Friday, 6 March 2009

Article: DeZ Vylenz on Watchmen

At the end of 2006 - in the occasion of its 20th anniversary - I edited an Italian Watchmen tribute book which was basically a collection of 12 brand new essays by well known comics experts analyzing Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons masterpiece. The volume was published by Lavieri, a small Italian publisher, with all net profits donated to AIMA, the Italian Alzheimer organization.Writer and director DeZ Vylenz, the creative force behind the must-see documentary "The Mindscape of Alan Moore" (Shadowsnake Films), contributed to the book with an interesting essay titled "Infinity in a grain of sand - Alternative worlds, ucrony, dystopia and utopia in Watchmen".
In the following
you can read, for the first time, the original English version. Thanks to DeZ Vylenz for the permission. Enjoy!Pictures included in this article are from "The Mindscape of Alan Moore" .

Infinity in a grain of sand

Alternative worlds, ucrony, dystopia and utopia in Watchmen
by DeZ Vylenz

Rorschach Journal, October 12, 1985. This city is afraid of me, I have seen its true face…

And so begins the literary tour de force called Watchmen, a profound study of the various notions of power which permeate our world’s political and social structures and in fact our entire history. With a sense of grand design and depth of characterization to emulate War and Peace or any literary classic for that matter, there was another major Moore punch to the stomach of critics and readers, friends and enemies: Watchmen is a comic and perhaps because of its magnum opus size and depth one of the first works where the new coining “graphic novel” was applied to; a term regarded by some as slightly pretentious but on the other hand often useful to separate self-contained works with a definite beginning and end which sets them apart from the ongoing serialized comics.
The title Watchmen in itself is ambiguous, as it could refer to the group of superheroes watching over the safety of society, but considering the leitmotifs of clocks, watches, time and human perception there is also a hint to the intricate watchmaker behind it all. Whether that be the creative forces of the universe, God, the nuclear scientist Osterman (who had ambitions to become a watchmaker, a reference to an Albert Einstein quote) before his disintegration or Adrian Veidt’s grand scheme of creating Utopia, it is clear that Alan Moore’s own approach to the comic has been that of an architect, mapping out not only the physical aspects of the world but also the spiritual and emotional dimensions of what it means to be a human being in the contemporary dark age of technology and struggle for economic supremacy.
Although the notions of power, fear and individual lives within a larger framework are the main themes within Watchmen, the whole book itself is a muscular exercise in embedded narrative; a profound meditation on time, memory and experience. This is most prominent in Chapter IV where the narrative is centred around Dr. Manhattan’s conscious structuring of time and events through flashbacks and flashforwards, as he roams the surface of Mars.
Depending on which ‘ism’ one might take as starting point to study this book, some might try to stick a genre label on Watchmen. In some respects the book can be viewed as alternative history or ucrony: “a story set in a time which never really existed but which might have if historical circumstances had been different.” Watchmen is after all a hypothetical world, an alternative parallel universe, diverged from the one we know because of the freak accident that created Dr. Manhattan. A thermodynamic miracle as it were.
Literary critics or narratologists could perhaps draw comparisons with Bram Stoker’s use of different journals, letters and a variety of media and descriptions all woven into the embedded narrative of Dracula or Orson’s Welles’ Citizen Kane. But Watchmen is not only modernist because it is presented in the relatively new and unexplored ‘Comic’ medium, but also because its world view is holistic in nature with every single event seen in relation to every conceivable facet of our contemporary world and the knowledge we have of the universe. This is not surprising; given the surge of media and information which has become available over the last hundred years. Readers and writers of our time experience the world in a different manner than those of a century ago.
But the book can also be viewed from a more spiritual side, the effect it has upon our consciousness as human readers living in a complex web of worlds within worlds, with layers of politics, economics, and the numerous facets of our society and personal and global events around us. Most of this reality is distorted by an overload of information through the modern mass media and intellectual analysis is simply not comprehensive enough to put it all into a clear perspective.
Watchmen is a massive piece of work that plunges the reader straight into an incredibly deep and complete experience on intellectual, emotional and spiritual levels.
Without getting too much on a personal side track, I can honestly say that from the first few panels I encountered in Watchmen as a teenager with then seemingly far-fetched ambitions to become a writer or filmmaker, something was triggered in some dormant brain cells which to this day has a tremendous effect upon my world view and personal artistic approach. From the enormous close up of a smiley (already introduced on the cover) the panels slowly “zoom out” to a breathtaking bird’s eye view from the window of a high flat building in the middle of an urban landscape with the “voice-over” captions reminiscent of Taxi Driver. This introduction signals a certain warning to the reader.
There is a holistic vision at work here and the reader is expected to bring on board of this journey, as much knowledge as possible on every level conceivable.
Though Film and Comic are both two-track media (employing language –or sound-- and images to convey the information), the way that the concept of time and perception is studied in Watchmen has an effect, which would be very hard to replicate in a film adaptation or a novel. There are numerous layers of information conveyed by the omniscient narration: essays, pirate comics read by characters within the book, articles, diaries, all of which compose the text world of Watchmen into a very complex cognitive process while the central part of the story still remains very accessible to the average reader.
In Chapter IX, page 6, Dr. Manhattan expresses the core idea of the book’s structure:
Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.

