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By Shamus
on Tuesday Mar 31, 2009
Filed under:
Nerd Culture


This post has been a long time in coming. I have a copy of Watchmen here, a gift from Davis V. S. I’ve been trying to set down my thoughts on the book for months now, which is made difficult by the fact that I’m still not sure what to make of it. I actually don’t know how I’m supposed to interpret the actions of the villain and so I’m not sure where to begin my analysis. The story was a strange and painful voyage, and at the end I felt like I was the only one who didn’t know why we’d made the trip.

Spoilers from here on.

In the book, Ozymandias staged a massive event that made people think that aliens were invading Earth. It killed “half of New York”, and tormented or crippled millions more.

His plan is based on the following chain of reasoning:

  1. A nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union is inevitable.
  2. Staging a massive event that kills millions is the only way to avert it, by getting people to lay aside their differences to face a common threat.
  3. This event will give him incredible power to re-shape the world and prevent the war in the future.

My own response to Ozy’s pitch meeting in Antarctica:

Was the USA / USSR war REALLY inevitable?

In our reality opinions differ on just how likely a nuclear exchange was. But the story takes place in the fictional reality authored by Moore, not ours. Moreover, it was a reality authored in 1986. When Ozymandias says that the war was going to happen, we have no way of knowing if he was really telling the truth. Was it going to happen, as he said? Or was it not going to happen, and he was mistaken? Or was he just outright lying?

Only Moore knows the answer. (Assuming he had a specific answer in mind.)

Was the mass-death really the BEST way to avert catastrophe?

Wars happen for reasons. If Ozymandias knew a war would happen, then he must also have known what the cause would be. Given his intelligence, wealth, and power, it seems like he could have found a less convoluted plan to avert the war. If he can stage an alien invasion using the cloned brain of a deceased psychic and then arrange for every single person involved with the plan to killed by killers who were in turn themselves killed, etc etc… then he ought to have no problem getting control of (say) the White House. He could either worm his way into office directly, or (more likely) gain control of an existing politician and steer him into power.

Even easier than that would be for Dr. Manhattan to simply poof the nukes out of existence. Dr. Manhattan is the most powerful hero in the world. Actually he’s one of the most powerful heroes to ever appear in a comic. He can fly, teleport, make copies of himself, destroy or re-shape objects at will, see the future, observe the world on a subatomic level, enlarge himself to massive proportions, and he’s completely indestructible. (He got his powers by being vaporized and re-constituting himself. What could you do to a guy who can just will himself back into shape after you blast him into particles?) His only weakness is that he’s neurotic and dysfunctional. He doesn’t seem to “get” people anymore, even though he still has all of his memories of what it was like to be a mortal human. He’s got powers to rival Zeus, and at least as many sexual hang-ups. (Okay, he has that weakness to Tachyons, but they aren’t even worth mentioning. Imagine if kryptonite didn’t kill Superman, it just slightly reduced his powers and muddled his thinking a little. And you needed huge emitters and satellites to power the brain-muddle field.)

Ozy proved he was more than capable of manipulating him, so convincing him to do something that was a natural extension of what he’d already been doing (“peacekeeping” operations of dubious value) should have been easy for the “smartest man in the world”. It certainly would have been easier and less risky than the plan he enacted.

How was his plan supposed to work, long-term?

We don’t know the causes behind the war that Ozy was averting, but I can’t imagine any solution lasting more than a generation. Ozy talks like he’s bringing an end to war, but that terror event can only go so far. Unless he’s going to keep staging these events, he’s just delaying the inevitable. The kids born after 1985 are going to have little meaningful memory of the event. It will just be history to them. If Ozy is trying to work against the grain of human nature then his efforts will only work as long as people are afraid of the aliens. That’s an exceptionally unstable form of power, and it doesn’t age well. (This is to say nothing of the fact that the USSR might simply see this as a chance to prevail over a weakened USA.)

But are these holes in Ozy’s plan a deliberate thing on the part of the author? It’s not a plot hole at all if we take the view that Ozy’s true goals differ from his stated ones. He mentions that he wanted to be the next Alexander the Great, which is a pretty big tip that he’s not a humanitarian at heart. If we view that as his goal, then the holes in the plan are only holes in his cover story. Certainly he seems to relish in his victory more than seems appropriate. Only a depraved man would celebrate the deaths of so many, even if he was saving more lives than he was wasting.

So at the end of the book I couldn’t decide if it was the story of a depraved megalomaniac, an arrogant and opportunistic man, or a misguided man who felt he was making sacrifices for the greater good.

And for all I know this ambiguity is deliberate. Maybe we’re not supposed to be able to know what Ozy was truly thinking. (Because that other characters also don’t know.) Maybe it goes back to the theme of the book, “Who watches the Watchmen?” Once you have superheroes running around “saving” the world, you’re going to have a mess.

Case in point: Just over a year ago I proposed a modest set of super powers and asked people how they would use them. Some pointed out that without the ability to sense / divine trouble, you’re just a really useful workhorse. But a few people proposed taking extreme actions, like murdering people they thought were “screwing up the world”. These people genuinely thought that if they just killed all the “problem people” they could make the world a better place. This is proof enough to me that having a handful of people with super powers would be extraordinarily bad for the rest of us.

In any case, the main question of what Ozy was really thinking really ate at me after I finished the book. I felt like I couldn’t really process the tale until I could sort Ozymandias, and the ambiguity around him made this impossible. This is not to say it’s a bad book. It really does deserve its reputation as one of the greatest comic works ever. I’ll take deep, thoughtful, symbolic, and ambiguous over “Captain Macho Posturing vs. Baron von Plot Exposition” any day. It’s an amazing book, and the fact that over 20 years have passed and we haven’t seen its like again is a little disappointing.

