(1)Genre: Is Watchmen a superhero comic book limited series?
(2) As usual, Alan Moore’s comics begin with an inter-textual reference, a quote from a genre, work, character or motif.
(3) Inspired by the superhero parodies of the MAD magazine, Alan Moore takes the Charlton characters and puts them into a realistic world. However, his parody has not a comical intention but dramatic.
(4) The application of the real world logic to the superhero characters has it’s consequences on the conception of their morals. Alan Moore shows the human side of the masked adventurers, their mediocrity and dysfunctions.
However, today I’m going to leave aside these questions to talk about the world as shown in Watchmen and it’s relation with the social and political context in our own world.
By studying this process we can observe how, as well as complying with the minimum pre-requisites of a superhero comic, Watchmen also fits with the logic of science fiction.
Some of the most accepted definitions describe science fiction as a genre that explores the possibilities of a scientific novum. Behind this narrative principle what science fiction is really talking about is our own world. That’s why Darko Suvin talks about the literature of cognitive estrangement refering to science fiction.
(5) Watchmen has several references to the American science fiction of the fifties. Films such as Things to come, The day the Earth stood still, This island Earth or (6) the chapter “Architects of fear” from the series Outer Limits not only are cited in the comic book series but inspire the Veidt’s master plan.
Beyond the specific quotations to the genre that can be found in the comic, the appearance of the superheroes (specially Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian) works in this narrative as the “novum” from which an exercise of speculation is carried on based on the question “What if..?”
(7) In Watchmen also can be found several cites to the Hiroshima atomic bomb such as (8) the graffiti silhouettes all over the city and (9) the cover of Time Magazine commemorating Hiroshima Week.
(10) The main motif of Watchmen is no other than the blood-stained smiley that can be read as an announcement of the end of the innocence in the superhero genre.
(10.1) The blood-stained also refers to the position of the hands of the Doomsday Clock and therefore the nuclear danger so the main motif of Watchmen is the best example of the generic hybrid nature of the series.
As we will see, Watchmen is a late recreation of the American science fiction of the fifties, and more specifically those stories that agreed with the warnings of the Federation of Atomic Scientist. As science fiction stories did before, Watchmen warns of the danger of a nuclear confrontation between the US and the U.S.S.R.
Alternative history: the narrative structure in Watchmen
(11) By placing the emergence of the “Novum” in the past and developing the resulting changes from that point with flashbacks to reach an alternative present Alan Moore recounts a counterfactual history.
(12) Although the influence of the Minutemen in American politics is limited, the presence of superheroes changes the developing of US history in a particular way. One can situate the beginning of the divergences in the participation of Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam War with the subsequent American victory.
Before that, superheroes do participate in the politic sphere but do not produce substantial changes on it.
(13) The suggested involvement of the Comedian in the Kennedy assassination, for example, does not have a different outcome to the history of our world. However, as we will see, it’s very important in the construction of the ideological message of the comic.
Most of the changes in the American history are motivated by the necessity of maintaining Richard Nixon as United States president.
(14) Nixon secures his re-election in 1972 presidential elections by sending Dr. Manhattan to Vietnam.
(15) The only allusion to the long shadow cast by the American defeat in our world, known as the “the Vietnam Syndrome”, is the Comedian’s scar and words at the end of the conflict.
The comedian is defined by Alan Moore as the personification of CIA’s dirty tricks but with one significant difference: he’s always successful.
(16) The Comedian is the most important character in the prolongation of Nixon’s presidency. He, supposedly, kills Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein avoiding the Watergate scandal that made Nixon looses this presidency in our world.
(17) In our world one of the main reasons of the defeat of Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan was his management of the Hostage Crisis in Iran. In Watchmen, unlike the disastrous rescue mission attempted by Carter, the Comedian is able to break into the US Embassy in Iran and bring back the hostages.
(18) The Comedian also takes part in history overthrowing the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua avoiding a scandal that could have toppled Ronald Reagan: the Iran-Contra affair, also known as Irangate.
(19) In summary, the Comedian’s role is mainly to keep Nixon in office in those situations where the presidents that followed him in our world were dismissed. However, if we observe more deeply we will see that the long term consequences of the historical facts the Comedian avoid are not considered in Watchmen.