According to shamanic principles, time does not exist. There is no past or future. Only the Now. Everything exists at the same time. Moore has always had a fascination with time paradoxes and our perception of time, as is evident in his early short stories for 2000 AD Monthly.
Before Alan Moore transcended to another level of writing where the emphasis was more on magical and universal themes (a phase which started around his work on From Hell), Moore’s work was significantly influenced by pop-culture, contemporary politics and developments around him. Similarly to his character Ozymandias, he is very much tapped into the mosaic of information that the world media present. This mindset is one of the cornerstones of modernism, where writers and readers bring everything they know, the complete frame of reference that comprises our general sense of ‘history,’ to the experience we call story. Stories and events are no longer only viewed in a vacuum, or in the light of classical mythology, philosophy and so on. We now view everything in relation to recent and past events, make associations on various levels, whether that be biological, sociological or mystical levels. The prose of William Burroughs is a prime example of this phenomenon and enough to give linguists and students of epistemology a couple of field days. As our intellectual horizons expand, we read or experience things more and more within a larger context.
Quantum physics and Chaos theory gradually presented new alternatives to a scientific and strictly materialistic world view, governed by Newtonian physics and Keynesian economics. In Indian philosophy the human constructs (amongst which our concept of Time) and our perception of the world are considered as Maya: Illusion. Something constructed by human beings in order to understand the slice of that complex event which can be seen as the universe or life itself. In the shamanic world view, life is not seen as a linear event moving from left to right like a bead on a wire. The world is not seen as a place of strict hierarchy and stratification. On a larger scale things cannot be quantified or rationalised for simplicity’s sake. From a mystical viewpoint, the world is seen as a far more complex web of energy, which at some point emanated from the same source and manifested itself in the myriads of life forms in the universe. With our limited senses and human mind we experience the three dimensional plane of a more elusive four dimensional event.

Invisible before birth are all beings and after death invisible again. They are seen between two unseens.
(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, verse 28)

At the end of Chapter IV there is an essay by Professor Milton Glass (another example of Alan Moore’s near schizophrenic capability to adjust the language to his fictional characters) which captures the essence of the Cold War and the mindset in Dr. Manhattan’s age. In the opening paragraph of this largely socio-political piece, there is another reference to the viewpoint the narratee is invited to:

Science, traditional enemy of mysticism and religion, has taken on a growing understanding that the model of the universe suggested by quantum physics differs very little from the universe that Taoists and other mystics have existed in for centuries.

Most storytellers are fascinated by the concept of time and the way it reflects in the mental construction of a narrative, whether that be oral or written. Time shapes our lives on a daily basis and in the modern world is generally regarded as a fundamental quantity, yet in more traditional cultures and models of thought, there is often a different and less formal perception of this concept:

If you look at the very earliest cultures, some of them are still extent upon the planet, the aboriginal cultures, most of their languages only have one tense. Everything is subsumed within the present. They can talk about things that happened and things that haven’t happened yet, but will happen in the future, but they talk about them in the present tense. Now it seems that not only have we split up our existence, our study of existence into all of these different areas, but we’ve also subdivided our notion of time into different zones. Whereas once, there was this great eternal present, which I assume to be the kind of constant Now that animals exist in for example. But, we as conscious individuals have as a species adapted this different notion of time, where we almost see time as a bead on a wire. That the now is this constantly moving, tiny little moment that we’re all in that is sliding inexorably along a wire from past to future. If you look at some of the models that people like Stephen Hawking have suggested for time, then you find something which is actually much closer to that primitive apprehension of how time is structured, than to our rather simplistic and fatalistic idea of past, present and future. I believe that Hawking talks about space-time as a kind of a gigantic, starry football, a rugby ball if you like. And at one end of it you have the Big Bang and at the other end of it everything comes together again in a big crunch. But, that the whole football exists all the time. That there is this gigantic hyper moment in which everything is occurring. That would mean that it was only our conscious minds that were ordering things into past, present and future.
(excerpt from the film: The Mindscape of Alan Moore)

And Watchmen is exactly this. A gigantic hyper moment which from the first panel (or in fact from the yellow smiley cover of the book) to the last is an experienced imprinted in the reader’s mind, a series of events which can be reconstructed by re-reading the book or simply perusing the pages. It is a particular moment in the midst of the Cold War, a specific mindset of humanity, but not necessarily a specific time and place. Whether that be in the 60s, 80s or any time in the past or future, the way the story is told makes it an experience of the Now, the present.
In fact the Gregorian calendar used in our daily lives is rather arbitrary and based on solar cycles, therefore much more masculine in spiritual terms . In contrast with for instance the Chinese, Mayan, Hebrew, Hindu or Muslim calendars, the Gregorian calendar has no immediate relation to the natural cycles of the moon. So in general, specific dates and numbers within esoteric or mystical circles are regarded as useless for magical or ritualistic purposes. Yet, still there is great significance given to certain dates, as happened with the approaching mass hysteria and doom scenarios before 2000.
So how will a 21st century reader view the beginning of the book, which starts in 1985? Will it feel too distant, too obsolete, too far removed from one’s own human experience? Fiction was never exclusively written by or for rational minds which would prefer to structure facts and events from A to B, from beginning to end with clear references to the most recent and familiar “reality”. Otherwise historical or science fiction writings would not be gobbled up by whole sections of the human population.
People read because they have a need for experience, for the discovery of eternal truth, the essence behind the complicated machinery that makes up our physical universe.
Imagination is not bound by time and place, fact or fiction. But it can certainly be influenced by these elements and vice versa.

This is a fiction, not a lie…
(Moore p 263, Voice of the Fire)

1985 is not really the 1985 that we as readers know, just as Orwell’s 1984 was more about 1948 and his dystopian vision of a society with no freedom of speech, language or even will. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is also science fiction, but the time indication is of a more abstract nature. In the same manner the 1985 that people in the former Soviet Union experienced is not the same 1985 that people in the West saw passing before their eyes and TV screens. When it came out in the cinemas, The Grapes of Wrath (Dir. John Ford, 1940) was seen in its American homeland as fiction (although of an early neo-realistic nature) while it was shown in the Soviet Union as an authentic documentary; heavy anti-propaganda to convince the Soviet citizens that they were better off than the poverty stricken American capitalist society. Cultural reality is often shaped by context and general knowledge.
In terms of epistemics and text worlds, the use of a specific date immediately prompts readers to access their own frame of reference. What do we know about 1985? What do we know about 1965? What if Nixon is still a powerful president in Alan Moore’s fictional piece of work in 1985, while the history books have a record of Watergate and we have that knowledge of him uttering his ignominious famous last words: “I am not a crook”. This creates a heightened sense of dramatic—or better said-- historic irony.
In Chapter IX, page 20, there is a conversational reference that the reporters Woodward and Bernstein are found dead in a garage. So in this alternative world the Watergate scandal was never exposed, most likely because these reporters (immortalised in the film adaptation of their book, All the President’s Men, directed by Alan J. Pakula) were assassinated in Moore’s alternative universe. History is written by conquerors and those who control the information that is presented in the media. History is after all a cultural artefact, constantly being rewritten to shape the public imagination. The masses are always one step behind the next “director’s cut ". But in the long run dystopian fictional works like Watchmen, 1984 and Brave New World (to name a few), remain powerful reminders of the dangers of mass control. Alan Moore also created another alternative world in V for Vendetta, an Orwellian story set in a fascist Britain:
I decided that if I wanted to write about this grim present, the best way to do it, was in the form of a story set in the future, which is by no means a new trend…Most dystopian science fiction is not actually about the future, it is about the times in which it was written.
(excerpt from the film: The Mindscape of Alan Moore)