Comments (132)

1 2 3

  1. Cybron says:

    I would definitely say that war was inevitable. That’s what the entire tone of the piece suggests. If the world’s most intelligent man arrives at the same conclusion, I see no reason to question it.

    I think Ozzy’s plan regarding future generation was to ‘reshape the world’ so that the future generation would have no reason to fight. Probably not a permanent solution, but assuming he succeeds, he’d have it under control for a few generations. He certainly seems to assume he would succeed. Whether that’s just arrogance is a matter of the reader’s opinion of mankind, I suppose.

    As for best plan, your guess is as good as mine. He’d have to control TWO governments in order for your suggestion to work, and that makes his plan look like child’s play by comparison.

  2. According to what I’ve heard, the ambiguity was intentional, but as far as I’m concerned Oz was just stupid because *regardless of his motives*, nothing good could come of his plan, for him or anyone else. You cannot create by destroying.

    The movie was even worse, but I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it.

  3. Alex says:

    In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
    Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
    The only shadow that the Desert knows:
    “I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
    “The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
    “The wonders of my hand.” The City’s gone,
    Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
    The site of this forgotten Babylon.
    We wonder, and some Hunter may express
    Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
    Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
    He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
    What powerful but unrecorded race
    Once dwelt in that annihilated place.


    Also, one of the key points behind the US vs USSR conflict is Dr. Manhattan disrupts any possible balance. Ozy goes over this, but the idea is that Russia is overproducing nuclear weapons in an effort to overwhelm Dr. Manhattan. Unlike in our world, where MAD was a reasonable doctrine from a game theory perspective to prevent a nuclear war, that’s thrown out the window when one side has a weakly god-like being on their side.

  4. Groboclown says:

    We do know a bit about why the war was happening – the balance of power in the world was mostly due to the US having Dr. Manhattan (yes, USSR was posturing with this, to test the limits of the US mettle in using said Dr.). Once Dr. Manhattan left the earth, the other global powers started moving.

    Now, one can claim that Ozy was responsible for having Dr. Manhattan leave, and so was himself responsible for the build-up towards war. However, I think that Ozy knew that Dr. Manhattan wasn’t a reliable source of world power balance, and simply wanted to expedite his eventual departure. This seems to me like Ozy was playing his hand before all the cards were dealt.

  5. Gregory Weir says:

    Regarding killing all the bad people, the anime Death Note has the premise that a very smart and theoretically ethical high schooler gains the ability to kill anyone as long as he knows their name and face. He naturally decides to kill all the bad people (criminals, useless folks) and create a perfect world… with himself as its god.

    It doesn’t turn out well.

  6. SatansBestBuddy says:

    I predict a lot of people are gonna sit at their chairs for fifteen minutes typing a comment in response to this.

    Also, I’ve never read the book, only seen the movie, so I was mildly surprised at the aliens thing, though after a bit of thought it makes about as much sense as what the movie did.

  7. Jian says:

    On Premise 2: I thought the “massive event” of dropping the psychic monster in New York isn’t exactly to unite against a common threat but instead is a genetic-psychically engineered bioweapon that convinces everyone to be peaceful with each other. That way, both hegemonic poles see no threat in each other and will never use their nuclear weapons. Other nations are confined to conventional warfare. The reason why it had to kill several million people is technobabble — if it doesn’t kill enough people when it sets off it the psychic waves don’t propagate all the way to the USSR.

    In the sense, it represents a different ethical trade off: a few million lives now, for a permanent assurance against mutually assured destruction in which billions of lives are at stake.

  8. wererogue says:

    “We don't know the causes behind the war that Ozy was averting, but I can't imagine any solution lasting more than a generation.”

    It’s pretty strongly implied (and directly theorised) in the book that the Russians are arming because they feel threatened by Dr. Manhattan. Having him “poof” the missiles out of existence isn’t really going to help international relations much.

    “I actually don't know how I'm supposed to interpret the actions of the villain.”

    That’s why I love the book. You came back to it later – “Once you have superheroes running around “saving” the world, you're going to have a mess.” The way the book makes you think about the Ozymandias’ dilemma is a work of genius. It raises questions like whether an act can be inherently evil, or whether its morality is modified by the motivations.

    The book is one part political commentary on the time itself, 3 parts commentary on comic books of the time, and it shows throughout. A lot of the little details, and the big ones are all geared to put a different spin on superhero stories – to make you think “how would this work with *real* people?” when you go and read “Captain Macho Posturing vs. Baron von Plot Exposition”.

  9. radio_babylon says:

    watchmen was the dullest, most un-entertaining and pretentious comic ive ever read. i remember trying to read it when it came out and just not being able to finish it… and then i picked it up again last year when all my friends started berating me for not having read it back in the day. i had to FORCE my way through it, and at the end, i seriously wanted all that time back. i honestly cannot understand the hype and reverence for this book… it just boggles my mind.

  10. Michelle says:

    Do any of you remember that, once upon a time, everyone really believed a nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R was inevitable?

    Try thinking of it from that stand point.

  11. kjones says:

    Radio_Babylon: Could you be a little more specific about what you didn’t like? It’s like my English teacher always said about Shakespeare – you don’t have to like it, but you should at least recognize its significance.

    (To this, she would add, “And if you don’t like it, you should have a better reason than ‘It’s hard to read'”, but that’s less important here.)

  12. Pederson says:

    Honestly, I think Watchmen is probably most interesting as a cultural artifact, i.e. a product of its time, and as a study in the deconstruction of superhero comicbooks. I’m not sure how genuinely groundbreaking it is in either category. There are undoubtedly earlier and better studies of Cold War paranoia and mania, and the deconstruction of the masked hero, arguably, goes back to the sixties with the likes of Spiderman and the X-Men.

    Personally, I find it a rather hollow sort of story. The protagonists are a mostly unsympathetic, badly broken lot, and the underpinnings seem (at least to me) to be pessimistic, paranoid, left-wing and nihilist. Whether or not that’s an accurate depiction of Mr. Moore’s worldview, I know not.