(20) In our own world the defeat in Vietnam War and the failure on rescuing the Iran hostages supposed a great discredit of the army. The confidence in US Army was not totally recovered until the Reagan’s severe actions in Central America such as the invasion of Grenada.
The Watergate scandal also supposed, between 1974 and 1976, deep investigations in the methods of the intelligence agencies. Several covered actions and conspiracies became too light with the subsequent dishonour. (Conspiracies such as the attempts of killing Fidel Castro, Lummumba, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, the use of involuntary human guinea pigs, the secret scouts, etc. These are just a few proved examples.) That’s why the conspiracy theories such as those about Kennedy’s assassination or the Roswell incident were so popular in the late seventies and eighties. As we will see, Alan Moore participates in some of them to build his ideological message in Watchmen.
(21) Once could argue that the successful US outer politics in the comic and the Dr. Manhattan endorsement would cause a more interventionist policy and would make the detente process almost impossible. But, as we will see, the situation in the comic’s present has a lot of points in common with the political context when Alan Moore wrote it.
We can conclude that the alternative history in Watchmen does not diverge progressively from our world but runs parallel to it. Once could find a reason in the ideological message of Watchmen.
Ideological message: Watchmen as the last recreation of Cold War’s science fiction.
(22) Alan Moore himself said once: “I also wanted to write about power politics. Ronald Reagan was president. But I worried readers might switch off if they thought I was attacking someone they admired.
(23) So we set Watchmen in a world where Nixon was in his fourth term — because you're not going to get much argument that Nixon was scum! For me, the '80s were worrying. ''Mutually Assured Destruction.'' ''Voodoo economics.'' A culture of complacency... I was writing about times I lived in.”
(24) As we have seen, one of the main roles of the science fiction, as defined by Darko Suvin, is to talk about our own world. The ultimate goal of Watchmen is not to take the superheroes presence in our world to the ultimate extreme but to explain, from the author’s point of view, the state of the world at the time it was written.
Watchmen is a fierce criticism of the Ronald Reagan politics. When Reagan took office the détente process definitively came to end. The Reagan rhetoric during the first and much of the second part of his term of office became markedly war-mongering and the US defence budget was increased without any restrictions. The US Government strutted about the development of the Strategic Defence Initiative.
In summary The Soviet Bloc had reasons to believe that the US was preparing to launch a pre-emptive strike. After the Euromissiles Crisis, Europe had reason to believe that in case of nuclear exchange, it would take place in European territory. Watchmen is a reflection of European fears arising from this situation.
(25) Just as the Comedian was the personification of the CIA, Dr. Manhattan can be read as the personification of the Strategic Defence Initiative as he is supposed to be capable to provide US with a defensive shield which can stop the 60% of the soviet missiles.
(27) Note that, in Watchmen, the US refuses to negotiate about Dr. Manhattan at the Geneva Conference just as they did with Strategic Defence Initiative in our world.
(27) Although the evolution history in Watchmen could have generated radically different context to that of our world, the nuclear missiles situation in Watchmen is also a reflection of the situation generated by the Euromissiles crisis.
(28) The authors criticise the openly provocative attitude of President Reagan and his excessive confidence in a system designed to ensure US strategic superiority, warning that the risk is Mutually Assured Destruction or M.A.D.
(29) In short, Watchmen is a comic that reflects a very specific time and political context: the particularly tense period between the end of détente and the end of the Cold War.
The pressure to which the Soviet Union was submitted, with an economy which was unable to support an arms escalation on that scale, especially the development of a defence system such as the Strategic Defence Initiative, caused a rapid and unexpected end to the Cold War.
Watchmen was written just before that happened, when the tension between the US and the Soviet Union had just passed its peak and the talks between the superpowers had not had any outcome, with the US refusing to include the Strategic Defence Initiative in any arms control agreement.
(30) Watchmen was in many aspects the heir of science fiction of the mid-twentieth century, and became one of the last accounts that, applying the logic of the genre, dealt with the Cold War as it happened. (31)