Watchmen is not a particularly political story.
While its central question of unchecked authority does concern the role of politicians and governments, it is really about all authority figures, from abusive or absent parents to a cold and distant God. To focus on the political angle misses most of the story.
Which is why I’m going to be disappointed (but not surprised) when I read the following headline some time next week:
REPUBLICANS CLAIM WATCHMEN A CALL FOR CONSERVATIVE HEROES IN AGE OF OBAMA.
I mean, I can make their argument for them: after a long period of conservative rule, a time fraught with international tension and economic depression, the beautiful, brilliant, and beloved Ozymandias quietly takes control of the world to bring about peace. Only Rorschach, the brave uncompromising hero, knows that the new peace is the result of deception and mass murder, and sets out to tell the world, even if it gets him killed. (Which it does.)
Now, replace Ozymandias with Obama and Rorschach with, I don’t know, Rush Limbaugh, and you have a fairly good picture of how conservatives see the world. Not that anyone is accusing Obama of killing three million people, but conservatives do argue that Obama basically tricked his way into the presidency with a meaningless slogan and public unrest in the wake of Katrina and the Iraq War, and that his hidden agenda will actually hurt America and world. And they argue that vigilant patriots have to expose Obama’s lies and oppose Obama at every turn. “No compromise,” as Rorschach says, “even in the face of Armageddon.”
But Watchmen never suggests this is actually the correct response. Yes, Ozymandias is a “liberal” Machiavelli, a vegetarian, Hunger-in-Africa fighting do-gooder who markets his public image while secretly killing innocent people left and right to get his way. But his “conservative” opponent, Rorschach, is also a murderer and no role model at all.
Rorschach is a paranoid homeless man, living off uncooked beans and sugar cubes. His brutally violent vigilantism isn’t about keeping people safe. It’s about acting out the revenge fantasies from his abusive childhood, hurting people to give himself some sense of justice. But it’s not enough, and the more he fights crime, the more he sees just how depraved humanity can be, and the more violent he gets. He has no solution on how to save the world; he knows only that Ozymandias’ method is not worth the cost.
And as bad as Rorschach is, the Comedian is worse. At least Rorschach has a philosophical belief system (a hardcore Objectivism that’s an homage/satire of Steve Ditko). The Comedian is an utter nihilist who rapes and murders his way through life because he’s certain nuclear annihilation is around the corner and nothing matters. And it is only the Comedian who is identified as a Republican, as Nixon’s right hand man in everything from combat in Vietnam to killing Woodward and Bernstein to cover up Watergate.
Which is not to say that Watchmen is liberal either. If anything, Watchmen is critical of everyone who claims to protect people by making decisions for them. Whether it’s Nite Owl, who fights crime to make himself feel powerful, or Silk Spectre, who wears a costume to rebel against and celebrate her mother, or Dr. Manhattan, who is so powerful he doesn’t even remember what it’s like to be human, there is no “hero” there who truly wants to make the world a better place.
Watchmen is not “liberal” or “conservative” so much as it is nihilistic. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons asked “Who watches the watchmen?” and answered “No one.”