    As far as it goes, I’m sure it seemed much more relevant in 1985, when it was published and the longevity of the Soviet Union seemed assured, especially from the viewpoint of a progressive writer in Thatcherite Britain.

  13. radio_babylon says:

    “its hard to read” is a big part of it, but even more, “its hard to enjoy”… im of the opinion that things like comic books, books, film, games, (insert medium here) are first and foremost an ENTERTAINMENT medium. sure, they can be deep or insightful or profound or moving… but theyve got to also be entertaining, or theyre a failure in the end. in no way and at no time was i entertained by watchmen. if i had been, i wouldnt have had to force my way through it… ive read many a ponderous book (eg, anything by umberto eco) that i finished *in spite* of the fact it was difficult to read, simply because it was entertaining enough that i *wanted* to read it. watchmen was the worst case scenario for a comic: hard to read AND not entertaining.

  14. skizelo says:

    For one, I think you’re thinking of politics while Ozymandias is thinking about culture. He cares about what the general public believes (as shown by the adverts of the day), rather than the belief of their leaders. So he could put himself in the Oval Office, but the electorate would still be mistrustful of their fellow man and so on. And culture doesn’t really fade into “just history”; we believe tons of things for reasons which are out of date. As for the “wars happen for a reason”, in Moore’s work,they tend to start for stupid, unpredictable reasons (In “The Killing Joke”, WWII is said to be caused over telegraph poles).
    I read Ozy as believing that this act would form an eternal utopia (hence his reaction when Manhattan puts the lie to that belief). But yeah, he’s not a good man.
    ALSO, Manhattan isn’t neurotic. He’s correct in that he doesn’t need humanity at all.
    ALSO, I always get wierded out when I find out people haven’t read Watchmen. So wierd. Wierdo.

  15. DavyRam says:

    The one thing the movie changed that annoyed me (before you roll your eyes and skip down, this is relevant to the question) was to cut that small scene at the end between Adrian and Manhattan. “I did the right thing didn’t I?” That suggests to me that nuclear armageddon wasn’t certain, or at least was far enough from certain that Adrian privately has doubts about what he has done. Very likely he did have a plan which didn’t involve murdering millions but regarded his plan as a safer bet.

    Shamus’ idea that Adrian acts out of a hidden desire to make himself more influential instead of out of pure benevolence is interesting. As a counterpoint, I would point again to that scene at the end and the ‘black freighter’ side-story, which I believe Gibbons has explicitly stated is about Adrian. If this is so, then it heavily implies Veidt goes mad with guilt over what he has done. And why else would Moore name him Ozymandias if not suggest a connection with the Shelley Poem,a work on the ultimate futility of power and control?

    Like Shamus, I’m inclined to say Ozymandias is a character that, despite being peripheral in terms of events, is in a way the lynchpin of the whole book. It’s a story where little concrete happens because its too busy asking questions about what it is that would actually make a real hero. Adrian in rthe clearest example, his actions can either be seen as the most heroic thing possible for all the death it causes, or the most evil, a supposedly benevolent act so horrific it breaks a pair of sociopaths. If I don’t shut up now I’ll probably never stop, but I might say something about Death note at a later time.

  16. foolsage says:

    Having Dr. Manhattan evaporate all the nuclear missiles in the world would be a really unfulfilling Deus Ex Machina, with no ambiguity. The natural response of humanity would thereafter be to recreate the nuclear arsenal in secret. So that not only doesn’t solve any long term problems, but it’s lacking in any depth or nuance; that’s a classic Superman ending. Whether Veidt was right or not in his estimations, it’s a fascinating plan that makes for good drama, and leaves the reader questioning the ethics and efficacy of the plan; I think that’s really the point here.

  17. Magnus says:

    Dr. Manhattan appears more distant from humanity as he ages, as he is not really human any more.

    The thinking behind Ozymandias’ actions are two-fold, one: would Dr. Manhattan actually be able to stop the thousands of nukes that could be fired at the US? two: Would he want to?

    It was no longer Dr. Manhattans fight, his choice of Mars shows this when he mentions how beautiful and amazing a lifeless planet can be.

    Also, despite Ozy being “the smartest man in the world”, he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, nor can he see every eventuality.

    We had two world wars in quick succession despite the first being labelled “the war to end all wars”, noone wanted to repeat that and yet little over twenty years after WWI we were fighting again.

  18. Kameron says:

    My take on the Watchmen, which I just read for the first time last month, was that the Ozy-plot was just a vehicle for Moore to deconstruct the comic book superhero. The interwoven “pirate comic” really emphasized that to me. As such, I readily glossed over some of the “lazy logic”.

    Overall, Watchmen left me with a “meh” feeling. The art was unremarkable, and stories deconstructing superheroes aren’t so revolutionary a topic anymore.

  19. Sheer_FALACY says:

    Nuclear war was pretty clearly inevitable. I don’t recall if there was an equivalent scene in the book (there probably was, considering how closely it adhered to it in most cases), but the movie showed Nixon discussing a first strike scenario if Dr. Manhattan didn’t come back in two days. This wasn’t a just in case type thing, it was something he was going to do because he was that sure. Plus the doomsday clock was a constant motif.

    And sure, it wouldn’t have come up if Dr. Manhattan hadn’t been driven away by cancer accusations, but he was clearly losing his remaining grip on humanity anyway, as seen when he talks to Laurie. He’d probably have left at some point anyway and not cared too much about what happened afterwards.

  20. Jason says:

    I read an interesting take on Ozymandias and it tied it into how to roleplay as a super intelligent being.


