Table of Contents
2. Defining the superhero
3. The deconstruction of the superheroes and their dispensability
3.2 Dr. Manhattan
3.3 Niht Owl
5. Works Cited
When reading Watchmen for the first time, it is highly possible that the reader encounters aspects which he did not expect to encounter. This might include the differences of Watchmen to other superhero comic books. Most of these differences can be seen with regard to the superhero characters, their respective features and character traits. The reader might realize then that Watchmen defies well-known stereotypical superhero characteristics. As claimed by Masserano, the characters of Watchmen represent “a radical departure from the … trite myth of the superhero” (3). This departure includes the deconstruction of the superhero.
In this paper I will analyse this deconstruction of the superhero and its stereotypical features in Watchmen. I assume that the deconstruction serves as a way to show the dispensability of superheroes. This is also the basis of my hypothesis. My thesis is that the superheroes in Watchmen and their stereotypical features are dispensable and that a life without them is definitely possible and even desirable.
In order to prove my thesis, I will first present a definition for stereotypical superheroes. Then, with the help of the definition, I will analyse a few of the protagonists of Watchmen and their features with respect to their differences to other superheroes and their dispensability. In the conclusion, I will summarize the results of my analysis and try to give a final statement about the dispensability of the superheroes and their superhero features.
2. Defining the superhero
Since I want to analyse the deconstruction of the superhero, it makes sense to give a definition first, and then to use this definition to highlight the differences to the superheroes in Watchmen.
Coogan defines the superhero by pointing out three major stereotypical features. These characteristics derive from Hand’s early definition of a superhero when he tried to clarify that Wonder Man copied Superman.
One conventional feature of superheroes is the identity. Following Hand, it is to say that the superhero’s identity consists of a codename and a costume (qtd. in Coogan 32). Coogan claims that there is a connection between the superhero’s codename and his inner character or his biography (33). For instance, Superman “is a super man who represents the best humanity can hope to achieve” (Coogan 33). The superhero names also often reflect the respective superpower (i.e. Flash), the attitude (i.e. Daredevil), or the role (i.e. Captain America) (Smith and Duncan 227). Costumes are also more than simple disguises (Reynolds 29). Often they are iconic representations of the superhero’s identities. Spider-Man’s webbed costume proclaims him a spider man for example. (Coogan 33). According to Reynolds, “[the costume] functions as a sign for the inward process of character development” (29). At this point, it is definitely to say that the respective identities of superheroes are not arbitrarily chosen. Codename and costume are often connected and they reflect who the superheroes are. This is an important factor. It allows the differentiation between superheroes, supervillains and ordinary people. Many superheroes also have a second identity.
A second feature of superheroes is the power. It is one of the most identifiable characteristics of superheroes (Coogan 31). Hand describes Superman and Wonder Man as characters with “miraculous strength and speed” (qtd. in Coogan 31) and being “wholly impervious” (qtd. in Coogan 31) to harm (Coogan 31). Powers can again be used to distinguish characters because superheroes have abilities that are “far superior to those of ordinary people” (Smith and Duncan 227). Of course the powers should be used to help people in need. Smith and Duncan also point out that there are superheroes without immediately identifiable superpower, for instance Batman (227). However, they also argue that these kind superheroes possess features which set them apart from ordinary people. Batman is an incredible athlete and detective, he can endure a lot of pain and punishment, and due to his vast wealth, he is able to make use of the latest technology in battle (Smith and Duncan 227). Many superheroes also have limitations in their powers. These limitations can be caused both by external and internal factors. External factors include everything from the outer world that might affect the superhero, for instance Superman’s adverse reaction to kryptonite. Internal factors refer to the superhero’s own personalities, for example Spiderman’s self-doubt (Smith and Duncan 227).
According to Hand, superheroes are “champion[s] of the oppressed who fight “evil and injustice” (qtd. in Coogan 30). From that, Coogan derives a third feature – the superhero’s mission (30). The mission has to be prosocial and selfless. Thus, the superhero ’ s “fight against evil must fit in with the existing, professed mores of society and must not […] benefit […] his own agenda” (Coogan 31). In other words, the superhero must act selflessly when helping people in need. Smith and Duncan even state that “when a character creates a superhero identity, he or she is making a commitment to help those in need and fight evil” (226). This commitment is the superhero’s mission. Gaining personally from powers or even using them to harm people will result in the loss of the superhero status. Interestingly, Coogan claims that the absent of the mission would transform a superhero into an “extraordinarily helpful individual” (31). This clearly shows the importance of this feature. By having a mission, a commitment or a dedication, superheroes can be distinguished by ordinary people.