Most of science fiction takes a “what if” hypothetical approach. What if Germany had won WWII, or what if the current Aids or Bird Fly pandemics destroy our societies, what if the current environmental problems deteriorate and we are left in a desert wasteland where water becomes the new currency. There is always an ominous hint or warning within a hypothesis of this nature. If set within a framework of recognisable events from our present reality, the involvement and concern of a reader with the story world is enhanced. Historical consensus is used to tap into the alternative parallel world as a new form of reality.
For example, years after I read Watchmen, I studied some psychological phenomena and discovered the concept of “the bystander effect” for which the text book example was an incident that occurred in 1964. Only then, as I recognised the name Genovese, I started to realise the true scope of experience that Alan Moore had been writing into Watchmen. Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed to death outside her own apartment block by a psychopath while at least thirty eight bystanders looked on from the surrounding flats without taking action. The “bystander effect” is the psychological phenomenon whereby the more human beings are present in a certain critical situation, the more they will wait for each other to take action.

Responsibility simply means the ability to respond. The flow of water within its space, The harmony between Form and Content
(Lao Winti)

And it is exactly this ability which is lacking in the massively populated urban areas, with only vigilantes as the exception. Before becoming Rorschach, Walter Kovacs had taken the dress (which was never collected by a customer with an Italian name in 1962) from the garment industry where he was employed. He had found the fabric fascinating, black and white shapes moving in an amorphous symmetry. Two years later he discovered her death on the front page of the newspapers and recalled that Kitty Genovese was the woman whose dress he’d cut to pieces and kept in a trunk. Kovacs considered this a sign of fate; a bitter reminder of what humanity was capable of. This incident was one of the main catalysts that made him into Rorschach, the fabric of the dress would become his trade mark mask.
This kind of reaction to traumatic events, whether on a personal or more social level is a quintessential part of the archetypal super hero’s genesis. Batman who sees his parents killed in front of his eyes, Spiderman whose failure to take responsibility results in the death of his uncle and so on. But in Watchmen, because it is an actual event which occurred in the timeline of our history, the effect is even greater and of more mythical proportions. 1964 actually is part of our human history, Kitty Genovese was a real woman and the bystanders who did nothing were real people. Therefore Rorschach could have been a “real” person, not just a comic book character. So although the whole text world in Watchmen is an alternative world with several sci-fi elements, Moore’s weaving of fact and fiction, of environment and character into a coherent story makes the suspension of disbelief easier for the narratee.
Again, a single incident is viewed as part of a larger chain of events.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that shortly after the publication of Watchmen, Chaos Theory became extremely popular and bookshops were filled with fractal posters and new studies of cause and effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in Japan and causes a storm in the Caribbean.
Despite the complexity of themes and leitmotifs, Watchmen is not a cold scientific analysis, but a profound study of the dynamics between human beings in general and on more social and intimate levels. Later discoveries of more “real” facts, events and references came as a great surprise, because I had never analysed Watchmen in terms of pop culture references and trivia, but this was another reminder that the complexity and relevance of social and psychological issues were far more intricate in this book which was ostensibly a super hero comic. It is clear Moore must have waded through a tremendous amount of research in the process, as is evident from the numerous details, essays, facts, events and references.
Although the 1985 in Watchmen is an alternative universe, it is one constructed around actual facts and events. There are only a few “what ifs” and these variables still haven’t changed the essence of human nature or politics. The utopia Adrian Veidt is aiming for is simply impossible, because greed and fear are not easily eradicated from human civilisation, as the last few thousand years have proven.
