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The Abyss Gazes Also: The Self-Referential Cynicism of Watchmen

By Matthew Levy and Heather Mathews1

The original script to Watchmen, typed in all caps on a manual typewriter by Alan Moore, begins with what could be interpreted as a statement of authorial intent:


Comics had been troubling and troubled before. As David Hajdu chronicles in The Ten-Cent Plague: The Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America, the period after WWII saw a panic about the dangers of comic books for juveniles and even congressional hearings blaming delinquency on comics. Watchmen was certainly not the first comic to be taken seriously by American culture. But in 1986, the appearance of MausThe Dark Knight, and Watchmen produced a new, wider appreciation of comics as a popular and serious art form for adults. Art Spiegelman earned respect for Maus by taking on as a subject the serious matter of the Holocaust, conducting rigorous research,2 and by demonstrating to a popular audience how the literary devices available in comics can support nonfiction inquiry. Maus was a comic to appeal to people who didn’t normally read comics; the other two were published by DC Comics and targeted a regular comic audience. Like MausWatchmen and The Dark Knight tell stories of shocking evil in a world gone crazy; unlike Maus, they set their stories in fictional worlds of costumed criminals and heroes.

Dave Gibbons, the artist who collaborated with Moore to create Watchmen, observes,

The year of Watchmen‘s first publication was also notable for The Dark Knight Returns, a bold re-imagining of Batman, by writer-artist Frank Miller. Dealing in many of the same concerns, it seemed to form, along with Watchmen, a two pronged assault upon the iconic values and conventions of the super-hero comic. (Gibbons 240)

As a description of Watchmen‘s relationship to the superhero comic and its audience, “assault” is not an exaggeration. “Comic” is another word for comedian, and Comedian is the name of the character whose murder at the beginning of Watchmen sets the action of the story in motion. Because a mystery plot structures Watchmen, reading it becomes an investigation of motives. On the surface, these motives are the characters’—What memories does each of them have of the Comedian? Is this a reason for murder?—but Watchmen‘s formal experimentation and self-referential content reveal the story to be a pretext for a more interesting investigation of the development of comics as a medium and of the narrative and visual techniques that power them. Watchmen focuses attention on the psychological mechanisms that make comics work and on the various sordid motives that fueled their commercial success, from the exploitation of “true crime” and violence, to the wartime chauvinism of Captain America, to the sexploitation of Wonder Woman. Significantly, these are motives that implicate Watchmen‘s readers as they immerse themselves in the dark side of comics.3

Watchmen recharacterizes comic icons, transforms real historical context to make the story, and scrutinizes comic reading and viewing, exposing through careful visual placement and framing the nature of looking and desire that comics exploit. In this sense, the death of the Comedian implies/requires the death of the naïve reader. The Comedian’s murder makes a statement4 that comics are not just “funnies.” They demand serious critical attention, an assertion that has only increased in importance as comics have increased in cultural significance. Many aspects of the book help to accomplish this self-critique, including the use of subplots and texts within the text that comment upon the main story directly or by parallel, such as the pirate story and memoir and journal excerpts. We have chosen to focus our reading of Watchmen primarily on the costumed identities of Watchmen‘s characters and how they problematize the heroism of comic book characters, thereby impacting the pleasure of the reader.

Watchmen as Cynical Theory-Practice

Watchmen is a profoundly Cynical text, not just in terms of its generally bleak outlook and unflattering portrayal of human character, but more importantly in how it demands that readers “look behind the curtain” of comics themselves. As is evident in its narrative and visual composition, Watchmen is a comic about comics. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, with which many critical comic readers are familiar, is a helpful comparison here as it explicitly presents a theory of comics. Demonstrating his ideas about comics through the medium of comics makes it easy for McCloud to provide relevant visual examples as he explains and argues. At the same time, it makes his book more appealing to his presumed audience, people who like to read comics. The benefits of theorizing and practicing simultaneously seem obvious in this context; yet, traditionally, “theory” has been opposed to “practice.” The word is derived from the Greek theoria, which carries the meaning of consideration or contemplation, but more directly means “a looking at.” This has special significance for a discussion of a book of art, whether McCloud’s or one named Watchmen.

An implicitly critical text, Watchmen has a title that creates two “puncepts” (Ulmer), one related to watching or looking and the other related to watches (timepieces) or time. Throughout Watchmen, the act of looking shapes the narrative, constitutes the conflict and desire between characters, and structures the relationship of the reader to the novel. The theme of looking in turn connects to the theme of time: much of this looking is characterized by nostalgia (an effect repeatedly called to our attention in the story by Adrian Veidt’s perfume line, “Nostalgia”). Watchmen complicates the easy, nostalgically pleasurable act of looking at superhero comics. It exposes the fictional good old days the genre seems to imply in a harsh parrhesiastic light.

As Michel Foucault discusses in Fearless Speechparrhesia (“free speech” or “frank truth-telling”) was a Greek cultural practice that came to be associated with the Cynics, an informal Socratic school of philosophy. In parrhesia‘s earliest traceable cultural meaning, the truth-value of the speech is bound up with the risk the speaker takes in offending the audience. Parrhesia has social, philosophical and interpersonal value because the speaker helps the leader, the thinker, or the friend correct his course of action.5 In one textual example discussed by Foucault, “Philodemus regards parrhesia not only as a quality, virtue, or personal attitude, but also as a techne comparable both to the art of medicine and to the art of piloting a boat” (110).6 One of the main reasons medicine and piloting are alike in this respect is that “in both cases, the necessary theoretical knowledge required also demands practical training in order to be useful” (110).

