Watchmen: Psychology and Significance

Jose Carlos Serrano

Author’s Note: I would insist that you watch this first before reading:


1986’s Watchmen, helmed by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, was one of the most prominent graphic novels that not only reinvented the genre of comic books as a whole, but even the genre of literary creativity itself. Utilized and studied thoroughly in many academic courses in today’s day and age, Watchmen is commonly associated with English masterworks such as Shakespeare and Orwell. Tackling the idea of having superheroes exist in the real world and the consequences behind that, brings forth a very gritty and appealing story that’s held up to the test of time in over 35 years since it’s publication. The characters within Moore’s well-studied universe have very complex and rather intricate psychological profiles, commonly forcing the reader to judge them in the usual commonplace English language comparison of being either “good” or “bad”. If looking at Watchmen through these simple and otherwise inaccurate lenses, one cannot fully comprehend the true nature and realism of the book. We should on the contrary, measure their ethicality and what factors might shape their development, so that we as readers can fully understand the complexity and mental study of damaged heroes that is Watchmen.


Several characters within the Watchmen storyline have such in-depth personas and mental damage even, that are the result of decades of crime-fighting. A concept that’s rather lightly covered in such other superhero related media at its time of publication, Watchmen is a breath of fresh air in this intricate field of study. In many cases, we only learn about the actions of superpowered beings in comic storylines; hence defining them by what they do. Superman is an excellent example of this. An alien from another planet that saves the innocent of Metropolis from danger, is a classic concept. Readers feel as if Superman is an all-around good individual because he helps others, alas, providing a public benefit. Interestingly, at least in earlier renditions of Superman related media however, we never quite learn about Clark himself behind the scenes or behind closed doors in terms of deep psychology. We don’t characterize Superman by the man he truly is, but rather by what he does. There is no study of the effects whether physically or more likely internally, of years of fighting. While modern story arcs such as Tom King’s Heroes in Crisis (2018) does this concept significant justice, during the time of Watchmen’s release in the mid-to-late eighties, it was a rather bright new idea. 


The first of the “heroes” that readers are introduced to in Watchmen is Rorschach, now currently a dangerous vigilante. Now a shockingly violent, brutal, and otherwise deranged man, Rorschach is a clear example of the lasting traumatizing effects of decades of fighting and witnessing constant violence and killings. Rorschach in terms of what he fights for, is far from that of a lowly thug or criminal; rather claiming to fight in the name of justice and decimating evil throughout a crime riddled 1980’s-era New York City. His immensely brutal tactics however, and mental illness due to a life of vigilantism and a traumatic childhood, are what give others the impression of him being this cruel and unforgiving man as explained by Rorschach himself on page 199: “Shock of impact ran along my arm. Jet of warmth [blood] splattered on chest, like hot faucet. It was Kovacs who said ‘mother’ then, muffled under latex. It was Kovacs who closed his eyes. It was Rorschach who opened them again.” (Moore, 199). Even within my book club group, some argued that Rorschach is nothing less than a criminal – a clear example of this rather one-sided stigma of the character, whereas in reality, we should be analyzing Rorschach in his collective entirety, and inevitably come to the conclusion that he more or less lands in the category of anti-heroism. Rorschach is a clear example of someone attempting to do good, but is rather mentally hindered as the scars of his past are regurgitated in the way that he enacts his crusade for justice. 


We can additionally look at fellow prominent characters within Watchmen such as the original members of the Minutemen, a collective of costumed vigilantes formed in 1939. The Minutemen are composed of The Comedian, The Silk Spectre (Sally Jupiter), Nite Owl (Hollis Mason), The Silhouette, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, Mothman, and Dollar Bill. While on paper, many of these people might seem like good or heroic individuals at first to the beginning reader of Moore’s novel, future information throughout the book reveals rather troubling and incredibly nefarious revelations about these characters. Included in Hollis Mason’s autobiography, Under the Hood as excerpted in Watchmen, brings clarity and proof to my claim. “Yes, some of us were politically extreme. Before Pearl Harbor, I heard Hooded Justice openly expressing approval for the activities of Hitler’s Third Reich, and Captain Metropolis has gone on record as making statements about black and Hispanic Americans that have been viewed as both racially prejudiced and inflammatory, charges that it is difficult to argue or deny.” In which he continues on by writing, “Yes, we were crazy, we were kinky, we were Nazis, all those things that people say. We were also doing something because we believed in it. We were attempting, through our personal efforts, to make our country a better and safer place to live in.” (Moore, 72). By having Mason confess that many members of the Minutemen were lustful, racist Nazis, Moore clearly reveals that his superheroes are deeply flawed. Passages like these force readers of Watchmen to come to terms with the fact that the people in this book aren’t ones to look up to or idolize at all. They all have severe faults and horrific, disgusting beliefs and ideologies that reflect the actual nature of who they truly are.


