Heroes and Heroism in Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen

Photo via Max Pixel

By Trinity Lu


We wanted all of these very ordinary human beings, who sometimes speak sensibly, but most often don’t, who sometimes know what they’re doing, but most often don’t, to have a place in this vast organic mechanism we call the world. -Alan Moore, 1988

Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and coloured by John Higgins, Watchmen is one of the most influential modern superhero comics. Watchmen followed in the wake of serious and widely acclaimed comics like Maus by Art Spiegelman, exploring darker themes than previous comics of the Gold and Silver Ages. Moore and Gibbons bring into being a world where real, costumed superheroes emerged in the United States of America, then were rendered obsolete by the arrival of a man with the powers of a god, changing the course of the future forever. The story is set in the 1980s, in the United States, where the Cold War rages on uneasily, Richard Nixon is still president, and the city of New York is filled with aging, deeply troubled, and mostly retired superheroes, now illegal vigilantes. There remains one active vigilante: Rorschach. Living in the impoverished bowels of the city, his strong personal values and black-and-white morality are the only things that keep him going as he violently subdues and even murders anyone he deems a criminal. Meanwhile, Doctor Manhattan, the living god, is a superpowered being feeling increasingly out of touch with humanity and beginning to turn away from it. Finally, Adrian Veidt, formerly known as the hero Ozymandias—is possibly the smartest man in the world. Veidt is a millionaire and celebrity who is known to the public for, amongst other things, charging stations for electric cars and a line of action figures in his own likeness. He is also the idealistic, arrogant antagonist and anti-hero of the story, wiping out half of the citizens of New York to further his cause of world peace. In Watchmen, there are no heroes. The ostensible superheroes are merely people in costumes, as human and terrible as the rest of us. The real superman is unsure if he still identifies with the human race. These “heroes” are lost in the scale of action that their causes and methods necessitate. Instead, heroism lies in the gray spaces of morality, where people make conscious choices not to hurt each other and do their best to survive together despite a hostile, unforgiving world.

Rorschach is positioned as a possible hero, but he ultimately falls short of the role. In the beginning of the novel, he is the first major character to make an appearance, both unmasked and masked. From the perspective of the reader, who, in the opening, might initially assume that the comic is a more conventional noir-thriller murder mystery, Rorschach can be understood as the detective, the hero of the story who will bring the murderer to justice. This impression is almost immediately dismantled as the reader continues, and it becomes clear that his behaviour is erratic at best and he is extremely violent, as seen when he breaks a man’s fingers one by one in an attempt to gain insight into the identity of the murderer. Despite this, it also becomes clear that he possesses certain admirable traits, and these persist throughout the novel. He is active and proactive: he takes it upon himself to warn all of the other superheroes of the Comedian’s demise, despite his personal dislike of some of them, and goes so far as to attempt to solve the murder himself when the police and his former colleagues dismiss it, going to track down and interrogate the now-reformed villain Moloch. He even seems to have genuine care for Daniel Dreiberg, the former Nite Owl, expressing enjoyment with his company and nostalgia for their glory days at the “reunion of the Nite Owl- Rorschach team” (10.11.3), and calling him a “good friend” (10.10.8). Rorschach’s past is one of great sadness: abused as a child by his single mother, he was eventually put into foster care and began to act out violently. The reader, then, is led to have at least some sympathy for a character who keeps these traits in the face of, or perhaps in order to cope with, the bad hand the world has dealt him. However, positive traits are overshadowed by the extremes that he goes to in his mission to obtain what he believes is justice. His single-minded crusade, guided by moral absolutism, while at first admirable in its integrity, is much harder to reconcile with the extreme violence that he uses to achieve his means. His insistence that things are either right or wrong, either “black and white and moving… Changing shape but not mixing” and that there is “No gray” (4.10.3) leads him to believe that the majority of humanity is, in fact, repulsive. “Within his fatalistic worldview there is no moral ambiguity and no possibility of reform or rehabilitation, nor any room for hope” (Petty 155). He is disgusted by those he perceives to be at the root of decay in modern society: “liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers” (1.1.6). Rorschach is a paradoxical man. He politely respects Laurie Juspeczyk’s decision to reclaim her Polish surname, but in the same sentence dismisses the Comedian’s attempted rape of her mother as a simple “moral lapse” (1.20.8). “Where often a superhero would stop short of outright murder and thus avoid becoming the very thing against which they fight, Rorschach withholds nothing.” (Petty 156-57). Although he possesses some traditional heroic traits, Rorschach is not the hero of the story.