  21. Chris says:

    I wanted to make note of the scene DavyRam mentions, where Ozy asks Manhattan if he did the right thing. I was very upset that it wasn’t in the film, because before Manhattan leaves he says something along the lines of “Yeah, everyone will have peace for now” and Ozy is like “Wait, what do you mean for NOW?”. It implied to me that the very nature of man goes against peace.

    Which, of course, is the very idea behind the book and the very philosophy that Ozymandias was trying to save them from. He wanted to bring about world peace, as doing the typical “knock a criminal about and then hand him to the police” thing was too small and too ineffective. However, at the very center is one simple point: humanity is not good. Technically it isn’t bad, either, as you do see good in plenty of people as well.

    I actually find Watchmen to be a timely contrast to The Dark Knight film, where Christopher Nolan ended with a more optimistic view of humanity. Here, Watchmen instead concludes with a more pessimistic perspective, though a very, very important (and often overlooked moment by fans, unfortunately) was removed from the film.

    Also, while there may have technically been “better ways”, I’m going to give Alan Moore a bit of freedom since he was working with a lot of different purposes with this comic, both in terms of humanity as well as with the comics industry.

  22. Julian says:

    I don’t think you’re supposed to find the plan convincing. It’s part of the larger deconstruction — a comic-book solution to a real-world problem.

  23. Adam Greenbrier says:

    You’re assuming that Adrian is acting rationally when he isn’t. The entire book is about the way that superheroes, beneath the surface, are mentally unstable and incapable of justly wielding the power that they have. Adrian’s problems are different from the others in that he’s a narcissist and an egomaniac, but he’s not any more stable than Rorschach or the Comedian.

    Remember that the Black Freighter story is analogous to Adrian’s situation: driven mad by the fear of disaster, he performs the very actions he had hoped to avoid happening. The threat of social decay and annihilation was enough to cause Adrian to react in a completely irrational, over-the-top sort of way that may, per Jon’s closing comment, have not done any good at all in the long run.

    Also, don’t forget the connection, as has been mentioned, between Ozymandias and Shelley’s “Ozymandias”:

    I met a traveler from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed.

    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the idea that Adrian’s work will last in any significant way.

  24. Julian says:

    @ Sheer_FALACY

    That scene is a significant departure from the book: in the original, Nixon is presented with the option by his advisors, and is far from enthusiastic. It’s left ambiguous as to whether he’s even capable of ordering it, much less whether he will.

  25. Factoid says:

    “So at the end of the book I couldn't decide if it was the story of a depraved megalomaniac, an arrogant and opportunistic man, or a misguided man who felt he was making sacrifices for the greater good.”

    All three! The other “theme” of the book besides “Who Watches the Watchmen” is complexity. Nothing is straightforward, nothing has one right answer and nobody has one motivation.

    He was definitely a megalomaniac…I mean come on, he compares himself to Alexander the Great. He was arrogant and opportunistic because he thought he knew better than everyone how the world would best be “saved”, and he genuinely believed what he was doing was right.

    Evil men rarely believe themselves to be doing evil.

    I didn’t get the sense that he was “enjoying” his victory that much, though. He says that he’s made himself feel every death. He knows what he’s done is wrong, but he also believed it was necessary. That’s one of the things that makes him arrogant, is that he believes he is better than the ordinary man because nobody but him had the strength to do what was necessary.

    Where I disagree with Ozy is that he is so fond of “lateral thinking” yet he came up with an incredibly obtuse Occam’s Razor-defying solution to the problem of global annihilation. Lateral thinking puzzles invariably end up with a head-slap moment like “Oh, of COURSE that was the most obvious solution, why didn’t I SEE that?”

    Attacking New York city with a giant vagina-squid is more of a head-scratcher than a head-slapper.

  26. Lee Evans says:

    Oh, I had never noticed the Black Freighter parallels. That makes a ton of sense now: The hero thought that the destruction of his city was a foregone conclusion and was driven mad by the idea, when everything was OK until he showed up.

    Ozy, similarly, thought that he was making everything all better, but in reality had made the world a worse place than he found it.

    • Shamus says:

      I also never noticed the Black Freighter parallels. (Duh.) I think that perfectly tells me what I wanted to know about how Moore viewed Ozy. That actually brings a lot of the work into focus.

      I really disliked, or perhaps rejected, the book on my first read because I thought Moore was making Ozy the ultimate hero of the book. I don’t have a good reason for why I thought this. The signs were there that he wasn’t a protagonist, but for some reason I felt like he was, and that I was supposed to sympathize with him and his goals.

      Also noteworthy is that I skipped the Black Freighter on my first read-through, and then went back and read JUST the Black Freighter stuff. I treated them like two different comic books that had their pages mixed together. (Which is true in the sense that the two stories don’t take place in the same reality.)

  27. Namfoodle says:

    I read the book when it came out, so it’s been a long time. I also haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet.

    But I think the “holes in the plan” might be explained by two things:

    1. The idea that Ozy might be the teeniest bit insane. Maybe he’s just too smart for his own good?

    2. He also might not be quite as smart as he thinks he is. When Dr. Manhatten quickly came back from being discombobulated and said “Dude, this was the first trick I learned,” I recall Ozy being surprised.

  28. Old_Geek says:

    I think thats the point of the book. There is no absolute right or wrong, no good guys or bad guys. Everyone is gray and flawed, but honestly trying to do what they think is best. Some people can think of Ozymandias as a hero for saving the world. Others a villian for killing that many people. Rorshack is a sociopathic killer who at times makes the Joker look like an accountant. Yet, he’s the only one who seems to have an absolute moral compass. For example, he’s the only one in the beginning who “acts like a hero” and tries to solve the comedians murder. The other “heores” came across more to me as adrenaline jockies, putting on the mask and cape for the same reason others go bungie cord jumping or sky diving.

    In other words, if you don’t now what to think, you’re probably thinking right.