McCloud embeds his theory in practice through craft, performatively. Watchmen shares the self-referential quality of McCloud’s work as a comic about comics, but Moore and Gibbons do something rather different than “fixing” or “identifying” comics by defining them. Understanding Comics largely neglects social forces, focusing on the formal properties of comics (supplemented with a universalizing psychology of reading) and thus might be thought of as a throwback to New Criticism (at least to the context-negating strain of New Criticism). Watchmen, by contrast, draws attention to formal and thematic commonplaces within itself in order to make a wry commentary on the relationship between comics and the world. Watchmen comes closer to parrhesia than Understanding Comics because it directs a pointed critique at its subject and audience and risks offending that audience.

In addition to a self-referential, performative quality, Watchmen employs other important Cynical theory-practices: cutting social commentary and an aggressive manner of addressing an audience that is quite the opposite of pandering or flattery. While Plato had identified rhetoric with seeking audience approval rather than truth (putting lipstick on a pig, as politicians like to say), the Cynics showed that rhetoric need not pander to be winning. The audience can be suspicious of flattery, knows its own motivations are mixed, and may regard riskier statements as evidence of authenticity and bravery. In fact, Cynical presentation has proven to be effective at times not just in politics but also in popular culture. Challenging the audience can work when the audience appreciates surprise and delights in having norms transgressed and expectations shattered.

Risking offending one’s audience as a kind of rhetorical appeal is a typically Cynical move. It is in keeping with the motto of the first Cynic, Diogenes, “to deface the common currency,” which announces the Cynic’s intention to challenge cultural assumptions. In a number of anecdotes Diogenes insults philosophers and other powerful figures (such as Plato and Alexander the Great) and thereby gains their respect, as well as great fame. Plato sees that Diogenes is a Socrates gone mad and Alexander says that if he were not himself, he should like to be Diogenes. Diogenes speaks truth to power and thus earns his reputation. Perhaps an even more radical example is that of Hipparchia. For a woman to embrace a philosophical life already flew in the face of Greek expectations, but she further proved her commitment to Cynical practice by rejecting her parents’ requirements that she marry a wealthy man of noble status and by eschewing the standards of female modesty by standing naked unashamed. While the concept of parrhesia is not typically applied to aesthetic objects, the purpose of Foucault’s Fearless Speech is to show how parrhesia has been problematized and transformed by different historical and social contexts. Given the changing nature of the cultural meaning of parrhesia, it is “within bounds” to apply the concept to Watchmen. This Cynical practice of challenging the audience has become an important aspect of popular art that can take many forms, some of which are visual.

Take the example of Johnny Cash’s middle finger, directed at the center of the camera lens—contempt for audience distilled into a theatrical gesture.7 For those who cherish this image, is it because there is something exciting about a man who seems on the brink of losing control? Is it the virility of the phallic gesture (which has been appropriated not just by male artists like Eminem, but also by Lady Gaga and M.I.A)? Is it because we share this anger he expresses so exuberantly, feeling such an attitude is justified towards a society gone wrong and consistent with his willingness to identify with and perform for San Quentin Prison inmates? The gesture reflects a particular kind of intimacy with some portion of the audience that perceives itself as being in on the joke, sharing in the rebelliousness of it, assuming the F.U. is directed somewhere else. Yet as an audience member I may also accept the gesture towards the lens as being directed at “myself” and welcome this excoriation because I know of my own follies, sins, and participation in structures of injustice. After all, Johnny Cash was not just a kind of Cynic but also a Christian and an avowed sinner. Cynicism can activate any of these responses to evoke a positive response to a shocking gesture or aggressive posture towards audience. No one doubts, though, that Johnny Cash loves music or wants an audience. Cynicism’s satirical edge often works in service of resilience, appreciation, and a desire for renewal, which proves to be no less true in Watchmen.

For a second example, take Damien Hirst’s sculpture, For the Love of God, a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with diamonds. Hirst claims that the title of the work derived from his mother’s question, “For the love of God, what will you make next?” Like some earlier work by the artist, the piece indexes death, but here, Hirst has stated that he wanted to “make something that laughed in the face of it” (Shaw). And, like earlier examples by the artist, this piece seems intended to shock the audience, to draw media attention, and to create a sensation—not simply because of the use of a human skull in the construction of the piece, but because of its exorbitant cost. The materials alone were worth fourteen million pounds in 2007. When it did not sell immediately, Hirst claimed that an investment group had paid 50 million pounds cash for the piece (Byrne), leading to speculation that the real piece was not the skull itself but a performative exploration of the media focus drawn by the object’s price (Preece). In this case, shocking the audience works because all that the piece needs for its success (whether as a commodity, as an art object, or as a statement about the contemporary art market) is attention. Ambivalence like this regarding the impact of media and money on art or towards other satirical targets is a fairly typical Cynical trait. Such an action on the part of the artist presumes that the audience is ready to play along.