Moore also makes numerous references to antiquity, the power mongers of the classical world. Veidt uses the superhero nom de guerre Ozymandias, the Greek name for Ramses II; the Egyptian pharaoh under whose reign scores of people died to build pyramids and other monoliths of arrogant power; a man of flesh and blood immortalized in the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The aspirations of historical figures, whether from legend or fact, still echo into the modern world. Alexander the Great was after all in many ways a spoiled child, with no other ambitions than to conquer more land. Hubris seems to be inherent to human nature, the aspirations of Icarus to fly past the sun with feathers held together by wax, or the grand plans to build our Babylonian towers reaching to the heavens. Instead of using our power to maintain that which we have at our disposal, we relentlessly search for the “new”.
At present multi-billion dollar expeditions are launched to find water on Mars, while a fraction of those squandered sums could be utilised to develop more energy efficient industries to keep the pollution of the earth’s environment to a minimum. As the old saying goes “The fool is thirsty in the abundance of water.” Similarly in Watchmen, most of the characters do not even realise the value of their power or cannot see the beauty of their world and the dynamics between its inhabitants.
Veidt, known as “the smartest man in the world” has the Alexander the Great syndrome running through his veins and considers himself to be above all humanity. He has taken on the role of a demi-god, gaining power through financial means with the intention to use that power not only to control the lives of people, but to create his own vision of Utopia. A planet where all of humanity will live together in peace.
Rorschach on the other end of the spectrum, is roaming the gutters and fringes of society, operating on the level of animal survival which is far removed from Veidts marble tiled corridors of power. While he decides to take action and fight crime and filth on a micro-scale from his worm’s eye perspective, Veidt schemes in Machiavellian ways from the heights of his ivory tower in order to solve society’s problems on a macro-scale.
Of all the characters, Dr. Manhattan is the most powerful and omnipotent, the closest thing to a god humans could imagine. He controls matter to the smallest atom and experiences life on quantum levels in ways which humans cannot even measure with the existing technology. Yet the great paradox is that his own power limits his course of action. Because he experiences everything simultaneously, in past, present and future, he becomes impassive to the needs of humanity around him. There is nothing more to achieve, nothing new to explore, no compassion to share, no destiny to fulfil. To Dr. Manhattan everything is, was and always will be, so there seems no reason to act or intervene. Veidt’s extraordinary intellect also seems rather void of compassion, but he still has human ambitions and visions of grandeur. History does repeat itself and although Veidt tries to improve upon Alexander the Great’s goal to create a united civilisation, he fails just as his hero did more than two millennia before. Veidt goes one step further and goes for the ultimate form of hubris: to control the entire world’s human destiny, not just his own. Where Alexander the Great tried to achieve unison through conquest of lands and other civilisations, Veidt attempts to control the world and shape the events to come by controlling the perception and mindset of human beings. He achieves this through the manipulation of the mainstream media by spreading panic about Dr. Manhattan’s supposed radio-active presence and ultimately through the telepathic fear of his bio-engineered “alien” creature, which perhaps can be seen as an echo of H.P. Lovecraft’s Ctulhu, all primordial fears amplified to a point of overkill. The last chapter which reveals the massacre that is instrumental to his goal, is ironically called: A Stronger Loving World.
History is predominantly shaped by a whole chain of despots who believe that the end justifies the means. Within a few decades of the 20th century alone, there are a few top of the bill examples. From Mao Zedong to Hitler to Stalin, who is often quoted: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Although Veidt has travelled the far east and studied its philosophy and culture, he has taken on board only what seems fit to his Machiavellian nature. Taoists do not believe in attempts to control our life or surroundings, but in the natural flow of things. This does not mean we should remain passive, but that our actions should aim for balance and should remain as natural as breathing or eating, while acknowledging the diversity of live styles, ideas and cultures around us. Most tyrannical systems seek the opposite: uniformity, because it is easier to understand and control.
Chapter XI starts with Adrian Veidt’s reference to William Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Burroughs had developed this technique (in fact the original concept came from his friend, painter Brian Gysin), which simply entailed cutting up a text and placing words and sentences, paragraphs in random order to come to new meanings.