3. The deconstruction of the superheroes and their dispensability
At this point, I want to make clear that Coogan defines superheroes with the aim of classifying characters as superheroes and, thus, differentiating them from other characters. This is not what I want to with the characters of Watchmen. I will not examine whether the protagonists of Watchmen are superheroes. For the purpose of my thesis, I need to take their position as superheroes already for granted. I will use Coogan’s definition as a basis to prove that the superheroes and stereotypical superhero features are dispensable. I also want to highlight here that there is a distinction between the dispensability of the superhero character itself and the dispensability of these conventional superhero features. The protagonists of Watchmen serve as a medium to defy these features.
The first superhero I want to analyse is Walter Kovacs or Rorschach. He has a dual identity. His superhero name derives from the mask he is wearing. The mask itself has a specific black and white pattern, which refers to a psychological test in which the participants have to interpret inkblot images. The colours black and white never mix on the mask. Interestingly, the mask is connected to Rorschach’s inner character. The fact that the colours do not intermingle shows Rorschach’s “well established moral code” (Flynn 21). He is an arbiter of justice (Flynn 19). Rorschach states: “Because there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished” (Moore and Gibbons 24; ch. 1). This is a statement every superhero with a sense of justice could have made. What is difference between Rorschach and other stereotypical superheroes now? Is he a dispensable character?
Rorschach, being the son of a prostitute, was plagued by abuse and neglect in his childhood. This let him become a pariah. He is an antisocial, deranged vigilante, who makes use of brutal methods against criminals (Flynn 18). He is wanted by the police and gets arrested. In jail, he continues his violent and physical behaviour against other inmates (Moore and Gibbons 15; ch. 8). He plays a rather negative role in society. For instance, a frightened barkeeper immediately recognizes Rorschach and begs him not to kill anybody (Moore and Gibbons 15; ch. 1). His actions shape his identity into a fearful character that defies typical superhero characteristics (Rapp and Birmingham 8).
Having a dual identity or a secret identity seem to match with stereotypical superhero features at first sight. However, according to Flynn, Rorschach is completely devoted to his superhero identity. He adopts his vigilante persona as his dominant self (Flynn 20). Rorschach picks up his clothes and says: Putting them on, I abandoned my disguise and became myself, free from fear or weakness or lust. My coat, my shoes, my spotless gloves. My face” (Moore and Gibbons 18; ch. 5). It his highly remarkable that Rorschach refers to his real identity as a disguise. Besides, he sees his mask as his real face. Moore uses a whole panel to illustrate that Rorschach puts on his “face”. His statements and in particular the panel with the mask clearly show that Rorschach favours his brutal and cruel superhero identity over his real identity. One could think of him having a personality disorder here. He is an unpredictable superhero who wants to fulfil his mission. Rorschach wants to ensure justice “and even in the face of Armageddon [he would] not compromise in this” (Moore and Gibson 24; ch. 1). However, his “fight against evil [does not] fit in with the existing, professed mores of society” (Coogan 31). Moore stated that Rorschach reflects a realistic representation of Batman’s way of dealing with criminals (Flynn 18). Reynolds has a similar opinion on this: “Rorschach is cut from the template of the vigilante superhero, but with every semblance of glamour apparently taken away” (107). Moore also adds that “a person dressing in a mask and going around beating up criminals is a … psychopath” (qtd. in Flynn 18). This statements clearly evoke the question of what would happen when a superhero like Rorschach would exist in the real world. The result would be having a highly criminal superhero who tortures and kills other people because of his completely own understanding of justice. He has an own perception of good and evil.
Under this circumstances, he has to be seen as a very dispensable and not desirable superhero. Furthermore, the stereotypical superhero feature justice, which belongs to the mission, is also defied and can be seen in a negative way. It is true that a sense of justice can never be dispensable for superheroes. However, Rorschach’s sense of justice shows that superheroes can have own interpretations of how to fight injustice and establish justice. This is the problem here. Walter Kovacs also loses his real identity to his superhero identity Rorschach. This clearly shows the deconstruction of the identity or the costume feature of superheroes. Therefore, one can also argue for the dispensability of having a second identity. However, it is not possible to generalise the threat of losing the control of the real identity for all superheroes. It depends on the individual character and the respective mental stability.