Similarly, for comics lovers to embrace the symbolic death of their superheroes, certain conditions of possibility were necessary. Watchmen Colorist John Higgins writes, “Almost everything about it seemed to be right, the timing, the right sort of audience, the publisher finally looking at creators as an important part of the business and not just an exploitable commodity” (Gibbons 166). From a commercial perspective, Watchmen was exactly the right kind of trouble for this historical moment. The comics community, for its part, was either secure or bored enough to be ready, perhaps even impatient, for Watchmen‘s intensification of themes and confrontational address. An “assault upon the iconic values and conventions of the super-hero comic,” Watchmen received an enthusiastic welcome by people who identify with superheroes and cherish superhero comics (Gibbons 124). It seems that comic readers were ready to risk a new perspective and Watchmen arrived just in time with a Cynical lens for them to look through.

Our collaboration, as art historian and rhetorician,8 has made possible an exploration of how the formal, iconographic, and narrative properties of Watchmen help shape this Cynical lens. We have borrowed from art history and visual studies, using formal analysis to deconstruct the mechanics of the picture, breaking the image into its constituent parts—elements such as composition and space, color and line—and exploring how those parts work together graphically. Invoking iconographic analysis, we examine how the images function within the larger artwork (here, the book) as symbols. As a piece of “sequential art,” to use Will Eisner’s term, that combines images with words, Watchmen demands a reading that also considers the interplay between images and text within the narrative. Taken together with attention to cultural context by way of gender theory and rhetoric, these methods allow us to understand Watchmen as a theory of comics and as a social commentary within comics about their cultural meaning.

Smiley and the Squirming Mask

Michael J. Prince has written convincingly on Watchmen as social commentary, in particular with regard to the ways each character’s attraction to costumed adventuring reveals an aspect of what Timothy Melley calls “agency panic.” Agency panic is characterized by an effort to reassert the “vitality of a more familiar and comforting model of self in response” to grand historical changes such as Cold War weapons systems which depend on collective action and threaten the autonomy of the individual (817). Without framing the issue in terms of Cynicism explicitly, Prince’s reading of Watchmen addresses a central theme of Cynicism, how civilization and its advancements make human beings dependent on things and threaten the Cynical value of self-reliance. This Cynical aspect of his reading makes it complementary with ours. Prince focuses on how Watchmen responds to historical factors directly; we are interested in how Watchmen accomplishes a study of its own genre within its cultural context.

For instance, Prince provides a reading of the significance of the costume of Edward Blake, the Comedian. Based on Marvel’s Captain America, Blake is “draped in stars and stripes from the American flag” and fights against “Communist insurgents and governments, not domestically (as Captain America did in the 1950s), but as a tool of American foreign policy” (819). While Prince sees Watchmen defusing “what the United States abhors domestically” (821-822) by exporting it, Blake’s violence is hardly portrayed in a good light, whether when he kills a woman he has impregnated abroad, or domestically, when he attacks rioters or assaults one of the other costumed adventurers. The Comedian is menacing by design, as we learn from Gibbons’s Watching the Watchmen:

The Comedian’s costume was also a problem. Originally, given a military styling, he ended up in black leather complete with a rapist mask. Looking to lighten the effect, I gave him a smiley badge.… Alan ran with this detail, elevating it into the central motif of the series; the ultimate simplistic cartoon image splattered with real, messy blood.” (45)

Reading Blake’s character only as a commentary on U.S. military action requires that we limit our understanding of the relationship between the comic and the reader to conclude that it operates strictly within the story line presented by the comic. Yet, because many readers will be aware of the connection between Blake and Captain America, they may equally read Blake’s actions as a commentary on Captain America’s ideological role within U.S. cultural and political history. There is no reason to assume a naïve reader; in fact, Watchmen is designed, at least in part, to cure readers of the notion that comics are innocent or have been historically. It is tempting to liken Watchmen‘s bright smiley face to Diogenes’s lamp, which he carries around Athens, looking in vain for an honest man. Yet, Blake the Comedian is not like Diogenes the aggressive ethical critic. He is a textbook modern cynic according to Sloterdijk’s definition, in which the cynic is neither the critic nor the ignorant one who needs edification. Blake understands the horrific implications of what he is doing but does it anyway (Sloterdijk 6) (see fig. 1).

Figure 1: Comedian with flamethrower, bottom row, IV/19

Prince also comments on the “smiley face” that Blake wears as a pin, which is what remains of his Comedian look after he takes a military role and starts dressing up like Captain America. Prince says the smiley face “stands as an icon for… careless chauvinism facilitated by a nihilistic ethical detachment” (819). As we have seen, though, Gibbons calls the smiley “the ultimate simplistic cartoon image” (45). Here it is helpful to return to McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud uses a smiley to explain why comics are so engaging, arguing that a more detailed drawing represents someone else to the reader, while a less detailed drawing, such as a cartoon face or a smiley, can equally represent the reader him- or herself. The level of detail of a smiley is similar to our own awareness of the expression of our face when we are not looking in the mirror (McCloud 34-39). As a result, we potentially identify with simply-drawn characters even more than we might a role played by an actor in a film. While Moore and Gibbons could not have known McCloud’s interpretation, coming as it did seven years after Watchmen, McCloud’s understanding of the reader’s association with the smiley face can be turned to Watchmen to draw out the book’s relationship to its audience. For McCloud, the smiley represents the naïve reader who identifies with comic book characters because of how human psychology interacts with icons. Moore’s and Gibbons’ book makes use of that same, naïve connection, foregrounding it by placing the smiley on the cover of Watchmen—but splattering it with blood. When violence is directed at the Comedian in Watchmen, the naïve reader is a more important casualty.