Cut-ups are seen as a way of duplicating drug states: non-linear, producing irrational or illogical material, they are a way of ‘deranging the senses’ in the Rimbaud sense, a concept that has interested Burroughs since the forties. They free the writer from the tyranny of grammar and syntax. They enable anyone to write poetry: ‘Anyone who owns a pair of scissors can be a poet.’ They are a way of discovering ‘terminal truth’, literally reading between the lines’. Cut-ups create new juxtapositions, breaking down ‘either/or’ logic and providing a way of thinking in association blocks. Cut-ups make explicit the actual phenomenon of writing and show it to the reader, revealing the psychological process of what was going on – literally a map of the writer’s consciousness, a true confessional.
(Miles p 131)

T.S. Elliot’s poem The Waste Land (published in 1922), is often regarded as a precursor of this technique, because of its modernistic approach and abrupt changes of narrator, setting and time, its vast range of references to various cultures and literary sources.
Burroughs has influenced many writers and artists, including Alan Moore and in many ways the whole of Watchmen can be viewed as a more organised and stylised way of executing this principle. In some respects it is reminiscent to Moore’s own theory of “under language” in comics where a combination of pictures and words creates new meanings. This is related to the way we can structure things either in a linear or nonlinear way inside our mind. When we are plunged into the world of fiction, time and dates become irrelevant. It is the pure essence of things we experience. Alan Moore has occasionally mentioned that his work should function like a drug and put the reader into a fugue state. In many ways, most of his fiction has a similar effect to psychedelic drugs (LSD, Psylocibin e.g.) which have the effect of warping time and opening the perception to a sort of hyper reality.
But Alan Moore’s work cannot be classified as strictly historical or metaphysical. His vision and interests often seem centered around the idea of a profound and intense mystical experience, an epiphany of sorts, very similar to the energy in William Blake’s work. He approaches the craft of writing as an act of magic, a ritual to subliminally weave this energy into the various genres and storylines of his comics. Authors who lean towards this approach are mostly occupied with the exploration of space in the broadest sense of the word, not just physical space as we know it from the common connotation. Like Michael Moorcock in books like King of the City, or William Burroughs in The Western Lands and other works, Alejandro Jodorowsky in his films and comics, many authors seek to explore the course of human history on different levels and in a more mythical and mystical context.
This can be compared to the kind of “associative writing”, where the reader almost experiences the story through a multi-channel mosaic, not unlike the mosaic of reality through which Adrian Veidt absorbs knowledge, forms his view on the world and devises his plot to achieve Utopia. In the film The Man Who Fell to Earth (Dir. Nicolas Roeg), David Bowie as an alien life form develops a similar fascination with televisions and studies the idiosyncrasies and nature of humanity through the kaleidoscope of TV screens.
In the modern world, we search and make up our own version of reality from the overwhelming amount of information which seeps through numerous sources and media. In many traditional forms of fiction, this has often been the main goal. The search for “Eternal Truth,” partly expressed in emotional truth. There are many levels of understanding beyond the ordinary senses or the rational and more linear streams of thought. In the whole programmed clockwork mechanism of rational and goal driven thought that has become so rigidly embedded in contemporary culture and consensus reality, Moore’s Watchmen is that upsetting grain of sand; a multi-faceted literary jewel.

This search for a metaphysical meaning beyond linguistics, beyond politics and characterisation is nothing new in fiction, but in Watchmen there is an incredibly perfect marriage between those often elusive extremes of Form and Content. Alan Moore’s grand script and Dave Gibbons clear-but-expressive style are alchemically fused into a detailed mosaic of visual and linguistic clues. It is very much in that tradition of the “metaphysical or literary detective” as encountered for example in the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges or the Rork comic series by the Bretagne based German artist-writer Andreas. Around the conception of From Hell in the early 1990s, Moore started to discover that the whole writing process for him really was an act of magic, the manipulation of consciousness through any medium he could lays his hands on. Moore’s own approach as an author is that of a historical detective, deciphering the smoke signals of civilisation through the passage of time, yet at the same time exploring the technical possibilities of storytelling (both form and content) in more depth.

Watchmen also grew out of the politically shadowy landscape of the 1980s, when the cold war was at probably at its hottest in 20 or 30 years, and when nuclear destruction suddenly seemed a very real possibility. Watchmen used the clichés of the superhero format to try and discuss notions of power, and responsibility in an increasingly complex world. We treated these fairly ridiculous superhuman characters as more human than super. We were using them as symbols of different kinds of ordinary human beings, rather than as different super beings. I think there were probably quite a few things about Watchmen that chimed well with the times, but to me perhaps the most important was the actual storytelling, where the world that was presented didn’t really hang together in terms of linear cause and effect. But was instead seen as some massively complex simultaneous event with connections made of coincidence, synchronicity and I think that it was this worldview, if anything, that resonated with an audience that had realised that their previous view of the world was not adequate for the complexities of this shadowy and scary new world that we were entering into. I think that Watchmen if it offered anything, offered new possibilities as to how we perceive the environment surrounding us and the interactions and relationships of the people within it.
(excerpt from the film: The Mindscape of Alan Moore)

