When Gods Fall
Comic books and superheroes are an American mythology. I touched on this a little when I wrote about the graphic novel and movie for The Watchmen. Birthed with the first true superhero, Superman, in Action Comics back in 1938, we needed heroes that were larger than life. During the Great Depression kids were able to buy comic books and enjoy something that took them away from the harsh times they lived within. But the thing of it all was these stories were fanciful and larger than life. We needed our heroes to win and make the evils of the world pay. The problem with this line of thought, in the world we live in, the hero doesn’t always win and sometimes the person we assume is the hero turns out to actually be the biggest villain.
Like I mentioned in the past, The Watchmen is felt to be one of the first series and then graphic novels to flip the tables of what we expected from our heroes. We are shown not only the lives of human beings, granted with super powers, but still human beings that make many of the same decisions we do on a daily basis. What makes The Watchmen so powerful isn’t the big ideas, but the little ideas that affect the heroes lives. All of this is shown to us through the death of The Comedian.
The Comedian does not play an active role throughout the entire series. We only see him through flashback and memories. Everything he does has no bearing on the future that the characters are building toward. At the same time, it is their growth and understanding of what he represents that the world for the heroes changes.
His death at the beginning sets in motion a chain of events that leads us all the way through the storyline. Keep in mind the comic is not shared through his perspective. We are shown the world through Dr. Manhattan’s perspective. Dr. Manhattan lives through all points in time simultaneously, so every moment is the present, past, and future to him all at once. It is this unique perspective that we are able to make jumps through the story that allow us to see bits of pieces and their interactions all the way through. It was the death that spurred Rorshak to uncover the mystery, which brought him in contact with other heroes and so on. Like dominoes, one movement knocks them all down.
As we move through the story we are shown glimpses of how The Comedian has affected each hero in turn. The man isn’t pleasant. In fact he is the epitome of not only an anti-hero but practically a misguided villain. The list of things he has done include rape and murder and he is still considered a hero. The man can see the evils of the world because he is just as evil as the world around him. Because of the hero status his transgressions are referred to as “moral lapses.”
We aren’t shown all of this at once that would take the fun out of the mystery. No, Dr. Manhattan is essentially an unreliable narrator. Because of his godlike nature, human emotions and the events around them are alien to him. He only reveals the information relevant to the situation at hand and then does nothing to change the course of it.
A perfect example of this comes through his interactions with the second Silk Specter. In an off hand comment about The Comedian’s funeral, he mentions that he had raped her mother. This information had been kept from her. But again, the man who lives through all points in time would also already know their conversation on Mars where it is discovered that The Comedian is also her father. In an ordinary story this could be considered a plot hole. But it is addressed and covered in a way that keeps the story moving forward. The first is we can see how unreliable Dr. Manhattan is as the viewpoint. The other characters can’t see the time stream like he can. But also we find that there is a Tachyon field created in the future to hide the ultimate plot even from him.
The funniest thing about the tachyon field is that in all honestly, this is a bullshit ploy. We as readers can look at this and cry out Bullshit. It’s lame and silly, and adds to the greatest joke within the entire storyline. Which brings us back to The Comedian. Even when he isn’t the perpetuating the joke it still comes back to him. It all comes back to him.
The pinnacle moment of the graphic novel is the greatest tie to The Comedian. The use of a dead alien creature to decimate a major city is silly and ridiculous in the scope of what happens. Sure there is science fiction and comic book magic to explain it all but in the end the dead alien is still little more than a rubber chicken. Even though The Comedian is dead we still find a way to throw in a final joke to tie everything back to him.
Throughout the flashbacks and stories of his life we see a trail of carnage that he leaves in his wake. Ruined lives and death define the character of who he was. And it is in the villains monologue that we find out he had figured out the final plot. Sure, he wasn’t going to stop it but it was even more atrocious than anything he had ever done. He paid for that with his life.
Which brings us back to our original thoughts. The greatest villain is the one we once thought of as the hero. Through misdirection and a huge twist of the joke we come to find that it is Ozymandius who is the true villain. Yet, he is attempting to accomplish a greater good through villainy. An homage, if you will, to The Comedian.
Through all of this we have seen a change in comics. This story embraced the darkness of the times it existed in. The decline of the cold war and new threats of war were still all around us. If all we saw in the comic was the torment and cynicism that it brought out there would have been little to believe in. But the story did something very important. In the end it returned to the roots of the comics we grew up with. Through the epilogue where Silk Specter came to terms with her mother and accepted the horrors that made her who she is, we the readers are given hope. A hope that tells us even though we came from hard times and pain, we can find a grace that will transcend the pain. Our old gods had become new gods and we shifted with them.
These stories reflected a change in the way we viewed our heroes. No longer were they god like beings that could be defeated by something out of this world (Superman and kryptonite). Instead our heroes became something a bit closer to human with human failings. And this point was driven home because now, our heroes could also die. But through the ashes we found that we could still carry on and even come to terms with who we are.
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