While this connection between the smiley and the reader in Watchmen seems tenuous if we look at Blake alone, it is strengthened by attention to the mask of Rorschach, which makes psychological identification an explicit theme within Watchmen. Rorschach’s mask is a deranged, squirming, unsmiley face. It looks like the tests after which his character is named and to which he is subjected in therapy. In therapeutic use, the patient, confronted with a random inkblot, is asked to say what the shape resembles, a process that ostensibly reveals something about the patient through projection. Much like the smiley in McCloud’s theory, the Rorschach test functions through narcissistic identification (McCloud 30-3) (see fig. 2).

Figure 2: Rorschach close-up, center right panel, VII/3

Curiously, many readers seem to be more enthralled with Rorschach than any other character. Perhaps this is because readers sieze on the iconoclasm that Rorschach represents, because he is so self-righteously, uncompromisingly moralistically opposed to the cultural reality within Watchmen. Yet, he is also a highly disturbed, violent, misogynistic reactionary, which most readers also understand.9 Rorschach’s name is a signal to readers that Watchmen is exploring the dark side of how comics can work: narcissistic identification facilitating ideological persuasion.

Revealing Costumes

[M]en act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.… The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. —John Berger, Ways of Seeing (47)

“And Miss Juspeczyk. Although I never liked your uniform. Nothing personal.” —Rohrschach, Watchmen VIII/21

Not just the mask, but the entire costume serves as a fulcrum for Watchmen‘s Cynical reordering of the conventional comic form. In this story, as in so many other stories of costumed heroes, the costumes are external signifiers of their wearers’ split identities: their everyday selves and their superhuman alter-egos. Some classic examples might include Wonder Woman’s skimpy, patriotic leotard (and perhaps the lasso and “bracelets of submission” with which her creator tied her to bondage culture (Hadju 77-78), not to mention the see-through airplane that makes that costume visible at all times) or Batman’s hooded and armored bodysuit, secretly augmented by an arsenal of impossibly high-tech gadgets.10 At the other extreme is Superman’s reverse costume: Clark Kent’s unmemorable suits and ties, which disappear to reveal the “real” hero underneath (Eco 14-15). Watchmen‘s costumes, like these and others throughout the history of comics, are integral to the hero’s public persona and to his or her articulation of a unique approach to crime-fighting.

At the same time, throughout Watchmen, costumes reveal something more about the identities of their wearers, externalizing their deeper concerns. An early example comes in the first chapter, setting the reader up for the central and recurring role this device will have in the larger narrative (I/25). Laurie (Silk Spectre), out for dinner with Dan (Nite Owl) in order to escape her most recent crisis with Jon (Dr. Manhattan), seizes on her old Silk Spectre costume as a symbol of her general ambivalence towards her life. She laments having spent “ten years running around in a stupid costume because my stupid mother wanted me to!” Laurie’s frustration and disillusionment with what she had to wear—representing what she was made to be—is palpable.

But the costume’s role is immediately complicated when, in the next breath, Laurie exclaims, “You remember that costume? With that stupid little short skirt and the neckline going down to my navel? God, that was so dreadful.” To this, Dan responds rather tentatively: “God, yes. Dreadful.” With its short hemline and plunging neckline, Silk Spectre’s getup was typical for a female hero, emphasizing sex appeal over practicality. Laurie’s criticism of her own clothing can be read as a criticism of this convention more generally. And yet, Dan’s apparent agreement, given with a nervous twist of his head, hand grabbing at his collar, hints that he actually found her costume alluring—as, we can assume, many readers also do. This short episode, then, does not simply illustrate Laurie’s dissatisfaction with skimpy leotards, but also helps to establish a larger critique of the established norms for female hero costumes. The tension between her statement and Dan’s response, in turn, further embodies the theme of the dual nature of costumes in general. As we discuss below, although Laurie, and later, Dan dismiss costumes as distasteful relics of an earlier time, it quickly becomes clear that their professed indifference to costumes is not entirely truthful. In fact, their costumes hold real agency for them and facilitate their return to crime-fighting, a sense of purpose, potency, and sexual intimacy.

Exchanges like this between Laurie and Dan occur throughout the novel. They are a nod to the reader, who presumably shares enough awareness of superhero comics to understand such passages as a critique and as a potential transformation of the conventions of comic costumes. Importantly, within this scheme, costume in Watchmen not only reveals a deeper aspect of the hero’s character but also functions as a historical index, linking implicitly to the real history of the comic genre. At the same time, costume is also used by the authors to mark shifts in the alternate history of the narrative. In some cases, as sometimes happens in traditional hero comics, a character’s costume stays the same, or changes only subtly, while the body inside changes, as is the case with Silk Spectre or Night Owl. This is consistent with the commercial advantage of using a consistent costume to make a superhero iconic—as a branding method. In other cases, the change is more dramatic, signaling a deeper transformation in the wearer.