Watchmen is in essence a study of power in the modern world. Various notions of power are analysed and how different characters, nations or individuals deal with them.
Power in general means the ability to do or act. There is of course the connotation of control over others or to make others do things, to manipulate. In other words, power has come to mean “authority” instead of energy. Dr Manhattan has perhaps the greatest power of all, but exactly because of this has no need to abuse that power. He is just a mass of energy, beyond the whims and desires of mortal human beings, very similar to that ideal of the Taoist sage. But beneath all the intricate plotting and philosophy, the elaborate and realistic characterisation conveys Alan Moore’s main vision as a compassionate author. There is a firm belief that every single human being has the power to control their own destiny and change the world with every form of action.
Twenty years later Watchmen is maybe even more relevant than it was in the Cold War period. We are now able to step back in some way and read the story from other perspectives. The current technological growth is almost frightening. Every so many months new and faster computer processors are available. Wars are started in the blink of an eye without international resolutions or political consensus. The world’s resources are depleted to fabricate consumer products and dreadful weapons which only a short while ago belonged to the realm of science fiction. The environment is under pressure from the growing human population. A quick glance at the newspapers and TV and it is clear that fear is still governing humanity and the global economy the world has become.
Everything is financially and geographically more connected than in previous centuries and yet the common threat of terrorism, crime, environmental issues and global pandemics are still not sufficient to deter humanity from waging wars. Therefore, Adrian Veidt’s vision of Utopia still rings naïve and does not take into the equation the simple element of human greed which is often stronger than that basic human fear which restrains violent urges . Greed is unfortunately a stronger and more prevailing driving force than the compassion for a larger community. Humanity is still preoccupied with the urge to own or control material objects, while there is still a general sense of hubris to search for those things beyond the immediate grasp. Because of the specific Cold War background, we are forced to look at the events in a certain political light, yet the book remains timeless as a complete experience of humanity’s sense of history and an appreciation for the miracles of life.
So at the heart of this incredibly dark narrative journey into the abyss, there is a sense of great compassion, a real concern from the author about the state of the world and how certain individuals take responsibility or power while the majority looks on.
Beneath it all, there is a moral conclusion: We simply cannot ignore actions of any kind in the present world we live in, because whether we view ourselves as a global society with a global economy or as human beings connected by each other in the spiritual space-time continuum of this universe, everything and everybody is connected.
Published in the 80s, with a story line starting in 1985 Watchmen remains a tremendously rich and polyvalent reading experience, with interpretations bifurcating into infinite possibilities, which is why the book continues to capture the imagination of millions of readers. Twenty years onwards, Watchmen has established itself as one of the greatest myths of the 20th century. In the end myths capture the essence of things beneath the surface and carry them forward to new generations. In an increasingly complex world filled with facts and statistics they are our only window to glimpse a part of that greater and purer sense of truth. Watchmen is in many respects an incredibly potent and lasting linguistic drug which still stirs the imagination of millions of readers.

Things does not mean only those things without sentience; it is said that man is a thing. The space between heaven and earth is the inn for the travelling back and forth of both men and things. In the end, there is no standing still for either men or things. The passing of time is like the unending passing of the traveller, and the gradual passing of spring, summer, fall and winter has not changed for a hundred generations. The body is like a dream. When we see this and awake, not a trace remains. How much time is left for the looking?
(Takuan Soho, 17th century Zen master)

Works Cited and Consulted

  • The Bhagavad Gita. Translated from the Sanskrit by Juan Mascaró.Penguin Books Ltd. London. Copyright, Juan Mascaro, 1962.
  • Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. Shambala Publications, Inc., 1975.
  • Christensen, William A. and Mark Seifert. “The Unexplored Medium.” Wizard 27 (1993).
  • Daalders, Martijn, ed. Stripjaar 1990. Amsterdam: Sherpa, 1990.
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