  29. RichVR says:

    @ Namfoodle “…The idea that Ozy might be the teeniest bit insane. Maybe he's just too smart for his own good?”

    This was my take on it as well. Surprised that nobody else thinks this way. In a way Ozy and the Doc both have almost unlimited power. Dr. Manhattan hasn’t been corrupted by his power because he’s less than human now. He lacks the endocrine system and therefore emotion.

    Ozymandias is bat shit crazy with power. Even he doubts his own reasoning. A sliver of sanity?

    Edit: Attribution of quote.

  30. Trianglehead says:

    @radio_babylon: But at the same time you should be able to recognize it’s significance. Obviously with so many people enjoying it, it’s more of a personal dilemma than one with the work itself. It’s obviously been very successful both in terms of entertainment and social commentary. You’re welcome to your opinion of the work, just as we are. So if you didn’t enjoy it, why bother wasting MORE of your time which you already claim you wish you had back in a room full of people who are obviously going to disagree with you?

  31. I agree with Adam Greenbrier and some others about the nature of Ozymandias and his plan.
    I think another thing that is going on is a clash between two views of the nature of good–two basic philosophies. Ozymandias represents an uncompromising version of Utilitarianism: The greatest good for the greatest number is all, or so he tells himself, and so the ends completely justify the means. It’s crazy.
    Rorschach is the other side of that coin. He represents the ideal of justice (in a twisted kind of way) or at least retribution, and for him while you can do whatever to the “bad guys”, other than that there are no excuses for wrongdoing and nothing can stand in the way of punishing it. He stands very literally for “Let justice be done though the sky fall”. The ends do not justify the means; if Adrian Veidt wants to harm innocent people–or even if he killed the Comedian, who was about as far from innocent as you can get–then he has to go down, no matter his reasons or what the impact will be. This is also crazy, but seems more sympathetic somehow. I suppose the appeal of Ozymandias is to superficial reasoning, while the appeal of Rorschach is to fairly basic emotions; both mislead.

    Nite Owl, while he does put on the costume, in many ways seems to represent the normal human caught in the middle and unsure what version of “the good” to adhere to; he can see that both uncompromising visions are way scary. Neither extreme seems to value mercy a whole lot. I wonder if it’s significant that Nite Owl and Laurie are the only ones ever shown actually *helping* anyone.

  32. On the Black Freighter, when Ozymandias was talking to them at the South Pole, he didn’t quite say it, but I got the distinct impression that he had actually been reading the Black Freighter comics as part of the process of “visualizing every death”. He’d just started to say it and then said something like “never mind, it’s stupid”. He was going through this process of taking responsibility for what he was doing by internalizing the enormity of the act, and part of that seemed to me like it involved reading the Black Freighter.
    Which adds yet another layer of ambiguity to the whole thing. He was a megalomaniac, and I think his actions were wrong and ultimately futile. But he did realize that at some level, “ends justify the means” didn’t cut it, that it was still an enormously bad act for which he should feel grief and remorse.

  33. Jay says:

    After I finished, and thought about it a bit, I was pretty convinced of Adrian’s guilt. He is the smartest man in the world. It starts with *protecting* humanity, and the next logical step is to install yourself as leader. After all, you know what’s best, right?

    Look for it in Watchmen 2: The Watchening.


  34. Zwebbie says:

    Shamus – don’t you think that perhaps you’ve set your mind to game-analysing so much that instead of just taking things for granted, you try to find every flaw? The impending nuclear war is the premise of Watchmen and nobody in the story seemed to doubt it. The plan is perhaps much like that of a cartoon villain, but dressing up like superheroes and catching bad guys isn’t exactly what I’d call plausibly effective either.

    It’s not so much about the plan itself – that’s why it could be changed easily between the book and film – but the human elements. Ozymandias is a firm believer that the end justifies the means (considering the alternative is nuclear war, it’s a pretty good outcome), as opposed to Rorschach who will never set aside his principles, even if that makes everyone suffer.

  35. Martin says:


    I agree with your commentary on the four main heroes, and will add that the other heroes are interesting morality studies as well. Superhero comics are all about simplistic confrontations between good and evil, so it is very easy to take familiar archetypes and have a DnD alignment debate using them. Watchmen is fun because it does this to a lot of archetypes, and while the results may not be profound or new, they are profound and new in the genre.

  36. Magnus says:

    @Shamus: Although I didn’t appreciate The Black Freighter at first, the way it weaved its way throughout the story added so much to the story for me, I can’t imagine skipping it! On a couple of occasions, the two stories mesh together, switching from one frame to the next.

  37. DavyRam says:

    @ Purple Library: I’d follow up on those before me who have suggested the simplest solution is “Adrian is nuts” by saying finding any kind of consistent logic in Rorschach is a losing bet. Yep, he’s a moral aboslutist, but absolutism is usually based in the idea morality can be factualised: action x is bad because God (or whatever) says so,and thus it IS. But R. is an out-and-out nihilist, he does not believe in any kind of objective morality at all. He believes that right and wrong are absolute, but the only justification he has (or needs) for making an action wrong is “because I think so”. He’s an absolutely, inherently contradictory character. Nothing to do with innocents, remember in his diary he says dropping the atomic bomb,a similar act to Adrian’s,was a good thing (albeit because of daddy issues).

    As for Dan, I’ve always thought he went with Adrians plan a little too easy. He’s closest to the “traditional” superhero,but it’s about being powerful for him, the only reason he didn’t do what Adrian did was becase he wasn’t smart enough or self-centred enough. Again, contradictory.

    To those who dislike the book, I can definitely sympathise, I have my own limits of “smart but dull”. It’s just I and a lot of other people DO find the book out and out entertaining. Those Rorschach fanboys don’t love him becase he’s right (at least I hope not) they love him because he is cool. It’s not a logical thing, like anything you enjoy it or you don’t. The “respect it’s importance” line is worth mentioning, but veering into justifying that which is difficult to justify I think.

