Watchmen and The Odyssey on the Nature of Violence

 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

 

by Carter Dungate

July 2019
(UBC Arts One LA2, Prof. Brandon Konoval)

 

 

 

No one would deny that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Homer’s The Odyssey are vastly different works: with Watchmen being a graphic novel and The Odyssey being an epic poem composed nearly three thousand years ago, differences in genre and in historical or cultural context would be evident even without reading the works. It is striking, then, that two entirely different works have an almost identical message when it comes to the violent side of human nature. The portrayal of violence is a staple of both Ancient Greek epics as well as graphic novels; yet, while The Odyssey remains true to its genre and conventions around the portrayal of violence, Watchmen frequently subverts the excessive violence typical of superhero comics by avoiding the fanfare of onomatopoeia or explosive text boxes, instead choosing less ostentatious depictions of violence for most of the book. Nevertheless, when violence does erupt in both works, it is used to show the human side of the characters, exposing their strengths, weaknesses and the darkest aspects of their nature. All the characters of Watchmen, with the exception of Doctor Manhattan, suffer from human limitations, and how they utilize and react to violence reflects this humanity. Odysseus must react to trying circumstances in a similar fashion, relying not on any superhuman quality, but instead on his wit and survival instincts. The similarities and differences between Watchmen and The Odyssey explore how humans use violence, and the harsh reality of our violent nature: the characters are meant to be human, truly human, with all the limitations of a normal human being, and the way in which the reader can identify this humanity is through their exposure to violence.

The superheroes depicted in Watchmen do not possess any extraordinary physical capabilities, save for Doctor Manhattan, which gives their limited violent encounters a much more human capacity. This theme of humanized violence is set right at the beginning of the book, with the montage of The Comedian being killed, from the gritty introduction where the reader sees his blood being hosed off the sidewalk, to the red-tinted panels of The Comedian getting beaten to a pulp in his bathrobe, and finally, after looking well and truly hopeless, being thrown out the window to his death (Moore and Gibbons I. 2–4). The reader’s immediate realization that superheroes bleed, and can be killed just as easily and messily as anyone else, sets the tone of the human weakness of the heroes and the realistic nature of violence for the rest of the book. It forces the characters to fight dirtily, something taboo for most superheroes or any conventional, modern literary hero for that matter. This can be seen when Silk Spectre punches a would-be mugger below the belt (Moore and Gibbons III. 13. 6), when Rorschach bites another kid’s face as a young boy (Moore and Gibbons VI. 7. 6), when he breaks an innocent man’s finger for information (Moore and Gibbons I. 16. 3), and many more of his violent encounters. The violence in Watchmen has a realistic nature to it uncommon in other graphic novels: here, most of the characters are forced to resort to this type of fighting because they do not have super powers, bleeding just as easily as anyone else.
While this type of fighting is not considered to be typically heroic behavior, it is similar in nature to one of the most famous ancient Greek heroes of all time, Odysseus. The titular character of Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, Odysseus often uses planning and deception to achieve his goals, such as when he confronts the Cyclops:

Here was the plan that struck my mind as best […] the Cyclops’ great club […] I chopped off a fathoms length, rolled it to comrades, told them to plane it down, and they made the club smooth as I bent shaved the tip to a stabbing point […] I ordered my shipmates all to cast lots— who’d brave it out with me to hoist our stake and grind it into his eye when sleep had overcame him? Luck of the draw (Homer 9.356–374).

 

The language Homer uses in this passage mirrors the visual stimulus of the violence in Watchmen. The description of Odysseus hoisting the stake and grinding it into the Cyclops’ eye conjures up an almost identical mental image to the depiction of Rorschach grinding a lit cigarette into the eye of a bully as a child (Moore and Gibbons VI. 7. 4). Similarly to Rorschach, Odysseus knows he cannot beat the Cyclops mano a mano, and therefore must use his intellect and unusual tactics to defeat his opponent. He sacrifices the ideals of a traditional hero who would beat the enemy by pure skill or strength and instead focuses on his own survival by any means necessary. This effect is seen again when he returns to Ithaca and murders Penelope’s suitors through trickery and deception:

It is in this moment, more than any other, that the depth of Odysseus’ humanity is revealed. His heroic prowess, his skill as a warrior and as master of wiles and stratagems is only part of the wisdom that has enabled him to regain his home and his kingship: it is as though his manhood has been confirmed and deepened by his experience of thoroughly inglorious degradation (Fowler 88).