Dr. Manhattan is hailed as a “superman” in the world of Watchmen, but he is no hero. Jonathan Osterman was a young research scientist, working with experimental technology: “intrinsic field experiments” (4.4.4) that explored forces beyond gravity. In a gruesome laboratory accident, “his body was profoundly dismembered, blasted apart at the atomic level, [and] through an act of creative will, he literally re-membered himself. He pulled his scattered components together into a new and altered version of the original” (Barnes 56), becoming the super-powered Dr. Manhattan. As an in-novel article on him states; “God exists, and he’s American” (4.31). With his lover Laurie, his last connection to humanity, he lives in a vast military facility, experimenting freely and occasionally innovating things such as electric cars and airships as the fancy strikes him. Though imposing in his first appearance, it is clear that he is disinterested in the petty affairs of humanity. Despite Rorschach’s petitioning, the Comedian’s death means nothing to him, as the amount of particles in the universe remain the same: “structurally,” he notes, between life and death “there’s no discernible difference” (1.21.3). As his distance from humanity grows, Dr. Manhattan is increasingly defined by things that he is not. He is named for the Manhattan project, despite having no connection to the atomic bombs, so that he will strike fear into the enemies of the United States. He does not age, nor does he wear a costume. He lives in a world where everything is frozen, where he cannot feel “cold or warm” (4.12.1), where he is simply a “puppet who can see the strings” (9.5.4), living every moment at once yet helpless to truly control his actions in those moments, a mere observer in his own life as the people he loves leave him either through death or grief over his inability to understand them. After he is accused of being a lethal carcinogen, he simply leaves earth for Mars, searching for meaning to existence. Though this action jeopardizes the fragile peace that has settled over the Cold War, he does not seem to mind the consequences this action has until Laurie is able to convince him of the significance and rarity of human life. It is here that he is on the cusp of regaining his connection with humanity. He exhibits empathy, even warmth, bringing down the gleaming, perfect castle he has created on Mars just as Laurie’s world collapses around her at the revelation of her biological father being the Comedian, before taking her home (9.24.4-9.28.2). Ultimately, this is not enough. After uncovering Ozymandias’ plot of mass killings for world peace, Dr. Manhattan rejects humanity in order to explore his own aims, including possibly the creation of new life, becoming a god in another galaxy. The reader may still sympathize with him at this point, but his disregard for humanity has become disturbing. He is not a hero.

Opposite to Rorschach and adjacent to Dr. Manhattan in many ways, Adrian Veidt plays the part of the villain in the story, although he can be understood as an anti-hero. Visually, the readers are introduced to a man who embodies certain aspects traditional of a superhero, yet is curiously distant. Physically, Veidt is everything a superhero is classically understood to be: “the hyper-masculine ideal with muscles, sex appeal, and social competence” (Brow 25). Although technically retired like Ozymandias, he is in top physical form. With his bright, regal purple wardrobe and propensity for gold, as well as an imposing, muscular body, he exudes easy power, wealth, and warmth. Yet, even as his presentation of self encourages the reader to be comfortable in his goodness, Moore and Gibbons portray him from a distance. In the first full shot of his body, he is shaded darkly, facing away in the background, even as twisted and crumpled action-figures of him are strewn about the foreground: carefully manipulated versions of himself (1.18.4). Later, he is seen in fleeting glimpses on TV as near inhuman, a man who, although in his forties, can perform incredible feats of acrobatics without the slightest “tremor of effort”, and possesses “extraordinary” grace of movement (7.14.5), somehow a more remote character than Dr. Manhattan, a living god. Like Rorschach, he adheres to a strict moral code, going so far as to sacrifice millions of innocent people for (possible) lasting world peace, believing that the loss of life is inconsequential when many more will be saved. This decision is treated as morally ambiguous if not outright wrong by many characters in the narrative, yet it is the exact same decision that was made by the Allies in their decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as their barrage of firebombing on other cities largely filled with innocent civilians such as Dresden, Kobe, and Tokyo, which happened both within the fictional universe of the comic as well as the real world. Certainly, Veidt commands traits that could be considered heroic. However, unlike Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan, he is almost fully remote from the reader. His backstory is one of excitement but does not invite sympathy or understanding from the reader, instead alienating them from him. Veidt’s persona is an act of control: a performance, carefully curated to project the perfect image of a hero. Unlike Doctor Manhattan, who unhappily lives through his origin story again and again, or Rorschach, whose origins are told through flashbacks via the eyes of an outside observer, Veidt presents his himself, claiming that he was a secret genius child who, after the death of his incredibly wealthy parents, driven by desire to prove himself, eventually forewent all their wealth in order to adventure around the world before building his fortunes back up again into an empire with the invention of “spark hydrants” or public electric car chargers. He then shaped his empire into a vast network of corporations, and it is from this vantage point that he is able to engineer a false apocalypse. Like Manhattan, there is an almost artificial nature to his relationships with others, and he does not appear to keep lasting emotional attachments to the people around him, but unlike Manhattan, he specifically seems to have constructed it. Veidt acts in the belief that he must save humanity, but his lack of emotional connection to the people he is supposed to be saving render the process disturbingly impersonal. In fact, after his false alien is unleashes chaos and carnage onto the city, forcing the world into unifying against it, he expresses only happiness. His words do not convey any relief of salvation for the people or even solemn compassion for those who were lost. Instead, he simply cries tears of joy, cheering “I did it!” (12.19.7), turning away from the screens picturing the terrified faces of people coming together against the threat, and commending himself for the victory. Veidt is a character who may appear a hero in some respects, but there is a clear and troubling undercurrent of disconnect dividing him from both the people of the novel and the audience that makes it apparent that he is not meant to be interpreted as a hero.

