Death is the Only Escape in Watchmen

Dr. Manhattan knew to leave Earth.

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been reading Watchmen for the first time, and I must say that I’m totally captivated by how dark the graphic novel is.  Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have a unique way of creating beauty through rather morbid storytelling—I can see how Watchmen sort of kick started the “Dark Age” of comic books in the mid-1980s.

One of the tools Moore uses to create such intricate meaning is depth.  Watchmen does not hinge upon a singular plotline; instead, the reader is dragged through multiple storylines, involving many characters, each providing a great deal of back-story.  He allows the reader to see into each character’s psyche, emphasizing the darkest and most depressing undertones.  These multiple character sketches weave together seamlessly, forcing the reader to make inferences based upon the repetitive themes.  I’m not finished with the novel yet, but the inference I’m currently making is that the human condition is at an all-time low, and it’s negatively affecting everyone.  A change must come soon, as many characters are at their breaking point (see Dan in chapter seven).

The reader expects the retired superheroes to reunite and somehow save the Earth, which is on the brink of World War III (nuclear warfare).  The heroes are definitely motivated to change the world, as we see Rorschach’s attempt to solve the mask-murderer mystery, Dan come out of retirement (ch. 7) and Laurie and Doctor Manhattan “debate Earth’s destiny” (ch. 9).  I’m going to predict that the heroes do intervene and somehow stop a nuclear war, because that’s a typical ending, but I think that’s not the true message Moore is trying to send to his readers.

Moore’s real message is that the overall morality on Earth is on an irreversible downhill slide, and the only way out is death.

The reader can draw this conclusion by examining any of Moore’s many uses of depth.  For one, the comic that the city kid that hangs out by the newsstand is reading, “Black Freighter.”  Excerpts from this comic pop-up every few chapters, whenever the newsstand appears.  The comic’s plot follows a man who is stranded on a deserted island by pirates, which, at first, does not sound like it will relate to the overall plotline of Watchmen, but Moore uses the comic very skillfully to tell an underlying story.

Death is the only way out.

In many ways, the enlightened ones in Watchmen are the most depressed.  Those who realize what is going on experience the most distress, while the ignorant remain blissful, only caring about trivial issues, like the gang that beats up Hollis Mason in chapter eight.  Moore illustrates this through the stranded man in “Black Freighter.” On page 12 of chapter five, the stranded man says, “I’d swallowed too much horror,” meaning all the death and darkness surrounding him (he tethered his fallen comrades’ bodies to the underside of his raft to keep it afloat) was finally starting to take its toll on him.  Its easy to draw a connection between the stranded man and the newsstand man, because the newsstand man often claims he knows all that goes on (from reading the newspaper) and realizes how dark the future may be (“I mean don’t people see the signs? Don’t they know where this is headed?”).

While most of the humans have yet to see it (the exception being the one man who killed his entire family in the beginning of chapter five), the stranded man in the “Black Freighter” admits it in chapter eight: death is the only escape (“I could endure no more.  Though dreading such a black, breathless end, I leapt, feet first into horror” page 25).  Doctor Manhattan, who exiles himself to Mars, is the only other character that truly understands the helpless state of Earth.  He says to Laurie in chapter nine, “My red world here means more to me than your blue one.”

I am excited to read on to see how Moore ends the novel.  I really hope it continues to mirror the experience of the stranded man in “Black Freighter,” because I think it adds a helpful amount of depth to the story.   I like where Moore is headed, but if the heroes end up saving the world, it will feel like a cop-out.  I want everyone to die in the end—a happy ending, right?  A final escape from the helplessly immoral state of Earth?

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