Table of Contents
2. Defining the superhero
3. The deconstruction of the superheroes and their dispensability
3.2 Dr. Manhattan
3.3 Niht Owl
5. Works Cited
When reading Watchmen for the first time, it is highly possible that the reader encounters aspects which he did not expect to encounter. This might include the differences of Watchmen to other superhero comic books. Most of these differences can be seen with regard to the superhero characters, their respective features and character traits. The reader might realize then that Watchmen defies well-known stereotypical superhero characteristics. As claimed by Masserano, the characters of Watchmen represent “a radical departure from the … trite myth of the superhero” (3). This departure includes the deconstruction of the superhero.
In this paper I will analyse this deconstruction of the superhero and its stereotypical features in Watchmen. I assume that the deconstruction serves as a way to show the dispensability of superheroes. This is also the basis of my hypothesis. My thesis is that the superheroes in Watchmen and their stereotypical features are dispensable and that a life without them is definitely possible and even desirable.
In order to prove my thesis, I will first present a definition for stereotypical superheroes. Then, with the help of the definition, I will analyse a few of the protagonists of Watchmen and their features with respect to their differences to other superheroes and their dispensability. In the conclusion, I will summarize the results of my analysis and try to give a final statement about the dispensability of the superheroes and their superhero features.
2. Defining the superhero
Since I want to analyse the deconstruction of the superhero, it makes sense to give a definition first, and then to use this definition to highlight the differences to the superheroes in Watchmen.
Coogan defines the superhero by pointing out three major stereotypical features. These characteristics derive from Hand’s early definition of a superhero when he tried to clarify that Wonder Man copied Superman.
One conventional feature of superheroes is the identity. Following Hand, it is to say that the superhero’s identity consists of a codename and a costume (qtd. in Coogan 32). Coogan claims that there is a connection between the superhero’s codename and his inner character or his biography (33). For instance, Superman “is a super man who represents the best humanity can hope to achieve” (Coogan 33). The superhero names also often reflect the respective superpower (i.e. Flash), the attitude (i.e. Daredevil), or the role (i.e. Captain America) (Smith and Duncan 227). Costumes are also more than simple disguises (Reynolds 29). Often they are iconic representations of the superhero’s identities. Spider-Man’s webbed costume proclaims him a spider man for example. (Coogan 33). According to Reynolds, “[the costume] functions as a sign for the inward process of character development” (29). At this point, it is definitely to say that the respective identities of superheroes are not arbitrarily chosen. Codename and costume are often connected and they reflect who the superheroes are. This is an important factor. It allows the differentiation between superheroes, supervillains and ordinary people. Many superheroes also have a second identity.
A second feature of superheroes is the power. It is one of the most identifiable characteristics of superheroes (Coogan 31). Hand describes Superman and Wonder Man as characters with “miraculous strength and speed” (qtd. in Coogan 31) and being “wholly impervious” (qtd. in Coogan 31) to harm (Coogan 31). Powers can again be used to distinguish characters because superheroes have abilities that are “far superior to those of ordinary people” (Smith and Duncan 227). Of course the powers should be used to help people in need. Smith and Duncan also point out that there are superheroes without immediately identifiable superpower, for instance Batman (227). However, they also argue that these kind superheroes possess features which set them apart from ordinary people. Batman is an incredible athlete and detective, he can endure a lot of pain and punishment, and due to his vast wealth, he is able to make use of the latest technology in battle (Smith and Duncan 227). Many superheroes also have limitations in their powers. These limitations can be caused both by external and internal factors. External factors include everything from the outer world that might affect the superhero, for instance Superman’s adverse reaction to kryptonite. Internal factors refer to the superhero’s own personalities, for example Spiderman’s self-doubt (Smith and Duncan 227).
According to Hand, superheroes are “champion[s] of the oppressed who fight “evil and injustice” (qtd. in Coogan 30). From that, Coogan derives a third feature – the superhero’s mission (30). The mission has to be prosocial and selfless. Thus, the superhero ’ s “fight against evil must fit in with the existing, professed mores of society and must not […] benefit […] his own agenda” (Coogan 31). In other words, the superhero must act selflessly when helping people in need. Smith and Duncan even state that “when a character creates a superhero identity, he or she is making a commitment to help those in need and fight evil” (226). This commitment is the superhero’s mission. Gaining personally from powers or even using them to harm people will result in the loss of the superhero status. Interestingly, Coogan claims that the absent of the mission would transform a superhero into an “extraordinarily helpful individual” (31). This clearly shows the importance of this feature. By having a mission, a commitment or a dedication, superheroes can be distinguished by ordinary people.
