When The Watchmen Escape

A conversation on my Patreon the other day saw one of my patrons make the following point:

“Alan Moore was clearly pointing out that superheros were, by nature, indulging in sado-masochistic escapism, and their exploits should not be seen as heroic in any way.”

I’m going to take partial issue with those ideas, because I think that if that is Moore’s point, he fails to achieve it, at least in the way he wanted to.

Watchmen is a challenging and staggering work, no doubt, and one I have admired since reading it. And I partially agree with the statement: the Watchmen really aren’t heroic. Rorschach and the Comedian are psychopaths, theist and nihilist sides of the same coin. Ozymandias is a Stalinist tyrant, willing to slaughter his way to world peace, the Silk Spectres and the  Night Owls are dilettantes, using “crime-fighting” as a means to fame and self-esteem. Finally, there’s Dr. Manhattan, who is too powerful to be heroic in any true sense.

But is “not heroic” the same as “escapist?” While the Silk Spectres and the Night Owls, I think, can justly be accused of attempting to “escape” from the hard realities of the problem of crime, it strikes me that the other four are, in fact, finding their own ways of addressing what they see as cold, hard reality, and we see four separate means of engagement.

The Comedian considers morality to be a big, meaningless joke, and his response to it is essentially to revel in the knowledge and inflict pain on whoever he feels deserves it at the moment.

Dr. Manhattan is like the Comedian, except that his response to the meaninglessness of life is to disengage and pity humanity, lost in its illusions

Rorschach is the opposite of the Comedian, in that he considers a firm moral compass to be indispensable, but accepts that he will forever struggle against the corruption of an unworthy world, purging it of its worst offenders.

Finally, Ozymandias contrasts with both Rorschach and the Comedian, except that he sees the problem of human evil to be soluble with enough power at the disposal of enough intelligence, while still laughing at the idea that “morality” can apply to a superior being such as himself.

Of these four, only Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias can be said to be seeking “escape” from the realities of human life. Dr. Manhattan does it by denying, and Ozymandias does it by — if coldly and with horrible calculation — affirming its value. Rorschach and the Comedian — the psychopaths — escape nothing. They embrace what they perceive as reality, and dive into it headlong. To call them escapist would be to deny the problem of evil they face. But if there is no problem, then from what are they being accused of seeking to “escape?”

J.R.R. Tolkien, on having heard that fantasy was being denounced in high literary circles as “escapist” is quoted by C. S. Lewis as having responded, “What kind of men are so concerned that people might ‘escape?’ Only jailers.”

And so I must ask, if Alan Moore is trying to rail against the escapism of comics, who is doing the escaping? Is it the Comedian, trying to escape his responsibility as a moral being? Is it Rorschach, trying to escape the futility of life? Surely they cannot both be trying to escape: they are running in opposite directions. One of them is running the right way.

Or is the true escapist Alan Moore, who does not want to face that very dilemma?