Men in Masks: Identity in Watchmen

One of the major themes in Watchmen that we haven’t discussed much in class yet is identity – how people view themselves and others, and how people alter the way that they are viewed. The most obvious way that Watchmen toys with these concepts is through the use of superheroes. Dan, for example, has a second identity in Nite Owl that he keeps hidden from the public. He tries to separate himself from his time as a vigilante, locking all his old gear and memorabilia related to his former career in his basement, but he can’t fully part with it. Nite Owl is Dan, even though Nite Owl is everything Dan isn’t: brave, strong, heroic, and once upon a time, well-liked. By sealing away Nite Owl, Dan is actually trying to lock away parts of his own personality and live a more low-key life that doesn’t actually represent who he is, which leads to his loneliness and regret later in life.

Rorschach, too, has a fascinating sense of identity (as his therapist learns all too well). To Rorschach, his mask is his true face. More than any of the other heroes, Rorscach’s other identity is him. Putting on a mask and assuming a name is a way for the heroes to put forth a different face to the public and each other, but for Rorschach it is an actual transformation: Dan may be Nite Owl, but Kovacs is not Rorscach. This also shows in the radically different opinion that Rorschach has about vigilantism compared to the rest of the cast. He views it as almost a necessity, not just for society but for himself as well. He takes it to an extreme, fully embracing the life of an underground hero, including secretive meetings and drop-offs for letters. He needs the lifestyle to live with himself, to have some power and control over his life and society.

Dr. Manhattan’s sense of identity is possibly the strangest of all the characters in Watchmen, however. His “superhero” name was assigned to him. He never chose to change his identity, and never hid his past life from people he knew. He went right back to dating Janey after reconstructing himself, showing that he (at least initially) still had a desire to live a normal life. Progressively, though, Jon begins to lose touch with the person he used to be. His way of looking at things changes radically. He is no longer tied to time and space the same way humans are, and he is no longer tied to mortality in the same way, either. In Chapter IV especially we see Jon as torn between two incredibly different beings – one a once-mortal man struggling to deal with the awesome powers he has obtained, the other a god-like being who has no ties left to Earth and mortal men. He is not devoid of emotion, as we see several moments of genuine tenderness from him throughout the text, but he also has a fatalistic way of seeing things which leads to totally amoral acts on his part – he totally disregards the emotions and well-being of other people at key points, not even bothering to consider what the consequences of his actions will have on them. This divide, in a sense a split between Jon and Dr. Mahattan, is what makes us sympathize with Dr. Manhattan despite all he does to make things worse for other characters.