Eyes are everywhere in the comic series Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. From the eyes of every character to the pupil-like circles of clocks and “fallout shelter” signs, figures of vision can be found throughout. The very cover of the publication depicts a minimalist eye of the iconic happy face, expressionless and abstract, anonymous as a civilian, watched by the outside world and watching it back. The series plays on the reversible identities of the watched and the watchers. Littered in the background, on walls and scrap paper behind supposed heroes who keep watch over humanity, the question “Who watches the watchmen?” can be seen in almost every chapter, and raises more questions. What is the responsibility of the intellectual and power elite of this world, as represented by Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias? When the most informed and powerful are the very ones who exert ultimate control and surveillance, are the watchers only accountable to themselves?
Among the masked figures populating Watchmen, Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan stand apart as the most powerful and superhuman, the true watchmen. Among the heroes, only they incorporate the semblance of an eye into their costume: Ozymandias on his collar, Manhattan on his forehead. From their first meeting, they are disinterested in the other vigilantes, and see only each other as peers. Lacking godlike abilities, the other heroes only clothe toned bodies and human ideals in spandex. Doctor Manhattan is beyond human. His abilities result from his accident in nuclear experimentation, giving him almost infinite control over physical matter and vision of the future. Ozymandias, lacking in Manhattan’s physical abilities, builds his own power upon information and intelligence, with an intellect great enough to rival even Manhattan’s foreknowledge. Believed to be the most intelligent man on earth, he establishes his corporate empire to operate all of New York from behind the scenes; some manifestation of his business lurks in the background of almost every panel. In an interview with Guy Lawley and Steve Whittaker a few years before the creation of Watchmen, Alan Moore mentioned that “I’d like to explore this idea at DC—what Superman has done to the Earth by his very presence. No matter how hard people struggled, no matter what advances they made, what personal bests they achieved, they’d be nothing compared to Superman or Marvelman.” (Moore and Berlatsky, 45) Moore plays out this idea in Watchmen through the characters of Manhattan and Ozymandias. When Hollis Mason, once upon a time a masked hero known as Nite Owl, retires when the presence of Manhattan means he is no longer needed, even his desire to repair cars in his retirement is overpowered by a new force—Manhattan can effortlessly produce new vehicles powered by electricity. Ozymandias’ final act of bringing enemies together by presenting a larger enemy supposedly saves humanity, and puts petty violence and catching individual criminals to shame. By their very existence, Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan render the struggles of past heroes and other humans obsolete. With more than two eyes, the most powerful figures in the comic epitomize watchmen—omnipotent, unchallengeable, gods among men.
Who then watches the watchmen? One facet of this question is related to surveillance and information: who can know about what the most intelligent know? The comics depict a dizzying amount of information. Ozymandias’ wall of television screens gives a heady impression of information overload, a gluttony of data. When asked by his servants of how many screens he needs to monitor, he replies:
“All of them. Random channel change every hundred seconds. …I need information. Information in its most concentrated form.”
“Ha ha! Sir, do you not fear that you might become drunk upon so concentrated a draft of knowledge?”
“Ha ha ha. No, I don’t think so. Indeed, it is the most sobering position that I know.” (X.7.6-7)
Ozymandias hordes information and expertise. Along with his wall of televisions, he collects prominent intellectuals, artists, and scientists, and his actions have almost unlimited potential. Mirroring Ozymandias’ extensive, superhuman knowledge, Doctor Manhattan sees just as much but in a different way in being able view all time as the present. His foresight sets him apart from the rest of humanity that acts in blindness to the great divide between present and future. Jon’s foreknowledge causes him gradually but steadily to distance himself from humanity as his apathy grows from a sense of inevitability. The effects of their immense knowledge can be seen, but what about its content? What does Ozymandias see in his screens, or Manhattan see in the future? Who can know what the most informed know? Who can see what the watchmen see?
Within their world, the knowledge of the most intelligent and informed can only be known in part by other heroes, or by themselves. No doubt the masses see Doctor Manhattan’s abilities to predict, and Ozymandias’ reputation of high intellect is no secret, but the people play no part in this privileged information. The government of the United States plays a shadowy background role, easily disregarded when heroes have powers like those of Ozymandias and Manhattan. Other heroes know more of their knowledge, but nothing beyond what the two choose to reveal. Fellow masked vigilante Laurie sees what Manhattan sees in the future only when he tells her. She, Rorschach, and the second Nite Owl, all superheroes without much superhuman ability, know as much of Ozymandias’ knowledge as he explains. The only people capable of knowing what the most informed know are themselves, an answer already implied in the question. To know what the the most knowledgeable know is inherently a paradox, impossible within the world of Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan. However, there are other eyes that can see all, that can know all: those of the reader. Beyond the realm of the story, the eyes of the readers see everything in the infinite present of Manhattan. If they flip to the last page they can predict the future, yet at any point, the page that lies open is the “now”. The readers know the information given by Ozymandias’ screens—they are acquainted with the advertisements, talk shows, and news reels in the context of the world in the 1980s. On just one occasion in the whole series, a fictional character acknowledges this external presence. Right as Ozymandias unleashes the horror of all horrors and the salvation of humanity, he turns and looks. (XI.5.6) As he gazes through the fourth wall, what does he see but the ever-present, unseen witness, the reader who has watched him throughout?