The Passion of Manhattan

The most obvious example of this shift over time is that of Dr. Manhattan. In book IV, Jon/Doctor Manhattan offers a blow-by-blow commentary of his relationship to his costume and to other “costumed adventurers.” Introduced to his presumed colleagues by his military handlers, he notes that he has nothing in common with them, that he is uninterested in “friendly, middle-aged men who like to dress up” (IV/14). Jon is the only superhuman, the single character in Watchmen who has undergone one of those physical transformations that occur early in so many superhero comic series to grant the main character “powers.” With his ability to transform and transport at will, he does not need a costume like the others. Posing for the publicity photos of his public debut as a superweapon/crimefighter, Jon rejects the conventional costuming that is foisted on him:

“How do you like your costume? Pretty slick, huh?”
“I don’t like it. Especially this helmet. What’s this symbol stand for?”
“Uh, well, it means, like, atoms, atomic power, like that.”
“It’s meaningless. A hydrogen atom would be more appropriate. I don’t think I shall be wearing this.”
“B-but that’s the only place where your symbol shows! The marketing boys say you need a symbol…”
“They don’t know what I need. You don’t know what I need. If I’m to have a symbol, it shall be one I respect.… There.” (Draws a hydrogen atom on his forehead.) (IV/12)

Later in the same sequence, Jon notes the day he informed the Pentagon, “I’ll no longer be wearing the whole of my costume.” (IV/17) From this point on, Jon’s costume begins to shrink. From a full-length bodysuit it shifts to something between a wrestling suit and a leotard. This shift in costume style coincides with Jon’s first interlude with Laurie, one of several examples of the ways in which the female characters’ sexuality (or sexual acts) mark significant points of narrative, as we discuss below.

Jon becomes increasingly and more adamantly naked over the course of the story. In the scenes of Jon’s interventions in Southeast Asia, his uniform has become a dramatic m-shaped brief (IV/20); a few pages later, he is shown with Laurie, breaking up a protest in front of the White House—here the brief has shrunk to a g-string (IV/22) (see fig. 3).

Figure 3: Doctor Manhattan from behind, center row, left, IV/22

The rest of the process isn’t shown to us in this sequence, but by the end of IV, Jon is shown either completely clothed, wearing a suit in his human form, or completely naked, floating above the surface of Mars in his superhuman form. Notably, the process of becoming naked parallels Jon’s gradual disconnection from humanity. As if to reiterate that process, Jon’s distance from Laurie and her angry departure from the relationship are depicted in a panel framed so that the viewer watches Laurie leave from a vantage point behind Jon’s naked thigh (IV/25).

Sticking Jon’s butt in our faces (male nakedness not being the favored sort in traditional comics) is but one means by which Dr. Manhattan’s dismissiveness towards his costume helps Watchmen accomplish its cynical auto-critique. Like other characters in the book, he forces us to notice aspects of costumes to which we have become inured. Notably, Jon’s stripping down of his costume helps create his resemblance to at least three mythic characters: Superman, Jesus, and Paul from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Superman strips off a costume made up of everyday wear to reveal a true self clothed in spandex and cape; Superman is from outer space, and Jon retreats there to get away from human beings and assembles a timepiece castle that resembles Superman’s crystal and ice-shard laden Fortress of Solitude. During his transformation into Dr. Manhattan, Jon undergoes a process that is drawn in such a way to take him through a crucifixion and ascension; his lack of clothing underscores the fact that these images imitate Christian iconography; later Jon is even made to walk on water (see figs. 4-6).

Figure 4: Jon crucified, panel four, IV/8
Figure 5: Jon’s ascension, panel four, IV/10
Figure 6: Jon walks on water, panel six, XII/25

Finally, both Jon and Paul (in the sequel to DuneDune Messiah) undergo intense physical transformations that make them godlike and render clothing superfluous; the debt Jon’s character development owes to Paul’s is made more obvious by the fact that both characters are trapped by prescience, and this fact is crucial to the plots of the books they appear in. It would be too much of a digression from the subject of costumes to discuss adequately the relationship between trapped prescience and Sloterdijk’s analysis of ideological cynicism (enlightenment without agency). Suffice it to say that Frank Herbert summed up the message of the Dune series in this Nietzschean way: “I am showing you the superhero syndrome and your own participation in it.” There can be little doubt that, directly or indirectly, Dune inspired Moore and Gibbons to bring this critique of superhero worship home to the medium of comics (Touponce 24).

What Does Woman Watch? (Revenge of the Object)

As the example of Dr. Manhattan shows, costumes not only establish visual links between the characters in Watchmen and other iconic figures; they also help the reader trace the passage of time within the story and reveal the relationships between the characters and their own pasts. In the present time of the Watchmen narrative, the costume has been made an illicit object by the Keene Act, a 1977 law (in the timeline of the comic) which prohibited “costumed adventuring.”11 Exceptions have been made for Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian because of their work for the military; otherwise, when a costume appears on a character, it signals transgression. Those characters associate their costumes with their former adventuring careers. For them, the costumes carry not only the attraction of the forbidden but also the enchantment of glory days. This backdrop of transgression makes it possible for Watchmen to explore a scenario in which costumes have taken on a fetishistic agency. This is revealed most markedly in the story of Laurie and Dan, for whom the costume becomes a sexually charged object but also an aid to regaining a satisfying life. With the help of their old costumes, they overcome numerous uncertainties about themselves and their positions in the world. Costumes allow them to finally succeed in establishing a sexual and otherwise intimate relationship.