  38. Rob Conley says:

    Some observations on having gotten the Watchmen on it’s initial run.

    It was a different experience having to get the comic monthly instead of one graphics novel. For one thing, by the time the next issue came out you have read EVERYTHING in the last issue. Sure I skipped over the Black Freighter and read the excerpts last but then I all I could was go back and read them again because I didn’t have the next issue.

    It was very different than other comics at the time. For one thing you knew it was going to end. This raised anticipation of the next issue to insane levels as anything could happen. Plus it had all this back story that took several readings to absorb. So it was a rich reading experience.

    Finally nobody back then saw the collapse of Soviet Union coming. The only way any of us thought that US-Soviet rivalry could end was in one of several spectacularly bad ways. (US goes communist, Nuclear War, less than nuclear WWIII, etc). A judgment born of WWI and WWII where the democracies had to beat down the authoritarian countries at a great cost.

    Between Vietnam and Reagan there was a sense that the US could become isolated and eventually fall to communism by being strangled to death economically. Reagan changed that by reinvigorating the will to fight back but at the expense of raising fear of a confrontation leading to Armageddon or at the least a lot of blood lost.

    Reagan pursuing the option of being able to take down the Soviet Union angered a substantial minority. Particularly in Europe which would take the brunt of any initial attack. This is reflected in the Watchman.

    Ozy’s insane plan to deal with the Soviet-US rivalry was a reflection of Reagan’s “insane” plan to deal with the Soviet-US rivalry.

  39. Shawn says:

    The thing about Watchmen is it’s meant to be uncomfortable and ambiguous and off puting, especially the ending. I’m pretty solidly of the opinion that the holes in Ozymandias’s plot are intentional and Alan Moore specifically didn’t want it to seem absolutely justified or unjustified.

    Your reaction here is I think exactly the sort of questioning and debate you’re supposed to walk away from the ending with.

    In a way, the end of Watchmen is it’s own Rorschach test, to see how you feel about right and wrong, the ends justifying the means, extremism, etc etc.

  40. Sesoron says:

    I have some thoughts regarding the long-term effectiveness of Ozy’s plan.

    I don’t know whether this is the actual truth or just Ozy’s viewpoint, or if I’m altogether wrong, but it seems that — in the Watchmen alternate universe, at least — the world was at an impasse. There are two simultaneous processes going on, both in real life and in the Watchmen-verse: the gradual development of human morality and the rapid development of high technology.

    The morality thing may be somewhat controversial, but I think it’s easy to see that, objectively, the state of morality and human rights has advanced since ancient times. Even the most shining examples of ancient civilization, like the Athenians or the Roman Republic, were rife with slavery, pederasty, and other pervasive human rights abuses. In more and more places today, such practices are finally fading out of our culture. We’re starting to see war in a different light. The problem is that the weapons of war are becoming deadlier faster than the rate at which we’re becoming averse to war in the first place.

    In the Watchmen-verse, the arms race was reaching critical mass faster than in real life. It may have been reasonable in the book, and it was inevitable in the movie, that the development of morality would not overpower our lingering propensity for war before we reached the point of self-destruction. In real life, we made it through, and it’s unlikely that we’ll face global destruction through nuclear arms unless powers like India, Pakistan, China, and North Korea become sufficiently advanced and aggressive to cause it in the next century or so. Odds are the development of space technology will render intercontinental ballistic missiles less effective with time, and with luck the chances of being nuked from halfway around the world will fade to near zero.

    If global nuclear war can be averted, it’s possible that the future development of human morality will obviate the threat of future weapons that are developed. Your personal views of the Singularity may inform whether you think we’ll have another game-changing leap in weapons technology. Ozy may have been counting on our morality getting there first or there being no next step to weapons development.

    As a Humanist, I do believe that even if humanity isn’t inherently good, the good among us will have the strength to push the rest of us in that direction. My interpretation of Ozymandias is that he agrees: he doesn’t see the Cold War as just the next war in an inevitable series, he sees it as an exception, perhaps a final boss of sorts. The future won’t be perfect utopia instantly, but by trouncing this final global threat, he’s given us the chance to reach it by natural means.

  41. Doc Kirzner says:

    In the supplementary material for chapter IV, Dr. Manhattan: Super-Powers and the Superpowers, “Professor Milton Glass” discusses the question of Manhattan’s role in a potential conflict. He concludes that Manhattan could not stop all warheads (maybe he’d get 60% of them). Manhattan poofing the nukes out of existence is off the table.

  42. theonlymegumegu says:

    “It's an amazing book, and the fact that over 20 years have passed and we haven't seen its like again is a little disappointing.”

    Really? I think you need to read “Kingdom Come” by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. But that’s just my opinion.

  43. LintMan says:

    One thing to keep in mind is that The Watchmen was written during the cold war Reagan years, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, less than 2 years after Reagan’s little joke: My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes. When I read Watchmen at the time, it never crossed my mind that Ozy was anything but sincere (if misguided). I recall someone saying to me at the time that Ozymandias “had to destroy the world in order to save it”. Shades of the Vietnam era.

    I think that reading it now, without the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over everyone and knowledge of how the cold war eventually fizzled out, the Watchmen loses a bit of its original power, but seen in this new light, it still has things to say.

    As for Dr. Manhattan, I think it was inevitable he would lose interest and leave eventually, so he couldn’t be counted on to prevent a war forever. For a super-hero that does directly intervene in cold war, check out the “Rising Stars” comic/graphic novel series by JMS (J. Michael Straczyski). Great stuff. Some background: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rising_Stars)

  44. Kirzner: Mind you, Glass could have been wrong. The comic doesn’t really depict any limits to Dr. Manhattan’s power, and I don’t think anyone knew he could be in multiple places at once.