The question of watchers of the watchmen touches on more than knowledge; it alludes to the concept of power. Who can control the decisions and actions of those in power? Both Ozymandias and Manhattan are pivotal characters who hold immense power to influence their world. Doctor Manhattan acts in the open—under the service of the American government, he helps win the Vietnam war and is a major deterrent against Soviet aggression. His foreknowledge, however, paralyzes him and prevents him from taking independent action, and despite his superhuman powers, he is no more powerful than the average person under the constraints of fate. As he explains to Laurie in their conversation on Mars, “We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.” (IX.5.4) Never once does he question the strings or challenge them. He accepts fate and acts it out with cold detachment. In this aspect, Ozymandias stands opposed. Rather than being paralyzed by information, he uses it as fuel for his monumental actions; his doings can be felt throughout the book. His company logos are ever present in the background, from perfume to posters to delivery service. Moreover, he serves as the pivotal plot point in the comic when he orchestrates a fake alien apocalypse and destroys half of Manhattan, killing millions to save billions and averting the danger of nuclear war. After destroying the city in secret, no doubt he will become its hero by rebuilding it, reaping public admiration and praise, making plenty of profit along the way. Wielding tremendous power, Manhattan and Ozymandias differ in their actions: one attempts nothing, one overreaches for everything. But who can control these choices and actions of the most powerful?
Within the pages of the comic, only those in control can control themselves. The other heroes find out about Ozymandias’ plan by accident when they seek to discover the murderer of masked people. When they do discover his plan they are helpless to stop it—it has already happened. The Keene Act, government legislation outlawing vigilante activity, has no power to deter Manhattan from leaving Earth or Ozymandias from destroying it. The government and the rest of the world do not even know how much Ozymandias is responsible for. In this situation, only the powerful can control their own actions, and responsibility to the will of common people is impossible to uphold. Only Ozymandias himself can choose whether to use his knowledge and power to steer the fate of humanity and execute his plan. When all is done, he asks Manhattan, “I did the right thing, didn’t I? it all worked out in the end.” To which Manhattan replies, “‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” (XII.27.4-5) He does not solve the world’s problems—enmity continues, newspaper editors are still racist, conflict has just been submerged into a new form. Manhattan’s tremendous powers and decision to abandon Earth’s problems likewise can only be controlled by himself, if they can be controlled at all. Whether he is responsible for the well-being of humanity is a question only he can answer, and he decides to respond with “no”. Whether this answer was the correct one, other heroes cannot say. Ozymandias’s and Manhattan’s actions cannot be controlled by anyone other than themselves, and such a situation leaves the world in a precarious state. Yet outside their world, there is another controlling influence. Perhaps when Jon feels it is futile to struggle against fate, he senses another force against which he is powerless to combat: the author’s pen. Beyond the world within the pages, Moore and Gibbons are a presence that can control the most powerful, an omnipotent force that directs all action and all choice.
“Who watches the watchmen?” The question is never stated in open dialogue. Glimpses of this question are always shadowy, obscured, scratched and graffitied onto the backdrop of heroes acting out stories in the foreground. Few think to question the knowledgeable and powerful who have the ability to project an image of responsibility and good intentions. But who really watches the watchmen? Though the answer to this question is unpleasant, it is necessary to ask. The civilians, the vast majority of people in the world of the watchmen are powerless to influence colossal events, ignorant of their powerlessness, and ignorant of their ignorance. To ask the question is to begin to seek out and challenge the unseen titans who orchestrate the world. Watchmen acts as a parallel universe, a mirror to our world. In witnessing fictional ignorance and powerlessness of the masses, one sees the potential of ignorance and powerlessness in reality. Individual realization may ignite new efforts. The responsibility implied in the question of who can watch the watchmen begins with the common person holding herself responsible for questioning and understanding the situation of her world, and seeking to find her influence within it.
Who watches the watchmen? The question is heavy with implications. It echoes throughout the comic series and resonates with the reality of the political context during its time of publication. In an article that situates Watchmen within political reality, Paul Youngquist states:
As Moore and Gibbons themselves note, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” (from Juvenal’s Satires), appears as an epigraph in The Tower Commission Report: specifically to “Appendix B,” which bears the title “The Iran/Contra Affair: A Narrative.” Appendix B provides the canonical account of the Regan administration’s great political debacle. It covers a historical period that closely parallels Watchmen’s. And it too advances an alternative history to everyday life in the mid-eighties, the hidden history of the Iran/Contra affair. …Both [stories] identify the true source of national security under such circumstances with a band of vigilantes. That one consists of erstwhile caped crusaders and the other of national security advisors might be little more than a matter of emphasis. (Youngquist)
Multiple references in the series draw parallels between the caped, fictitious watchmen and the ones in real life. When Manhattan meets Kennedy, in pleasant banter the president “asks what it’s like being a superhero. I tell him he should know, and he nods, laughing…” (IV.14.3) Not only do the superheroes mirror the political figures, they mirror complex situations in reality. Manhattan’s foreknowledge and paralysis mimics cold war nuclear stalemate. Ozymandias’ deliberate apocalypse echoes the paradox of peace through war. Those real life decisions, the watchmen behind the Cold War and others that know and control today – have they failed in their responsibilities? Few can tell, unless above us, too, there is another author.
“Who watches the watchmen” questions the responsibility of the intellectual and power elite through the figures of Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias. When surveillance and control of the informed and powerful elites comes only from themselves, they only rely on their own self knowledge and self control for accountability. The watchmen watch one another and watch themselves. When the novel is closed, the cartoon eyes have nowhere to look but at each other, in a claustrophobic world populated only by themselves, regulated only by themselves. When the book opens, myriads of eyes peer out of the pages to be met by the gazes of countless readers. The eyes of the author and artist guided their creation of characters, and enabled the drawing of the colossal eye on the cover. Surrounded by hazard-sign yellow, the unblinking pupil peers ever outward, questioning, watching.
Moore, Alan, and Eric L. Berlatsky. Alan Moore: Conversations. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2012. Print.
Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics. 1987-1988.
Youngquist, Paul. “Stats of Exception: Watchmen and Nixon’s NSC.” Postmodern Culture 23.2 (2013). Web.