Over the weekend, Alan Jacobs argued that Watchmen—a seminal comic book series that, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, helped usher “graphic novels” into mainstream discussions of art and aesthetics—is “really not very good.”
For many, them's fighting words. I’m slightly more ambivalent—I’ve always preferred TDKR to Watchmen, myself—but I do want to slightly disagree with (or, perhaps, slightly amplify) his analysis. Jacobs writes:
Even the ones we might call “characters” are inflexible and incapable of significant change. They can usually be summed up in a sentence. Rorschach: “Humanity disgusts me.” Dr. Manhattan: “Humanity confuses and puzzles me; I am more comfortable with the certainties of science.” Adrian Veidt: “How tiresome to live in a world of creatures so far inferior to my excellent self.” Laurie Juspeczyk: “I just want to be loved.” Daniel Dreiberg: “Do I dare to eat a peach, or maybe beat up a thug?”
Worse still, Moore seems to think that such simplistic traits need to be explained. For instance, Rorschach’s misanthropy gets accounted for by the most hackneyed dime-store psychoanalysis imaginable. It’s typical of Moore’s ham-fistedness that he fails to realize that Rorschach would be far more interesting and frightening if there were no obvious explanation for his loathing.
I think Jacobs is right when he argues that Watchmen’s characters are simplistically sketched and have backgrounds/origin stories based on the tritest sort of Freud. What I think Jacobs is missing is that Moore did this on purpose, because Moore hates comic book heroes and wants you to share his disgust with the form.* In addition to telling a story about the human condition, Moore is telling a story about the condition of the medium within which he is working: its ossification, its absurdity, and its failures.
Watchmen succeeds and endures, at least in part, because it’s a deconstruction (or outright rejection) of the ideas underpinning superheroes. Rorschach, like Batman, internalized his childhood traumas and focused that pain into an unrelenting drive to make the underworld pay. In Moore’s mind, Rorschach and Batman are psychopaths who have rejected society and wish to bend the world to their will. Moore simply follows that ideal to its logical conclusion, creating a hero who acts (or maybe reacts) without restraint and adheres slavishly to a moral code only he can decipher.
The Comedian, meanwhile, is an inversion of Captain America: he embodies what Moore views as America’s bedrock values (political corruption, violence, international aggression, lawlessness—all delivered with a laugh). Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan is Superman, but with the “Super” emphasized over the “man.” You get the idea.
*"Hate" is perhaps too strong a word here. But I do think Moore kind of grew to hate the unthinking adoration heaped upon "good guys" wearing masks and operating outside the law to impose order.