  45. wandering grapefruit says:

    Well, everyone else in the book is nuts. I’m pretty sure Ozy is, too. That’s why his plans don’t really make the most sense.

  46. SolkaTruesilver says:

    I think Ozy did the right thing. The existence of Dr. Manhattan caused a huge social imbalance, which gave a sense of invulnerability to the USA against its ennemy. In return, that caused a crash of society’s morality, which would eventually lead to society’s own downfall.

    Also, the over-reliance of Dr. Manhattan, a being that actually see us as little better than ants, is a mistake. It has been shown he didn’t seemed to care about humans (at first).

    So, Ozy provoked the endgame earlier, when it wasn’t too late. He was the one to create the crisis 10 years before his estimates (in the mid-90s), and saved both the human race and the fabric of society before it collapsed.

    Was is necessary? Who knows for sure? But had it worked? Yup. I think Adrian pulled the safe bet: sacrifice million to try to save society against itself.

    As for Ozymandia’s megalomania, I have to agree that he seems to have an inflated ego. But that ego seems to be expressed more trough “Carrying the weight of the world of his shoulders” than “Being the overlord of mankind”. All that we have seen about him seemed to be about caring for the society that he lived in.

    Anyway, I have to add that I think Rorchak’s sense of morality is arbitrary and absolutely wrong. Suspecting people of murder because he MIGHT be gay? Being an apologist of the COMEDIAN because he “served his country”? That’s a twisted sense of right and wrong, which I totally despise.

  47. The Cold War time really did have an impact. I can remember in my late teens thinking bitterly that the adults had set things up so the world would be ending in a few years at most. It wasn’t at the top of your mind most of the time, but there was an undercurrent of fear that it was really going to happen, sometimes a hopelessness at the apparent inevitability. You can see the Comedian’s snark about “smartest guy on the cinder” hitting home.

    DavyRam: Point taken. At the same time, one has to respect Rorschach in a weird way. He started from nihilism and at least created some kind of code and took some kind of action, and he was willing to die for the code he’d adopted, however contradictory. Veidt and Rorschach were both willing to kill for their beliefs–but would Veidt have been willing to die for his?

    Away from the serious side, I did find that I (and a lot of people I knew when Watchmen was getting popular) was really sucked in not just by the heavy substance but by some of the butt-kicking style. Rorschach really was cool; perhaps the most minimalist “superhero” I’ve ever seen, he fought crime without powers, without money, without gadgets, without martial arts training, without even size or strength, eventually without even his mask–and still terrified the underworld, based on sheer willpower, viciousness and brilliant tactical intelligence. And some of his lines were beyond utter cool.
    “You don’t understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re all locked in here with me.”
    “Your thumbs. My perspective.”
    And so on. Ultimately people may like Rorschach better than Veidt just because Veidt was a pompous jerk while Rorschach had wicked one-liners.

  48. SolkaTruesilver says:

    @ Purple Library Guy

    It has been shown that tachyon emission (which can be caused by nuclear warfare) mess with Manhattan’s view of time and reality. It could be a self-fullfilling prophecy, that the nukes Manhattan will miss will cause the tachyon that will make him miss them.

    That is why I agree with Ozy and Glass about not betting all our lives on Manhattan.

    Oh, and was I the only one revulsed at the president’s comments about “It isn’t so bad” when the prediction shown that only 3/4 of Europe would be nuked while America would be spared? (comment he did before noticing other nukes striking the east coast)

  49. Glazius says:

    “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”

    And from the way Ozymandias looks in the reaction shot (well, the comic page) it’s pretty clear that yes, he DID think this would actually do it, bring a permanent end to an inevitable war.

    Inside the comic, we never explicitly find out how he deals with being wrong.

  50. guy says:

    @Purple Library Guy

    They certainly did know. He does so rather openly towards the start.

    I’ve heard it suggested that Glass was actually a pseudonym for Ozymandious, which would make it more clear-cut.

  51. Ethan says:

    There are a lot of great comments here so far. I like particularly the parallels described between Adrian’s actions and those of the protagonist of the Black Freighter story. I’ll add a few of my own.

    Adrian was a believer in the perfectibility of man. He had perfected himself, and clearly thought that all of humanity could and would evolve into something better. That was the purpose of the “Charles Atlas”-type ad copy in Watchmen.

    Adrian was a futurist and a seer. He did a lot of tracking of trend-lines, and “read entrails” in the TV screens. He predicted inevitable war by the mid-90’s. Despite his efforts to perfect mankind, he could not untie this Gordian Knot.

    His whole plan was his Alexandrian sword-stroke. He averted this doom (US/Soviet nuclear annihilation) and gave humanity enough time to evolve and survive.

  52. ChrisL says:

    Lots of interesting comments to think about. :-)

    The last time I read Watchmen, I feel I was aware more of Dr Manhattan’s character more than I was before. Even as Jon Osterman he did not relate easily to others and he always seemed to be easily led by stronger personalities – e.g., his dad choses his career for him and Jeannie Slater makes the first move in their relationship. Later he is passively led by the US government into becoming a superhero and a walking nuclear deterrent.

    It seems possible that while Dr Manhattan’s powers increase his isolation from humanity and difficulty in understanding emotions and morality, that only happened because that was the direction his personality was going, anyway. Imagine what might have happened if it was someone with a different personality type (e.g., the Comedian’s, or Veidt’s) who had their intrinsic field removed…

  53. Ghantu says:

    For all kinds of interesting thoughts on Watchmen, including some (real life) background on the characters, from someone who considers Watchmen one of three works he’d consider “perfection:” Absolute Watchmen. He doesn’t have much to say about the ending, but I found his explanation of Rorschach’s origination illuminating.

    (Adam’s other two “perfect” works are “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Star Control II)

    I suspect radio_babylon isn’t coming back, but I think Tom Shone kind of represents where he’s coming from.