3. The deconstruction of the superheroes and their dispensability
At this point, I want to make clear that Coogan defines superheroes with the aim of classifying characters as superheroes and, thus, differentiating them from other characters. This is not what I want to with the characters of Watchmen. I will not examine whether the protagonists of Watchmen are superheroes. For the purpose of my thesis, I need to take their position as superheroes already for granted. I will use Coogan’s definition as a basis to prove that the superheroes and stereotypical superhero features are dispensable. I also want to highlight here that there is a distinction between the dispensability of the superhero character itself and the dispensability of these conventional superhero features. The protagonists of Watchmen serve as a medium to defy these features.
The first superhero I want to analyse is Walter Kovacs or Rorschach. He has a dual identity. His superhero name derives from the mask he is wearing. The mask itself has a specific black and white pattern, which refers to a psychological test in which the participants have to interpret inkblot images. The colours black and white never mix on the mask. Interestingly, the mask is connected to Rorschach’s inner character. The fact that the colours do not intermingle shows Rorschach’s “well established moral code” (Flynn 21). He is an arbiter of justice (Flynn 19). Rorschach states: “Because there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished” (Moore and Gibbons 24; ch. 1). This is a statement every superhero with a sense of justice could have made. What is difference between Rorschach and other stereotypical superheroes now? Is he a dispensable character?
Rorschach, being the son of a prostitute, was plagued by abuse and neglect in his childhood. This let him become a pariah. He is an antisocial, deranged vigilante, who makes use of brutal methods against criminals (Flynn 18). He is wanted by the police and gets arrested. In jail, he continues his violent and physical behaviour against other inmates (Moore and Gibbons 15; ch. 8). He plays a rather negative role in society. For instance, a frightened barkeeper immediately recognizes Rorschach and begs him not to kill anybody (Moore and Gibbons 15; ch. 1). His actions shape his identity into a fearful character that defies typical superhero characteristics (Rapp and Birmingham 8).
Having a dual identity or a secret identity seem to match with stereotypical superhero features at first sight. However, according to Flynn, Rorschach is completely devoted to his superhero identity. He adopts his vigilante persona as his dominant self (Flynn 20). Rorschach picks up his clothes and says: Putting them on, I abandoned my disguise and became myself, free from fear or weakness or lust. My coat, my shoes, my spotless gloves. My face” (Moore and Gibbons 18; ch. 5). It his highly remarkable that Rorschach refers to his real identity as a disguise. Besides, he sees his mask as his real face. Moore uses a whole panel to illustrate that Rorschach puts on his “face”. His statements and in particular the panel with the mask clearly show that Rorschach favours his brutal and cruel superhero identity over his real identity. One could think of him having a personality disorder here. He is an unpredictable superhero who wants to fulfil his mission. Rorschach wants to ensure justice “and even in the face of Armageddon [he would] not compromise in this” (Moore and Gibson 24; ch. 1). However, his “fight against evil [does not] fit in with the existing, professed mores of society” (Coogan 31). Moore stated that Rorschach reflects a realistic representation of Batman’s way of dealing with criminals (Flynn 18). Reynolds has a similar opinion on this: “Rorschach is cut from the template of the vigilante superhero, but with every semblance of glamour apparently taken away” (107). Moore also adds that “a person dressing in a mask and going around beating up criminals is a … psychopath” (qtd. in Flynn 18). This statements clearly evoke the question of what would happen when a superhero like Rorschach would exist in the real world. The result would be having a highly criminal superhero who tortures and kills other people because of his completely own understanding of justice. He has an own perception of good and evil.
Under this circumstances, he has to be seen as a very dispensable and not desirable superhero. Furthermore, the stereotypical superhero feature justice, which belongs to the mission, is also defied and can be seen in a negative way. It is true that a sense of justice can never be dispensable for superheroes. However, Rorschach’s sense of justice shows that superheroes can have own interpretations of how to fight injustice and establish justice. This is the problem here. Walter Kovacs also loses his real identity to his superhero identity Rorschach. This clearly shows the deconstruction of the identity or the costume feature of superheroes. Therefore, one can also argue for the dispensability of having a second identity. However, it is not possible to generalise the threat of losing the control of the real identity for all superheroes. It depends on the individual character and the respective mental stability.
I wrote this thesis for the American Studies Department at Wesleyan University in 1996.
I have posted the entire thesis here, but for a better reading experience, you can also access the thesis on Scribd at this LINK.
I recommend the PDF version at Scribd, as the footnotes have been corrupted in the version posted here at Blogger, and it is easier to read in a printable PDF.