Laurie and Dan thus epitomize Watchmen‘s focus on costumes—how the characters use them, how the reader sees them, and even, as we will explain, how the costumes see the characters. Through costumes, the book offers an intentional unveiling of the sexual politics of traditional comics. How the characters dress, the way they are posed, and the way they are seen by each other and by the viewer dismantle the expectations of the typical comic reader.12 That reader is explicitly addressed throughout Watchmen, as are the conventional comic representations of sex that the readership values. This is illustrated quite clearly in an advertising copy montage on X/31, in which Veidt critiques the marketing scheme behind his perfume. The text can easily be understood as a lightly veiled commentary on the soft-porn aesthetic that is common in superhero comics:

The sexual imagery is obvious, the woman adjusting her stocking being overtly erotic, yet layered with enough romantic ambiance to avoid offence.… In the soft focus imagery and romantic atmosphere, the advertisements conjure an idyllic picture of times past. (X/31)

The sexuality of the hero is just one in a catalog of attributes that makes him or her desirable to the reader, often presumed to be straight and male. Given this audience, the characterization of sexuality differs for male and female heroes; sexually potent male heroes and sexually available female heroes are common currency in traditional comics. When Watchmen turns to the sexuality of its heroes, however, it often shows us grotesque, damaged, brutal and vulnerable sexual actors, rather than potent male and happily acquiescent female figures.

In an overarching way, sex is crucial to the narrative of Watchmen. Indeed, at several key points, the story is advanced by female characters’ expression of their sexuality, or by their sexual experiences, whether these are wanted or not.13 But these are not naïvely pleasurable moments—neither for the characters nor for the readers. Earliest in the narrative timeline, the first Silk Spectre’s near rape by the Comedian prefaces a troubled, though consensual, sexual relationship that eventually results in Laurie’s birth. Some time later, the Comedian’s violent, indeed psychotic relation to sex is reiterated in his casual murder of the Vietnamese woman who is carrying his child.

Laurie’s seduction of Jon (if we can understand it as such) ends his marriage and coincides with his move into a new phase of cooperation with the government. It foreshadows her eventual frustration with and rejection of Jon, cued by an unnerving sexual encounter with multiple emanations of him. Their breakup, in turn, ultimately leads to Jon becoming increasingly distant from humanity, having lost his remaining connection through Laurie. For Laurie, meanwhile, the break with Jon signals a new awareness of her own potential, which she discovers largely through an attraction to Dan. The eventual consummation of their relationship also remakes Dan, resulting in the two of them launching a campaign to free Rorschach, pursue Veidt, and, eventually, to return to adventuring.

The biggest crisis of all, the cataclysm of the teleported monster, begins with Hira Manish somewhat reluctantly consenting to have sex with Mr. Shea, an attempt cut short by the massive explosion that destroys the ship and sends the monster towards New York (XII/18). That sequence of events ends with what can best be described as a crotch shot of the creature as it lies draped over the city (XII/6). The vaginal form of the monster, first made apparent in Manish’s drawing in VIII/11, here is positioned at what we could call eye-level for the reader. The image makes an adamant reference to both the vagina dentata and tentacle-based hentai. But this final image also drives home the catalog of allusions to women’s sex in Watchmen (that is, their desire, their availability, their choices, perhaps even their victimization and the threat posed by their empowerment) as drivers of change, positive or otherwise, within the story.

To a great extent, the undoing of the readers’ expectation of unproblematically pleasurable sexual imagery is effected through what the characters wear and their awareness of it, which in turn is rendered visible to the reader through the cropping and points of view of individual scenes or panels. In other words, it’s not simply the costuming of the characters but their, and our, ways of looking at those costumes that forms Watchmen‘s Cynical critique of comic conventions.

Seeing in the Dark: Dan and Nite Owl’s Costume

We would expect traditional comic books aimed at an adolescent male audience to exploit the reader’s insecurities by showing an insecure male becoming powerful and “getting the girl” or, in the case of Superman, by showing that the outward insecurity of the character/reader is just a thin layer over the hero within. We would not be surprised that the dragon to be slain in these stories would be female sexuality. Watchmen goes through these same motions, but renders the exploitative nature of this pattern legible, sticking it in the reader’s eye. The disappointment of reader expectations happens in less violent ways, as well, as when it foregrounds a vulnerable and awkward male character that does not fit conventional understandings of super-hero valor. Dan’s evolution from hero to regular nerd and back to hero prevents the typical reader’s projection of himself onto the role of the hero by creating a character that is flawed and uncertain from the beginning. For a more savvy reader, however, the complexity of Dan’s story is another acknowledgment of that reader’s awareness of the tired conventions of comics and a desire for something more.

Significantly, the costume (and the characters’ and readers’ need to see it) plays a central role in the story of Dan and his interactions with Laurie, particularly in chapter VII. Marking Dan’s fraught return to his crimefighting identity, his costume functions much like a character in its own right through its insistent physical presence throughout this chapter. Using composition and framing, Gibbons draws the viewer in to see the action from the point of view of the costume. Several significant moments of Dan’s crisis and its resolution unfold under the gaze of his costume hanging on the wall, and they are reflected in turn by the eye-like portholes of Archie the airship, parked in the middle of Nite Owl’s lair. Gibbons creates a matrix of “looks” between these inanimate objects, looks that mimic and reiterate those shared by the characters and the reader’s active scrutiny of the page.

The chapter opens with a full page close-up of one side of Dan’s Nite Owl goggles. One clean streak runs across its surface, which shines with a reflection despite a layer of dust. The slash through the dust here recalls the splash of blood on the smiley face of the Comedian and, like the smiley’s similarities to the Doomsday Clock on each chapter’s first page, tie this episode to the larger concerns of the story. Gradually, the episode unfolds through the eyes of Dan’s costume: Laurie is revealed wiping the dust from the goggles, and later from the large, circular/ocular windows of Dan’s airship. While exploring, Laurie accidentally triggers the ship’s flame-thrower and sets the room on fire. After this, Dan rushes in to fight the fire, while the costume hangs mute in the background (VII/2-5).