 

Odysseus is not concerned with glory or appearing heroic; he just wants to reclaim his home, and will sacrifice his image as a conventional hero to do so. This echoes the very similar approach that Rorschach has to fighting crime: both characters are willing to do anything to achieve their goals, including sacrificing any image of heroic morality. This effectively humanizes the characters, particularly in comparison to other classic Greek heroes such as Hercules, who is able to strangle a lion with his bare hands, and other comic book superheroes like Superman or Batman, who are often equally as overpowered.

Doctor Manhattan offers an interesting change of perspective from the other characters of Watchmen. Whereas all the other crime-fighters are subject to human limitations, Doctor Manhattan stands out as the only one with true superpowers, powers that are seemingly unlimited—the ability to disintegrate people, precognition, teleportation and replication; in short, he seems to be able to manipulate atoms and, consequently, can control almost anything. This omnipotent and seemingly omniscient aspect of his character gives him the image of a god-like figure, which is consciously developed by his visual depiction in the graphic novel. The biblical imagery used when depicting Doctor Manhattan is ubiquitous, from his introduction to the reader resembling Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (Moore and Gibbons I. 28. 1), to his origin story with his Jesus-like reincarnation (Moore and Gibbons III. 10. 4) and the image of him walking on water (Moore and Gibbons XII. 25. 6). With so much power, one would expect Doctor Manhattan to be involved in crime fighting and peacekeeping, yet these are concepts he does not seem to understand. There is clearly an internal struggle between Jonathan Osterman, the man he used to be, and this new being known as Doctor Manhattan. Right after his transition from Osterman to Doctor Manhattan, he still participates in crime fighting, partially because the government compels him to, and partially out of a seeming desire to do good. Yet, as he murders the crime bosses and villains of New York City, he states that “the morality of my activities escapes me” (Moore and Gibbons III. 14. 2). As Doctor Manhattan loses the perspective of his human past he becomes amoral, finding it hard to distinguish between what he used to consider morally good and bad. The turning point in Doctor Manhattan’s internal conflict comes when he witnesses The Comedian kill his own pregnant girlfriend in Vietnam. While Doctor Manhattan urges The Comedian to stop, he ultimately does not intervene in any meaningful way. Even though Doctor Manhattan’s immediate response is disapproval, The Comedian exposes the absurdity of his situation:

Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. Pregnant woman. Gunned her down. Bang. And you know what? You watched me. You coulda changed the gun into steam or the bullets into mercury or the bottle into snowflakes! You coulda teleported either one of us to goddamn Australia… But you didn’t lift a finger! You really don’t give a damn about human beings. I’ve watched you […] You’re drifting outta touch Doc. You’re turnin’ into a flake. God help us all (Moore and Gibbons II. 15. 3–6).

 

The Comedian argues that Doctor Manhattan’s inaction constitutes complicity in some measure, and the evidence that Doctor Manhattan is “drifting” out of touch of human morals can be seen in his reaction to violence. Slowly but steadily, Doctor Manhattan becomes indifferent to violence and its horrible repercussions. Whereas the other characters in Watchmen and The Odyssey show their humanity through their use of violence and their physical limitations, Doctor Manhattan shows his loss of humanity by his growing indifference towards violence. While Odysseus shares Rorschach’s pragmatic and gritty approach to violence, and The Comedian’s disregard for human suffering, Doctor Manhattan’s indifference to violence is unique to his character. His apathetic reaction to violence and suffering stems from his superhuman abilities. Unlike every other character mentioned, Doctor Manhattan is able to see the future; however, he is also able to see his own reaction to future events, resulting in his belief that no matter what he does, the future is predetermined. While every other character experiences human limitations, it is Doctor Manhattan’s superhuman powers are the source of his loss of humanity. As he mentions upon hearing news of The Comedian’s death: “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?” (Moore and Gibbons I. 21. 3). Doctor Manhattan’s beliefs on death are clearly displayed later when the reader sees his reaction to The Comedian’s funeral and the body of the Vietnamese woman in side-by-side panels (Moore and Gibbons II. 15. 7–8), where he observes The Comedian’s casket and Vietnamese woman’s body with the same despondent curiosity. From his perspective they are the same thing, and the end result of violence is just an unquantifiable arrangement of particles.