I hope you find it as interesting to read as it was to write.
Taking Off the Mask
Invocation and Formal Presentation
of the Superhero Comic
in Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen
Samuel Asher Effron
Class of 1996
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of Wesleyan University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the
Degree of Bachelor of Arts
with Departmental Honors
from the department of American Studies
Middletown, CT April,1996
This thesis is dedicated to the memory of
You gave me the love of knowledge.
I’d like to thank the following people for their support, assistance and input over the last year: Amy Donenfield, Paul Levitz at DC Comics, Gary Groth at Fantagraphics, Doug Atkinson, Phil Straub at the Museum of Words and Pictures, Steve Flower, Bill at Earth Prime Comics, Joseph Reed, Andre Dogan, and Justin Caplicki.
To Remy-Luc Auberjonois, Michael Roberts, Benjamin Stout and Damian Hess for keeping me sane on a daily basis.
To John Johnson at Knight’s Quest Comics for all of his time and patience- and his comics.
Especially to Professor Richard Slotkin: for having confidence in my work, and for being a mentor, a colleague and a friend. Without your tutelage this project would never have existed.
And, of course, to both the Mintz and Effron Families: Bob, Marilyn, Linda, David, Randi, Jon, Sydney, Will, Curtis, Maret, Adele, Neil, Alan, Doug, Liz, Cherie, Bruce, Erica, Lisa, Jack, Rita, Steven, Mike, Neil, Rachel, Grandpa and Grandma Effron, and Grandma Mintz.
Dad, Mom and Jon. I love you. Thanks for believing in me.
Finally, to Grandpa Sidney Mintz- for giving me my first comic.
I was first introduced to Watchmen three years ago by a friend. He was surprised that I’d never heard of it, as it had been immensely popular among superhero fans. But instead of Batman and Superman, my childhood for the most part was spent with Archie, Richie Rich, and Elfquest. So, when I sat down with the dauntingly large tome, it was with some hesitation. Five hours and hundreds of pages later, I was anxious to read it all over again. Watchmen turned me back on to comics and soon I developed a voracious appetite for trade paperbacks and “graphic novels”. These compilations offered me longer stories and I didn’t have to wait a month to read the next chapter. I picked up anything I could get my hands on and eventually some friends and I decided that these works of art needed some scholarly attention. We organized a tutorial and spent an entire semester reading and analyzing a variety of comics from a wide range of genres. We spent two whole weeks on Watchmen, and during that time I began to comprehend the magnitude of its complexity.
Appropriately, I spent the following summer working in a comic book store. For hours I would peruse the stands looking for reading material and after thumbing through countless titles, a pattern began to emerge. Many of the superhero titles told stories and portrayed characters that were much darker, more violent and more self-conscious than I remembered them in the Saturday morning cartoons or the random issues of Batman I had occasionally picked up as a child. It occurred to me that there must have been some catalyst for the new mood but when did these changes take place and how were they affected? My initial inquiries revealed that comic books had enjoyed a surge in popularity during the mid to late eighties. The increases in sales were accompanied by a dark overtone that seemed to settle into most superhero titles. The trend was easily traced to 1986, the year Art Speigleman’s Maus, Frank Miller’s Batman: the Dark KnightReturns and Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen were all published. These three comics were incredibly popular and their phenomenal reception drew quite a bit of attention from the media; comic books began to be legitimated as a developed “adult” art. Maus received the most respect of the three for its sensitive portrayal of a Holocaust survivor’s tale. It was even nominated for National Book Critics Award. Miller, already in the spotlight for his work on Daredevil and Ronin, was lauded further for his modern rendering of the Batman myth. Watchmen, while it garnered some praise, was shadowed by the accolades showered upon these other books. It is generally respected by the comics industry, but the impact of Watchmen on the superhero genre has never been measured.
In this paper, I will attempt to take that measure. I intend to illustrate the extent to which Gibbons and Moore invoke the superhero genre of comics and subsequently improve and expand its vocabulary. They simultaneously summarize, celebrate and criticize the genre and in doing so extend both its narrative and formal capabilities. Moore and Gibbons achieve these ends by presenting the generic units in fresh, innovative ways; their narrative’s intricate structure, with its multitude of cross-references and subtextual details, assigns the novel an esthetic complexity rarely seen in any comics, let alone those of the superhero genre.