    For my part, as a latecomer to Watchmen and, really, to comics as a medium, I enjoy and appreciate the plot and characterization in the book, but what really keeps me coming back to it is the feeling of craft. It’s incessantly pointed out that “comics is a visual medium,” but sometimes it feels like that’s just for the sake of drawing muscular people in skintight clothes. Watchmen, though, uses the medium in ways I find fascinating, from the Black Freighter to the sneaky insertion of unmasked Rorschach early in the book before you know it’s him, to the symmetric chapter… I find new awesome stuff every time I pick it up.

  54. July says:

    Well, he might have solved the problem, but he killed a bunch of people whose only crime was living in New York, the location that he arbitrarily decided on.

    The smartest man in the world should surely be able to come up with a second way to save the world. Shamus has a few as well.

  55. RudeMorgue says:

    When considering Ozzy’s obsession, I kind of pegged the origin at the moment when the Comedian pissed all over his ideas for an organized league of heroes (when he burned the map and walked out of the meeting). It’s pretty clear that that is a very hard moment for him, both in the book and the film, seeing an iconic hero dismiss his grand plan.

    So there’s a very definite, “I’ll show him. I’ll show them all!” motive to Ozzy’s madness as well. He may play at the altruistic martyr, and he may act like a cold logician, but he’s just as human as everybody else.

  56. It’s not just “I’ll show him”. It’s more “My god, he’s right. This is pointless–I really *will* just end up the ‘smartest guy on the cinder’ if I ignore the larger issues.”

    Of course, the Comedian assumes it’s hopeless and the best you can do is have some laughs before you exit.

  57. Magnus says:

    For those of you suggesting that his plan worked… well, that is perhaps intentionally not shown (in the book or film).

    There was no definate risk of disaster before Veidt made his move, just as there is no way of telling if his plan really did mean long term peace.

    We have had so many generation defining moments, moments that have changed the way we view the world as a species, and yet we still have fighting and war, on both small scale and large.

    Are we really further from apocalypse? have we rid ourselves of such things as Mutually Assured Destruction?

    Perhaps such things are just postponed, until one day, one government decides that they can play their hand when noone else expects, and “win”.

  58. B.J. says:

    One thing about Dr. Manhattan is that he isn’t omniscient. He can only see *his own* future. He can’t see what is happening everywhere on the world all the time. He couldn’t just wave his hands and vaporize all the nukes, because he would have to know where all of them are.

    I think the purpose of Watchmen is to show how Superheroes would actually affect the world they live it. Most comic books exist in a state of perpetual status quo, where Jean Grey is resurrected every other week but they still can’t cure cancer. Ozymandias accomplished more than Dr. Doom or Lex Luthor ever did, without the use of Ancient Latverian magic powers.

  59. C-Money says:

    When I read this book, I was underwhelmed. It was obvious (to me, anyway) early on in the book that Ozy/Adrian was behind several things. I can’t put my finger on the reason right now (I don’t have my book with me), but there was something early on that made sense.

    Now, this is not to say that I understood WHY he was doing this. And then finding out at the end why he was doing everything…well, it left me pretty annoyed. Like many here, I was frustrated that the “smartest man in the world” couldn’t find a better way to help reshape culture than through starting a war with imaginary beings.

    And that’s exactly what he does! He doesn’t just end the threat of a global war, he basically convinces everyone that we have to be ready for the interdimensional war. This is actually where I part ways with Moore on the probable outcome. It wouldn’t be all “peace and happiness” with ponies and candy for all. There would be an UNPRECEDENTED buildup of forces…juuuuuust in case those aliens came back. And sooner or later, one group of people (let’s call them Eurasians) would notice that they’re not getting a fair shake from another group of people (let’s call them North Americans), or vice versa. But now, we have even better weapons with which to destroy the world…as they’re intended to be used on uber-powerful aliens!

    Yeah, great job.

  60. C-Money says:

    @ theonlymegumegu:
    I DID read Kingdom Come, and whereas I enjoyed the overall story and, of course, art style, I detested the way it was written. I understand it’s “art”, but the actual execution of much of writing was disjointed and poor. I couldn’t understand what was happening from one page to the next, oft-times. There were moments of brilliance, concealed amongst the dross, however.

  61. Shawn says:


    Moore covers that point pretty well in the last few pages. Between Manhattan’s comment and the final scene it leaves the door open very wide for “this is not going to work out at all in the long run.”

  62. Coffee says:


    Remember that, in the book, The Crimebusters was an aging Captain Metropolis’ plan for dealing with “Promiscuity,” “Drugs,” “Anti-War Demos,” and “Black Unrest.”

    We could also argue that Ozymandias’ essential reaction is based more on The Comedian’s outright rejection of him as the potential leader, as well as the obvious lines – “…Inside thirty years the nukes are gonna be flyin’ like maybugs…” and “somebody has to save the world!” – than internalised megalomania.

    This meeting is explicitly referred to by Ozy as being vital in his decision to create and ultimately fulfil his plan.

    As far as Kingdom Come is concerned, or Dark Knight Returns… They’re somewhat diminished by the sequels, The Kingdom and Dark Knight Strikes Again. Even if I enjoy DKSA, myself.

  63. RichVR says:

    I can safely say that in all of the forum discussions about the Watchmen (book and/or movie) that I have read, this thread is THE most interesting and level-headed I’ve yet to experience.

    Bravo to all. And thank you Shamus for providing a truly perfect venue for it to happen.

  64. Yar Kramer says:

    Ah, someone beat me to mentioning Death Note. I will say that, without stupidly-brilliant detectives on the scene like Near or L, a prospective Kira in our world would have an easier time at it than Light Yagami …

    Er … regardless, I’m gonna need to reread Watchmen. There’s just so much there you can miss.

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