race he was once a part of? When readers are first introduced to Manhattan, he is a human named Jon Osterman working on a watch, this introduction sets readers up on what to expect from the man who will ultimately control the world’s fate. Throughout the story, readers learn that superheroes were forced into retirement by way of the “Keene Act.” This forced the heroes to go about living a normal life and forced them to take normal jobs. Ultimately what is interesting about the character of Dr. Manhattan is that according to James DiGiovanna’s article Dr. Manhattan, I Presume? when all the other masked adventurers had to retire their superhero identities, Manhattan has the only one who could not retire his identity.

The song Accordion by MF DOOM features the lyric “living off borrowed time, the clock ticks faster,” it is this song lyric that manages to sum up the ideology of Manhattan. Manhattan’s transformation from average human to all-powerful God manages to reflect the viewpoint on life and how religion plays into it, Jon represents those who are blindly devoted to a religion while Manhattan represents the loss of blind devotion. The concept of time plays a major role in the story of Watchmen, with the stress of time being a limited resource current throughout the entirety of the story. Upon completing Watchmen, readers could look to the real world and apply what they have learned from this story as well as pose the same questions within a real-world aspect. In the end, a person’s life is a limited resource that no religion can save or bring back, if there were a doomsday clock but for a person’s individual life, would they be able to live it to the fullest or waste it based upon the idea that everyone gets a second chance at life.

Life and age are both concepts of time as a whole, each year that a person grows older ultimately moves their own Doomsday clock up an hour. That is what is interesting about life and the clocks that signify the time a person has on this earth, they are all traditional clocks and not digital. While this may sound like a strange euphemism, a person could look at this in terms of Watchmen, at the end of each issue the Doomsday clock is shown being moved up an hour, the clock is a traditional wall clock. While the world is filled with millions of different people, the one thing that unites people is the concept of death and the fact that at some point they will all go through it.

God can be a cruel person, often dealing shitty hands to people who don’t deserve such hardships. The people who are able to survive his cruel jokes are often the ones who show the potential of saving the world. These world savers are often killed off or silenced, possibly because they show signs of counteracting the plans that God has already implemented. Watchmen shows signs of influence from films like John Carpenter’s 1981 film They Live, both works omit a common goal of pulling the curtain back on the world they live in, and ultimately try to wake society up and expose the truth before it is too late. Unfortunately, stories like these as well as the characters that lead the story tend to end up being killed off, because they speak the truth.

Before Watchmen, comic books left readers asking questions usually pertaining as to what was going to happen in the next issue. Make no mistake, Watchmen still stays true to its comic book heritage, but instead of just leaving readers wondering what would happen next it forced readers to look at the real world and see the little men holding the cracks together. Similar to Dr. Malcolm Long in Watchmen, before reading the book fans were able to enjoy the innocence that life offered them, but afterward, many were left looking back on the memories they had created and began to see the little men torn apart as the cracks grew bigger. With this in mind, it is important to remember what Comedian told readers when he was talking to Moloch “It’s a joke. S’all a joke.” (Moore/Gibbons, pg. 22, Chapter 2).

One of the characters that the world needs more of at least in terms of how to view the world is The Comedian. In Watchmen, The Comedian was a ruthless killing machine who was able to see life for the joke it was. Even in death, Edward Blake managed to go out laughing instead of crying and begging for God to save him. Learning to laugh at life’s shortcomings is a very important quality that many people need to learn. Laughing through the pain is what enables many to get back up after being knocked down. Overall, learning to see the humor in life is what enables many to look at the impending death that awaits them with a brave face and allows them to stand their ground instead of trying to flee and prolong the inevitable.

The world and life itself are filled to the brim with examples of false hope, often providing people with the a feeling of hope and ultimately crushing it within a matter of seconds. Watchmen’s theme of life being numbers game is not limited to life expectancy but the overall quality as well. Some people grow up in households where families are constantly fighting and making up at a moment’s notice only to go back to having the same argument on a different day. People who are raised in these kinds of households tend to reflect the early origins of a young Rorschach, often having their innocence crushed before them and dealing with the shitty hand that they have been dealt. In the end, kids who grow up in these types of homes tend to pray to God hoping for a miracle that will save their family, and realize that God is not there for them, and that they are all alone.

Religion is something that is supposed to provide people with a sense of relief, but it never really works. When things proceed to get worse, people tend to turn to religion as a last minute attempt at some sort of salvation. And maybe this is why religion doesn’t work, not because of its inability to fulfill the needs of many, but the struggle of having to choose which people deserve saving. The world like religion is filled with frauds who claim to know how to save people as well as the world itself, not realizing that sometimes not everyone or everything can be saved. False hope is one of the most dangerous things a person can have, because the overall feeling of momentary peace hurts more when realizing that it is only temporary. Therefore, the overall problem with religion is the fact that it provides people with a false sense of understanding to how the world works, instead of learning to accept the poor hand that has been dealt.

Similar to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, humans have been marked by God since the dawn of time, indicating that they will die when he says so. Political comedian and commentator Bill Maher once said on the subject of suicide that it is a way of telling God “you can’t fire me, I quit.” People who live with this ideology tend to resonate with the characters of both Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan. These types of people tend to walk the thin line between believing and disowning God. For many, religion is like a drug often providing users brief moments of euphoria, and forcing them to move onto heavier doses to achieve the same high. Ultimately the power and effect of religion is useless, in the end, everyone will die and look back on their lives and realize that like Freddie Mercury said, “Nothing really matters.”

Works Cited

DiGiovanna, James. “Dr. Manhattan, I Presume?” Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2009.

Donnelly, Grace. “Here's Why Life Expectancy in the U.S. Dropped Again This Year.” New York, New York: Fortune Magazine, February 9, 2018.

Drohan, Christopher. “A Timely Encounter: Dr. Manhattan and Henri Bergson.” Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2009.

George, Joe. Watchmen: “A Tale of Care and Understanding.” United States: Tor, December 6, 2017.

Loftis, J. “Means, Ends, and the Critique of Pure Superheroes.” Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2009.

Nero, Dom. “So Many Watchmen Fans Have No Idea What It's Really About.” New York, New York: Esquire Magazine, May 24, 2018.

Terjesen, Andrew. “I’m Just a Puppet Who Can See Strings: Dr. Manhattan As a Stoic Sage”. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2009.

Wu, Jeffrey. “The Greater Good: Analyzing Morality in Watchmen.” Boston, Massachusetts: Boston University Arts & Sciences Writing Program n.d.