In some aspects, despite their clear differences, Veidt, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan are much the same. All commit unsettling acts of violence, though in different ways. Veidt’s acts are largely impersonal and do not dirty his hands: his annihilation of half of New York City is done at the push of a button, the poisoning of his servants to protect his plan is clean and quickly covered by snowfall, and the poison capsule fed to his would-be assassin is unseen. Rorschach’s brand of violence is the opposite: incredibly visceral and personal. He repeatedly breaks fingers, hands, and other limbs of terrified victims for information, pours a container of boiling oil onto a fellow inmate after being threatened, and identifies setting a building on fire with a criminal handcuffed within as his true “awakening” as Rorschach, going so far as to say that to leave a criminal alive is to “mollycoddle” them (4.14.5-6). At first glance, these acts of violence clearly contrast with those of Dr. Manhattan, who commits only one such act during the novel: killing Rorschach. Yet that single act is extremely disquieting for the reader: from his perspective, we gaze directly into Rorschach’s—now Kovacs’—snarling, weeping face as he demands that we “Do it!”. Dr. Manhattan complies, and disposes of him in a bright, lurid pool of blood (12.24.1-5). There is no reason for the bloodshed, or the face-to-face contact: it would be simple for Dr. Manhattan to locate and vaporize Rorschach in an instant, or unmake him entirely, scattering his atoms across the universe. Instead, blood steams against the cold whiteness of snow. Each also subscribes to similar notions of superiority over others, thinking that they see what most do not. In Dr. Manhattan’s case, this is somewhat true, but his feelings of superiority and disconnect blind him to the reality of his limitations in terms of understanding the human psyche, such as his presumption that creating a double of himself to increase efficiency in the bedroom will please Laurie. For Veidt and Rorschach, it is a matter of “scrawl[ing] [their] design[s] on [a] morally blank world” (4.26.6), both presenting as unwilling to concede to others. Rorschach explicitly states that he believes he has “lived life free from compromise” (10.22.7), and indeed, this moral absolutism is what causes his death at the hands of Dr. Manhattan. Similarly, Veidt forces all competition into submission through his intricate plans, ruthlessly eliminating or defanging any who pose a threat. Yet, where Veidt carefully clips off loose ends, Rorschach has two moments of weakness. The first is when he allows the dying Moloch to keep illegal pain medication, noting the name of the company distributing it to “report them later” (2.23.8) instead of confiscating it and attacking him. The second is when he is confronted with his former landlady, who falsely accused him of making perverted sexual advances to her, sullying his name in a local newspaper. After he calls her a whore, she begs him not to tell her children, who do not know. This situation parallels his own childhood: the woman, who “reminds [him] of [his] mother (5.11.4), is like her a sex worker with children she can barely afford or stand. As he gazes into the tear-filled eyes of her son, he almost certainly sees his younger self: a “little child, abused, frightened” (4.18.2). He spares the woman and moves on, a small sliver of human mercy and weakness. This action allows yet another closeness with him that cannot be experienced with Veidt. Likewise, Dr. Manhattan experiences a last moment of care before abandoning the earth: he gazes, benevolently, at the slumbering, naked forms of Laurie and her new lover, Dreiberg, and smiles. Just as soon, the moment is gone, replaced with abandonment. “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends” (12.27.5), he says, before he teleports into a galaxy unknown, reminding us of his inhuman nature and experience of time as cyclical, everything happening at once as he stands frozen beneath it all.