Homer’s depiction of violence in The Odyssey frequently surpasses Watchmen’s often surprisingly undramatic violence. Even though in Watchmen the reader physically sees The Comedian fall to his death, the gruesome details of Rorschach’s encounters with villains and the death-toll of Ozymandias’ plan, the language of Homer’s The Odyssey often paints a much more brutal and violent scene for the reader:

So we seized our stake with its fiery tip and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye till blood came boiling up around that smoking shaft and the hot blast singed his brow and eyelids round the core and the boiling eyebrow burst— its crackling roots blazed and hissed (Homer 9.434–437).

 

Simply imagining the violence and pain of this torture is enough to make even the most stoic of readers cringe. Whereas the violence in Watchmen is purely visual, lacking any sound effects or visually dynamic cues for most of the fights, The Odyssey gives the reader all the visual and auditory detail; the reader can even imagine the heat of the boiling eyeball. How, then, if this is merely a poem and Watchmen is a graphic novel, does this encounter seems so much more graphically violent than even the most gruesome moments in Watchmen? It boils down to the medium in which each piece is written. As a graphic novel, the violence within the pages of Watchmen is a balance between language and art, often relying much more heavily on the latter in key moments, as can be seen by Moore and Gibbon’s decision not to include any onomatopoeia, as well as the many violent passages that occur without any use of language at all, such as the destruction of New York City (Moore and Gibbons XII. 1–6) and the attack on Ozymandias (Moore and Gibbons V. 14–15). The Odyssey, on the other hand, is an epic poem, one that was originally recited and performed before it was ever written down. Therefore, the performer reciting The Odyssey would be creating an imagined spectacle for listeners, one as colorful and descriptive as possible in order to capture the attention of the audience, making the performance in effect an imaginary graphic epic. When using this technique, the violence becomes part of the spectacle: the most exciting moments of the Odyssey are moments of violence, and the poetic language only further captivates the audience and adds to the spectacle of Odysseus’ journey.

The distinctive representation of violence between The Odyssey and Watchmen does not last forever. After watching the characters defeat minor villains throughout the story, the reader finally witnesses Ozymandias’ plan for world peace, which involves killing half of New York City. For six horrifying pages the reader is subject to nothing other than the raw violence of this attack (Moore and Gibbons XII. 1–6). These page-long panels are filled with Ozymandias’ alien creation towering over the dead, bloodied background characters that the reader grew to know over the course of the book. This marks an abrupt shift from the established trend of relatively discrete violence: it shocks readers, and they are able to truly appreciate the horrifying scale of this violence, unlike anything else in the book. Adding to this shock is the abrupt change of format from the regular nine-panel layout used throughout the book, “which has become the norm and has acted as a kind of visual rhythm that structures the reading” (Cortsen 405). The jarring change in visual tempo, along with the horrifying imagery of the pure violence unlike anything else in the book, forces the reader to slow their pace to observe all the details of such an impactful moment. By making the reader consume all this visual destruction and violence, the reader gets a true sense of the devastating toll of Ozymandias’ plan and is able to contemplate and question the moral validity of this action with much more emotional attachment than before. Would the effect on the reader be the same if Nite Owl and Rorschach were racking up body counts by the dozens every chapter? It would be a completely different book, and, at the very least, a much less impactful ending.

The ending of The Odyssey is the perfect counter-study of this effect. Throughout The Odyssey, the reader encounters fantastically unimaginable acts of violence. Odysseus sees most of his crew killed and eaten by a Cyclops and various other monsters before the remaining survivors are killed by Zeus. With so much violence surrounding Odysseus at every step of the journey, it is no surprise at the end of the book when he comes home and murders Penelope’s suitors. “Snatching up with one powerful hand a sword left on the ground […] Odysseus hacked the prophet square across the neck and the praying head went tumbling in the dust” (Homer 22.342–345). The description of Odysseus murdering a suitor is not nearly as colorfully worded as his encounter with the Cyclops. This violence is not shocking to the reader nor is it, since none of the suitors are armed, very suspenseful either: it is merely the expected response of Odysseus returning home. Whereas the violent climax in Watchmen is emotional and striking, the similar point in The Odyssey is just the murderous rampage of an extraordinarily capable man against opponents unable to defend themselves. In this moment, Odysseus’ indifference reads very similarly to the reckless violence of The Comedian; however, the power he ultimately wields against his unarmed opponents is more like the capabilities of Doctor Manhattan.