As mentioned previously, Watchmen is a rare book that blurs the lines between heroism and villainy. The overarching precursor of the book has been the death of The Comedian, Edward Blake, and is what fuels the main premise of the story. What’s curious here is that the supposed “villain” of Watchmen is one that readers can actually come to terms with and understand. Ozymandias, or otherwise known as Adrain Veidt who was a member of the vigilante group the Crimebusters back in the 60’s is revealed to have been behind the massacre of The Comedian. Considered the smartest man on the planet, Veidt used masterful techniques, with the goal of picking costumed individuals (killing The Comedian, exiling Dr. Manhattan, framing Rorschach) to prevent them from intervening from his plan. Staging a supposed alien assault on New York City which led to half of the city’s population being decimated, forced the United States and Russia to bond together peace between the two nations, whereas previously they were on the cusp of nuclear war. The book closes with The New Frontiersman, a right wing newspaper, receiving Rorschach’s personal journal after his death, in which he details Veidt’s true intentions and nature, implying that the paper will report on it and Adrian Veidt will be found out. The question however, is whether he was right in what he did. Was he correct in decimating parts of New York City to prevent more violence and killings due to the United States’ and Russia’s war-like quarrels? Veidt himself explains his inspiration behind his schemes – Alexander of Macedonia. “At Alexandria, he instituted the ancient world’s greatest seat of learning. True, people died … perhaps unnecessarily, though who can judge such things? Yet how nearly he approached his vision of a united world!” (Moore, 356) Veidt is a perfect example of someone who clearly believes in the belief that the ends justify the means, believing that the actions he takes now will be for the collective good of the world’s societal benefit. These choices that he makes on the contrary aren’t without moral regret and tarnishment, as in the end pages of Watchmen, there are many circumstances in which we see the deaths of those in New York haunt his dreams and his soul, and only then, really comprehends the mental and psychological burden of working under this controversial justificational belief. 


 For readers, Veidt’s immaculately designed plan for the preservation of the world left a standing impact, one of the most prominent times that they were divided on the verdict of the villain in a story. Comparatively, similar circumstances have been seen in later iterations of villains in stories, taking on the role of being Neo-Malthusians as an example. While not directly related, Marvel Comics’ Thanos, invented by Jim Starlin believes that by wiping out half the universe, its resources can be preserved as he personally saw the results of overpopulation on his home world, Titan. His ideologies and reason for what he does, isn’t full fledged criminality or insanity, but again falls in line with the belief that the ends justify the means – and that Thanos himself isn’t truly an evil individual. This directly correlates with Adrian Veidt and many other characters in Watchmen. Veidt, being the antagonist, isn’t truly evil in terms of his ideologies while protagonists and tritagonists such as Rorschach and The Comedian likewise aren’t truly good people either. All members of the story fall into a sort of grey area, commonly making it a war of ethics in terms of who’s truly morally correct in what’s being fought or fought against.


It is with topics and circumstances that were discussed before that lead Watchmen to be discussed in an academic and educational environment. Especially assigned in college level literary content, Watchmen connects moral themes and ideologies and consistently forces readers to make their own decisions based on what they personally believe. Even aside from the psychological aspect of this, the book also covers many historical dilemmas and the certain effects that a major change in history might cause, opening many academic possibilities. Kalvero Sinervo, a postdoc at the University of Calgary mentioned in an interview with SYFY WIRE mentioning that Watchmen can “teach students about the Cold War, since the entire comic takes place in the shadow of a looming nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, or about US involvement in Vietnam, since much of that plot centers on what might have happened if the US had won that war.” This point is indeed true and encompasses many of the history-infused portions of the novel. What would happen if Nixon was still President in 1985? What if the United States stocking up on nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union led to a lack of funding and investment in cities such as New York? What if the United States had a superpowered individual to be used as a major weapon opening the door to unlimited power? How do these circumstances affect the characters in Watchmen and how the story itself plays out? These are all educational questions that should be asked and discussed when reading. The fact that Alan Moore’s novel can open up so many doors for intellectual and mature conversations is what makes it a cornerstone of any advanced creative writing college or university course


Collectively, Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen stands as a testimony to truly what’s possible with well thought out and smartly written creative fiction. Not only being a phenomenally multi-faceted story with many twists and turns, but also with its utter masterclass in having realistic and believable characters. From Rorschach to Ozymandias, all characters have their own personal motives, flaws, and personal vendettas, making this all-star cast that much more believable and subsequently unsettling and thought provoking. There’s a clear reason why Watchmen is still a staple in popular media and academia nearly four decades after it’s release, and stands as a pillar to Moore and Gibbon’s stroke of genius articulation of otherwise one of the most influential and powerful works of fiction in our day and age.