If heroism is to be found in the large, grand gestures of Watchmen, there are no heroes. This essay posits, however, that there is heroism, and it manifests in Rorschach’s moments of moral grayness, as well as other small actions that other characters commit to. Throughout the course of the novel, there are ordinary people who connect occasionally but are otherwise almost completely uninvolved with the actual action of the plot. These include a police detective, Dr. Malcolm Long—the psychiatrist who unsuccessfully treats Rorschach in prison before leaving him, a man who runs a newsstand, and the newsstand customers. During chapter eleven, steeped in rising pressures from a looming apocalypse, they begin to come together through chance, and conflict breaks out. One of the newsstand customers begins to violently assault her ex-girlfriend, Dr. Long’s partner leaves him for a second time after he proves that he does not value her over his work, and the newspaper seller’s attempt to bond with a youth over their shared name is rebuffed. Yet, moments before the end of their world, they begin to come together. Early in the novel, after Dr. Manhattan makes his exit to Mars, the newspaper vendor remarks to the youth that “We all gotta look out for each other, don’t we?” (3.25.7). Dr. Long echoes this sentiment seconds before the disaster strikes, saying “it’s all we can do, try to help each other. It’s all that means anything” (11.20.7), before going to attempt to break up the fight between the two women. Here, the reader truly sees these ordinary people as they try to make a difference. The woman has put up posters for her ex-girlfriend in hopes of reconciliation. The detective tells himself that even though he is suspended, he still must uphold justice, going to help. The doctor’s partner returns to him, although she promised she would leave for good. The conflict continues as white light fills the area, blotting out all life and possibility of resolving it. But in the final moments before the end, the boy reaches for the newspaper seller, and they hold each other close. This is, perhaps, the most important moment of human connection in the novel. The heroism of this moment is quiet and small, but it is not accidental. In our last moments, we reach out to one another, purposefully, whether to comfort ourselves or each other. Watchmen posits that heroism simply cannot be found in large gestures, because we lose ourselves to them. Rorschach becomes the mask and casts off his natural face as a disguise, executing gruesome acts of violence in the process, Dr. Manhattan lets his humanity fall away, abandoning Earth after a grave crime has been committed against it, and Veidt paints himself as a saviour, then destroys half a city to create a world peace impressed with his image. These are large acts that hold no compassion, favouring the grandiose over humanity. But heroism can be accomplished in small doses. In Rorschach, giving another chance to humanity where he feels he has been irreparably wronged by it. In breaking up a street fight or trying to win a lover back. In holding another frightened person in one’s arms. It is not perfect, and is in fact hard fought, messy, and sometimes it may not work to resolve an issue. But there is such hope in those moments.

Ultimately, no heroes exist in Watchmen. The superheroes have abandoned compassion, instead choosing campaigns that leave them bereft in the act of saving actual human beings and almost fully empty of real heroism. All characters, including the more ordinary ones, are deeply broken, unheroic people: deranged vigilantes, cold mass murderers, woman-beaters, psychiatrists who may do more harm than good; they all have the potential to make choices that harm or help one another. Heroism inhabits the small choices of the novel, in moments of compassion where there could instead be violence. In a world where cruelty dominates each person’s daily life, there are no gods to come save the people or protect them from themselves. People choose to be good to each other, or at least not to harm, and that is where the heroism lies. “This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. […] It’s us. Only us.”(4.26.5)


Works Cited

Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. DC Comics, 2019.
Petty, James. “Violent lives, ending violently? Justice, ideology and spectatorship in Watchmen.”
Graphic Justice: Intersections of Comics and Law, edited by Thomas Giddens, Routledge, 2015, pp. 155-157.
Barnes, David. “Time in the Gutter: Temporal Structures in Watchmen.” KronoScope 9.1-2
(2009), pp. 51-60.
Brown, Jeffrey A. Comic Book Masculinity and the New Black Superhero. Indiana Statue
University, 1999.