In the final panel on VII/4, a close-up of the other side of Dan’s goggles reveals Dan and Laurie in the reflection, with the airship behind them. Floating over the panel is Dan’s embarrassed dismissal of his eccentric crime-fighting career: “Just a schoolkid’s fantasy got out of hand. That’s, y’know, with hindsight… on reflection” (VII/4). The double meanings in this sentence allude to the artist’s use of the goggles to frame the entire episode through the “eyes” of Dan’s costume. When Dan and Laurie leave the ship, we see them again, framed through the window, as we look over the shoulder of the empty costume, which faces them (VII/7) (see fig. 7).

Figure 7: Dan and Laurie in Archie, seen over the “shoulder” of Dan’s costume, top three panels, VII/7

The sequence sets up the costume as a living, though dormant, part of Dan’s identity, an external observer, temporarily detached from Dan but hovering nearby.

Dan’s ambivalence towards “costumed adventuring” is revealed once more a page later, when he explains that an experimental “exo-skeleton” broke his arm during a trial run. Laurie exclaims, “Jesus. That sounds like the sort of costume that could really mess you up.” Dan replies, “Is there any other sort?” (VII/8) Once more the book signals to the reader, here through the doubts of the characters, its skeptical dismantling of comic convention. As the couple moves through the garage towards Dan’s costume we are again positioned behind the hood, watching Dan and Laurie over its shoulder (VII/9). In the three central panels on VII/10, the remainder of their conversation in Dan’s secret lab is staged so that the costume, in particular the hollow spaces that would frame the wearer’s eyes, form the left side of the panel. The final frame on this page shows a single side of the goggles, with a reflection, just as at the start of the episode. Superimposed on it are Dan’s words: “These days I feel like something’s watching my every move”(VII/10).

These vignettes firmly connect the act of looking with the framing potential of the costume—framing in the sense of defining the action of the sequence, but also in terms of establishing an identity for the wearer of the costume. In place of the conventional, one-dimensionally heroic costume, Watchmen offers the reader a more complex interpretation of the use of costuming. The storyline of Dan and Laurie in particular reveals the pitfalls and pleasures of the masquerade14—here, developing an alternate persona through clothing—but also the power of fetishizing garments, as we see later in chapter VII, when Dan’s and Laurie’s costumes bring back lost power and thus lost passion to their wearers.

Punctuating Dan’s awkward, unfinished sexual attempt on the couch with Laurie (emphasized through juxtaposition with Ozymandias’s graceful acrobatic display on the TV), the last panel in the episode is a close-up of one lens of Dan’s glasses, the everyday equivalent of his goggles and a symbol of the inertia of his life (VII/15). A dream sequence then follows that reveals Dan’s fetishization of his and Laurie’s costumes; he strips the bondage model-cum hero Twilight Lady of her skin to reveal Laurie/Silk Spectre beneath—fully costumed (VII/16). It is only after he essentially admits his fascination with the costume (Twilight Lady’s or Silk Spectre’s) to Laurie that Dan allows the costume to reassert its power in his life. Dan’s split identity, represented by the hollow, bodyless costume through which we see the action unfold in this chapter, is resolved when he once again assumes the identity of Nite Owl in a three-panel sequence on VII/20. On the left, Dan, clothed in goggles and nothing else, confronts the hollow head of the hood/mask. In the center, we see Dan standing naked, seemingly embracing the costume. In the right panel, only his leg and arm are visible as he pulls it onto his body, effectively unifying these two parts of himself.

After Dan embraces his costume again, the eye-like framing mechanisms of the goggle and the window return to reiterate Dan’s new wholeness even outside of his costume. In the central panels on VII/28, we see first a nude Dan and Laurie, relaxing after sex, reflected in one half of the Night Owl goggles (see fig 8).

Figure 8: Laurie and Dan in Archie, post-sex, top three panels VII/28

Next, we see Dan as he embraces Laurie, his one bright eye standing out against his otherwise darkened face; the yellow goggles are clearly visible in the background. The third panel has the viewer gazing out from the “eye” of the airship, through a large, round window, at Dan and Laurie in the dark.

This episode—a central one, coming near the middle of the book—traces the restoration of Dan’s identity and underscores the centrality of costumes to the Watchmen story and the book’s larger implications as performative critique. The costume, ostensibly a passive and vacant object of visual desire, becomes a powerful seeing subject, just as Watchmen itself becomes a lens on the genre of superhero comics.

Watchmen Watching

Through its costume theme, Watchmen foregrounds the acts of looking and reading toward the purpose of transforming comics and creating a more Cynical comic readership in a positive sense. By these means, the reader is prepared to answer the question that confronts us throughout the text: “Who Watches the Watchmen?” This repeated theme translates a Latin phrase from the Satires of Juvenal that comments on the problem of political corruption. In the context of Watchmen, it speaks to the growing discontent of the populace with the vigilantism of the main characters, which led to the Keene act. The Keene act carries an ironic resonance with the real life Comics Code, which was created by a self-regulating body set up by the Comics Magazine Association of America in 1954 in response to Frederick Wertham’s influential Seduction of the Innocent, which blamed juvenile delinquency on comic books. Arguably, since Watchmen is the name of the comic and also its main characters, it is the reader who watches Watchmen. As such, “Who Watches the Watchmen?” should also be read as a question about comic readership.