While each work is unique in its representation of violence, one area where both books come together is in their collective perception of violence being an innately human instinct. Odysseus is returning from war, and even though the fighting is over, violence is a constant throughout his story. The violence continues all the way until the end of The Odyssey, when the goddess Athena must appeal to the men allied with Eupeithes trying to exact revenge against Odysseus for killing their loved ones. “Hold back, you men of Ithaca, back from brutal war! Break off—shed no more blood—make peace at once” (Homer 24.585–586). She has a similar message for Odysseus: “Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, master of exploits, hold back now! Call a halt to the great leveler, War—don’t court the rage of Zeus who rules the world!” (Homer 24.596–598). Violence is so prevalent in the society of Ithaca that it literally takes an act of god to prevent them from descending into war. Ozymandias holds a similar perspective to Athena, as he watches the world inch toward nuclear holocaust, the doomsday clock ticking closer and closer to midnight, while he contemplates the absurd nature of the situation: “Both sides realized the suicidal implications of nuclear conflict, yet couldn’t stop racing towards it lest their opponents should overtake them. Afraid of their weapons, afraid of losing them, afraid to blink or turn their backs” (Moore and Gibbons XII. 21.4). Whereas Doctor Manhattan occupies the role of an disengaged god and is mostly indifferent to human violence, Ozymandias’ sole ostensible mission is to bring about world peace. However, unlike Athena’s peaceful resolution, Ozymandias decides it will take a destructive event so powerful and cataclysmic that it forces both sides to halt tensions and unite against an even more powerful enemy. Ozymandias explains his plan as “a plot to put an end to war…. An end to fighting” (Moore and Gibbons XII. 24.7). So, he kills half of New York City with technology derived from Doctor Manhattan, in effect combining the two deity figures into one will. In The Odyssey, Eupeithes and his men are propelled to retaliate against Odysseus due to their honor and thirst for revenge; in Watchmen, the Americans and the Soviets are on the brink of a nuclear war, which both know would mean mutually assured destruction, yet they are too afraid of the possible consequences of one side becoming more powerful than the other to stop. The idea that both The Odyssey and Watchmen require a sort of divine intervention, however distinctive in form, to stop unthinkable violence reflects an intrinsic characteristic of human nature. The two works, composed thousands of years apart from one another, have the same message: violence can be easily set in motion but can swiftly become uncontrollable and require superhuman involvement to stop. In other words, it is beyond human capacity to stop violence.

The more humanizing approach to violence in Watchmen and The Odyssey is mostly seen as a bizarrely good thing, affirming the characters’ humanity, showing their adaptability and making them more relatable; but both works also use violence to shed light on the worst aspects of human nature. Both books center around characters that use violence as part of their profession: for Odysseus as a soldier and ruler, and the Watchmen as vigilante crime fighters, violence is just part of their job, a job that is supposed to be morally good, or at least for the purpose of protecting others. It is concerning, then, when these characters use violence in a perverse and deranged fashion, due to their passions. The most stark example of this is in Watchmen when the Comedian sexually assaults Sally Jupiter. When Sally goes into another room to change out of her costume, the Comedian interrupts her and, despite her constant protest, tries to coerce her into having sex. When the situation finally escalates into violence, there is nothing heroic about The Comedian punching a disheveled Sally, now partially undressed; nor does it feel particularly heroic as Sally scratches the Comedian’s face in an attempt to escape. It is worthwhile noting that both characters are out of their costume, Sally completely so as she has stripped down to her underwear, and the Comedian only partially, with his pants unbuckled: by stripping them of their heroic costumes, Moore and Gibbons expose the human side of the characters in a quite literal sense and, as a result, the overwhelming emotion of the scene is one of pure struggle and vicious brutality. This feeling is reinforced visually by a gorilla head mounted on the wall behind The Comedian, which gives the passage an animalistic tension (Moore and Gibbons II. 6. 6). Even when Hooded Justice intervenes and attacks The Comedian, his use of violence is just as awkward and unglamorous as he breaks The Comedian’s nose and assaults him while his pants are still half down (Moore and Gibbons II. 7. 4–5). The violence in this scene feels awkward, brutal and vicious; just about the farthest removed one can get from the acrobatic and synchronized attacks of conventional heroes like Spiderman and Batman. This use of violence exposes the worst aspects of the characters and, in particular, the worst aspects of their humanity.