Chapters One and Two delineate the origins and development of both the form of superhero comic books and their content. Both chapters outline the genre’s growth and highlight key innovations of the two comic eras, the Golden and Silver Ages, respectively. Chapter One’s history begins with the inception of comic art and leads up to the release in 1938 of Action Comics#1, the birth of Superman. The Chapter highlights the creative inventions that now constitute the basic language of the genre through such examples as the first sidekick (1940) and the first superheroine (1939). Chapter One follows the genre all the way to 1954, when the anti-comic crusade of Dr. Frederic Wertham culminated in the creation of the Comics Code which spelled the superheroes’ temporary downfall.
Chapter Two resumes the narrative and continues the exploration of generic expansion from the birth of the Silver Age in 1956 through the early nineteen-eighties. The second era of the superheroes was marked by the heavy influence of Science Fiction, the revival of old characters and the creation of Marvel Comics. Marvel and Stan Lee’s FantasticFour ushered in a new style of characterization that would revolutionize the way heroes were presented. Consequently, Marvel became the first company to challenge DC’s primacy since the introduction of Superman. The two companies spent the rest of the nineteen sixties trying to outdo one another. Their efforts resulted in both positive and negative creations and the further elaboration of the genre’s units. The nineteen seventies were not as generous to superheroes and the decade witnessed a steady decline of the quality of the comics.
Chapter Three will first briefly outline the efforts of comic publishers to revitalize the genre through the creation of “graphic novels”. These hardcover compilations were seen by some as a divisive marketing tool and by others as an effective way to lure more adults into the comics market. This chapter will also illustrate Watchmen’s generic foundations by comparing its characters, locales and scenarios to archetypes grounded in comic history. Many of the novel’s narrative elements have very specific antecedents. I hope to show how Moore and Gibbons’ intense research and deliberate utilization of these superhero “units” draw the reader into a seemingly familiar world. The nostalgic presentation simultaneously lauds those generic units and opens them up to criticism and change. Chapter Three will begin to illuminate how Watchmen effects this change through examples such as its narrative recapitulation of comic history.
In the final chapter, I will use a variety of examples from the book to demonstrate how Moore and Gibbons’ formal presentation exceeds and revolutionizes the standards of the genre. The discussion centers on examples ranging from the thematic qualities of specific chapters to the non-comic texts that end them. By examining these and other instances of Watchmen’s creative revision, I hope to elucidate the intricacy and complexity with which Moore and Gibbons visually present their narrative-- the compositional and subtextual detail of Watchmen necessitates not only active but also multiple readings.
Watchmen’s exploitation of the potentialities of the medium elevates it to a level deserving of critical study. But comic scholarship in general, until very recently, has been notably absent from academia. The problem is rooted in America’s perception of comic art. Since their inception, comic books have been regarded as literature for children or as lowbrow entertainment. Unlike our European and Japanese contemporaries, who respect comic art as a vehicle for adult fiction, Americans have assigned the entire medium a juvenile connotation; the superhero genre is stigmatized even more harshly. Consequently, scholarly articles and books devoted to comics have only begun to emerge, as the study of popular culture has gained academic credibility. Most of the works published limit their scope to specific heroes or titles, often Superman or Batman. Even comic histories are difficult to acquire because many of the primary sources are held in personal collections. The Golden Age has been documented fairly well in comic encyclopedias but compiled information on the Silver Age (1956-c.1980) is extremely rare. Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones’ Comic Book Heroes represents a notable exception but the scarcity of other texts impelled me to rely heavily on their research.
Besides its lack of comic history or scholarship, the academy has virtually ignored comic criticism and esthetic theory. Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics are the only published books that treat narrative theory and formal presentation as it pertains to comics. Both are thorough but neither fully captures the entire subject in all its intricacies. The most difficult factor in my dilemma with reliable sources is Watchmen’s relatively recent publication. There are no recognized publications at this time that encapsulate or discuss the last ten years of comic history. In this project I hope to achieve two goals. The first is to highlight the contributions of Alan Moore and David Gibbons to the comics medium and the superhero genre. The second is to engage myself in a scholarly quest with a subject that has received little academic attention and to excite a debate over Watchmen and comic art. Both my pursuits will be fulfilled if this project induces an increased respect for comic books– both culturally and academically.
I will cite visual and textual passages from Watchmen in two ways. All illustrations will be found following the conclusion in the “Illustrations Appendix.” The citation for illustrations will appear in the form “See Figure X.” Textual citations will appear in the following format Chapter: Page: Frame number. For example, 5:12:4 directs the reader to Chapter Five, Page Twelve, Frame Four. The frames are numbered according to row: one, two, three in the first; four, five, six, in the second, et seq. The non-comic textual supplements which end each chapter of Watchmen are indicated by a “t” and page numbers correspond to those found in the specific supplement. For example, page thirteen of Chapter Three in Under the Hood will be referred to as 3t:13.