When we look at Watchmen, we see it looking back—at the history of comics and the desire of its readers—and offering a cutting critique of the art form and its audience. This critique is wide reaching and deserves further examination; we have chosen to focus our attention on how, through its use of costumes, Watchmen follows in the Dune tradition by pushing the audience to recognize its own participation in what Herbert called the “superhero syndrome.” In particular, Dan and Laurie’s scenes make a theme out of the erotic power of costumes in a way that challenges the readers’ use of comics as fantasies of heroism and domination (see fig. 9).

Figure 9: Dan in goggles, nude, bottom right panel, VII/19

As corrosive as Watchmen’s critique is, the unmasking it performs hardly constitutes a rejection of comics; rather, it signals that Moore and Gibbons have some confidence they might “a fit audience find, though few,”15 that there may exist an audience with an appetite for challenge and enough background knowledge in comics to appreciate what is going on in Watchmen. The richness of Watchmen‘s exploration of the types of looking the medium of comics makes possible reveals a powerful affection for comics and for the worlds and characters that have been created within. With Watchmen, the comic audience is given the opportunity to mature past simple hero worship to a more nuanced, troubled, deeper appreciation—no longer just “looking up to,” but looking from multiple perspectives and back at the problematic self. Art and literature, including the best comics, seek to challenge their audience and teach it to read the world by teaching it to read a text. Reading sparks reflection and improves the eye; it is a lesson in looking. More aggressive texts like Watchmen do so violently, a metaphorical murder to make room for a conceptual rebirth.


[1] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146.

[2] See Spiegelman, Metamaus.

[3] If “the dark side of comics” seems like an exaggeration, take a look at the Women in Refrigerators site. (Simone).

[4] More necessary in the Eighties, perhaps.

[5] Foucault also discusses a form of parrhesia that is a self-examination meant to improve one’s own thinking and behavior (164). Significantly, Foucault calls this exercise an “aesthetics of the self” (166). The point isn’t to self-flagellate but to improve one’s life like a craftsman. Furthermore, Foucault mentions poetry as another place where truth-telling can occur, which supports our contention that parrhesia can apply to aesthetics (169).

[6] Incidentally, in Watchmen a doctor and a pirate play important supporting roles providing thematic commentary on or counterpoint for the main plot.

[7] While we discuss here possible cultural meanings of Cash’s gesture, the original ostensibly was directed at the photographer during a rehearsal for the San Quentin performance. The image was later used by Cash in an advertisement to return an insult to the Nashville music industry.

[8] Our work grew out of a curricular experiment in Pacific Lutheran University’s First Year Experience Program, linking Heather’s First Year contemporary art class with Matthew’s Writing 101 course on “serious comic books,” in which Watchmen is a fixture. We thank our students for their enthusiastic discussion, which helped us recognize that there was much to be said about Watchmen at the crossroads of our scholarly interests.

[9] The “readers” on which we base this generalization are the students Matthew has taught in many sections of Writing 101; whether this is true generally of readers, we could not say.

[10] This observation could easily be extended beyond Batman to include the gear and vehicles that surround the hero. For example, Wonder Woman’s transparent jet is central to her ability to get around (and also provides the reader with an unobstructed view of her body).

[11] Perhaps this is an allusion to the 1967 Bagley-Keen act that amended the California constitution to stipulate that “the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny”; and “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created” (California).

[12] John Berger’s now forty-year-old discussion of the implications of dress, pose, and behavior in the representation of femininity inspired this interpretation.

[13] These episodes are not exactly major plot points, but they move the story along in a necessary way.

[14] See Riviere.

[15] John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 7 Line 31

Works Cited

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Eco, Umberto. “The Myth of Superman.” Trans. Natalie Chilton. Diacritics, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1972), pp. 14-22.

Foucault, Michel. Fearless Speech. Ed. Joseph Pearson. New York: Semiotext(e), 2001. Print.

Gibbons, Dave, Chip Kidd, and Mike Essl. Watching the Watchmen. London: Titan Books, 2008. Print.

Hajdu, David. The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America. New York: Farrar, 2008. Print.

McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994). Print.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Gordon Teskey. New York: Norton, 2004.

Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1986. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Marianne Cowan. Chicago: H. Regnery Co., 1955. Print.

Preece, RJ. “Why I love Damien Hirst’s skull.” artdesigncafé. 15 September 2009. Web. 05 April 2012.

Prince, Michael J. “Alan Moore’s America: The Liberal Individual and American Identities in Watchmen.” The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 44, No. 4, 2012.

Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as Masquerade.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 10 (1929): 303-13.

Shaw, William. “The Iceman Cometh.” New York Times. 03 June 2007. Web. 05 April 2012.

Simone, Gail. Women in Refrigerators. Ed. Rob Harris. N.p., 1999. Web. 17 Oct. 2011. <>.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Spiegelman, A. MetaMaus: A look inside a modern classic, Maus. New York: Pantheon, 2011. Print.

Touponce, William F. Frank Herbert. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1988.

Ulmer, Gregory L. “The Puncept in Grammatology.” in: Jonathan Culler (ed). On Puns: The Foundation of Letters. Basil Blackwell. Oxford, 1988, 164-189.

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