The Odyssey explores the darker side of humanity’s violent tendencies in a similar fashion. This can be seen when Odysseus outsmarts Circe and does not succumb to her poisoning attempt: “I drew my sharp sword sheathed at my hip and rushed her fast as if to run her through— She screamed, slid under my blade, hugged my knees with a flood of warm tears and a burst of winging words. […] Come, sheathe your sword, let’s go to bed together” (Homer 10.357–370). There is a distinctly improvisational tone to these words. Clearly, Circe is just concerned with her own self-preservation and will say anything to stop Odysseus from killing her. The power imbalance is shockingly obvious in this passage with Odysseus’ source of power being his sword, a weapon with which he threatened to kill her, and Circe literally on her knees beneath him. This is almost exactly the same imagery, both in tone and description, as The Comedian’s assault on Sally. Like The Comedian, Odysseus is disturbingly comfortable with power imbalance and uses the threat of violence to coerce Circe into having sex. This perverse use of violence returns once more at the end of the book, when Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, plot the execution of the maids. “Hack [the women] with your swords, slash out their lives—blot out of their minds the joys of love they relished under the suitors’ bodies, rutting on the sly” (Homer 22.467–470). Odysseus and Telemachus react passionately to the alleged crime the maids committed. Their overaction is more vindictive and brutal than even the murder of the suitors, for the death of the maids must be put on display, a spectacle for the world to see. As Telemachus puts it:

‘No clean death for the likes of them, by god! Not from me—they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too! You sluts—the suitors’ whores!’ With that, taking a cable used on a dark-prowed ship he coiled it over the roundhouse, lashed it fast to a tall column, hoisting it up so high no toes could touch the ground […] so the women’s heads were trapped in a line, nooses yanking their necks up, one by one so all might die a pitiful, ghastly death…. [T]hey kicked up their heels for a little—not for long (Homer 22.487–499).

 

The horrific punishment of the maids is the particularly brutal and humiliating way in which they die. It is Odysseus’s indifference to the suffering of the maids especially that is the most concerning: Odysseus feels morally righteous in his actions, and has no qualms over the gruesome torture and death of the maids. Whereas Doctor Manhattan is ambivalent to both violence and suffering, seeing no purpose in either, Odysseus’ perspective on violence draws comparisons to Rorschach and The Comedian, both of whom felt that their use of violence was justified due to the social climate in which they lived. The idea that suffering is subjective, and dependent on the current situation in the eyes of characters from both works, offers a disturbing insight into humanity’s relationship with violence.

Violence plays an essential role in both Watchmen and The Odyssey. It inspires excitement and drives the plot forward, but also displays the most intimate aspects of the characters’ morality.  The stylized violence present in each work is at times in sharp contrast with one another: Watchmen uses a more casual and less dramatic approach to violence until its climax, whereas The Odyssey represents violence with consistently forceful detail throughout the work. The way in which the characters execute violent acts shows an intimately human side of the characters, in that they are forced to fight by any means necessary, and don’t rely on superhuman strength or skill; but it also exposes the darkest and most vicious aspects of the human psyche. The need for divine intervention to halt the progression of violence reveals how swiftly violence, or the threat thereof, can cause society to deteriorate and break humans down to their most basic instincts. That is the most frightening aspect of the books. Two entirely different works, composed in radically different cultures and epochs, hold up a mirror to humanity and communicate the same point: that violence will always be a part of us, that no matter how hard we try to set back the Doomsday Clock, human nature and our tendency toward violence will just keep pushing it towards midnight. As Doctor Manhattan says: “Nothing ever ends” (Moore and Gibbons XII. 27. 5).

 

 

 

Works Cited

Cortsen, Rikke Platz. “Full page insight: The Apocalyptic Moment in Comics Written by Alan Moore,” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 5.4 (2014): 397–410.

Fowler, Robert, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Homer. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1996.

Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. DC Comics, 2014.