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Nothing Ever Ends

 

It's been said that The Golden Age of Comics is Twelve, meaning that the comics you first read when you first got into reading comic books always seem to be more meaningful and more special than comic books today. For me, that era was about the time I graduated from college and finally had the disposable income to buy comic books for myself.

So maybe it is just nostalgia talking, but nevertheless I think that the mid-to-late 1980s was an incredible time in the comic book field, especially for fans of DC Comics. The company had just dismantled their long-standing multiverse in the CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS and every month readers could watch them rebuilding the universe, issue by issue. John Byrne was retooling the SUPERMAN titles; George Perez was breathing new life into WONDER WOMAN; Frank Miller was startling us with his dark violent take on Batman in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS; new or re-vamped characters were being introduced into the DC Universe.

And then there was WATCHMEN.

To begin with, WATCHMEN was a completely radical rethinking of the most revered cliché of comics, the costumed crimefighter. The writer, Alan Moore, was already a rock star among comics creators for his dazzling work on the British comics MIRACLEMAN and V FOR VENDETTA and his reworking of DC Comics’ SWAMP THING. Moore wanted to totally re-think the super-hero and create a story about what would happen if super-heroes existed in the real world.

The idea of realism in comics in itself was nothing new; Stan Lee had ushered in the Marvel Age of the 1960s by giving his heroes realistic characterizations. In the early ‘70s, Denny O’Neil brought "relevance" to comics by addressing social issues in GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW. But WATCHMEN took this trend much farther. It was part of a huge surge of "grim ‘n’ gritty" comics in the mid-to-late ‘80s that re-defined the genre.

WATCHMEN is set in a world in which Richard Nixon is still president and considering running for a fourth term in office; Vietnam has been admitted as the 51st state; most cars run on electricity and the world lies teetering on the brink of nuclear war. All this can be connected, directly or indirectly, to the superheroes who once operated in this world. Most of them have retired now, since the government ban on masked crimefighters several years past. One of them, a psychotic vigilante named Rorschach, never quit; and when a former hero turned government agent named the Comedian is found dead on the sidewalk beneath his penthouse apartment, Rorschach believes it is murder and that someone is out to kill his former associates.

As Rorschach investigates, he and the other heroes find themselves drawn into a plot to commit an act of violence that makes the 9/11 attacks look like a fraternity prank. But the purpose of the horrific crime is to prevent a worse one: nuclear Armageddon. The heroes fail to stop the plot; but as a result of their failure, the world is saved.

Dennis, the resident intellectual of our comic book club, insisted that the Ozmandias, the mastermind behind the plot, was the real hero of the series because, after all, he did save the world from nuclear destruction. (Although to be fair, a major element of his plot brought the world up to the brink). The central theme of the comic, Dennis said, was an inversion of the standard comic book plot. In comics, any problem can be solved by beating the snot out of a bad guy. WATCHMEN points out that the most serious problems in the world can’t be solved that way; and so it falls to the "bad guy" of the story to solve the problem of nuclear war.

I think, though, that Dennis was also being a bit simplistic in his analysis of the story. There is another moral in Watchmen that I think he missed. It comes near the end. After the climactic confrontation, there is a conversation between Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan, a super-hero with near omnipotent power who is frequently used in the story to symbolize God. Ozzy asks Manhattan if he did the right thing, if it all worked out in the end.

Dr. Manhattan replies, "I thought you knew. Nothing ever ends."

He then teleports out of the room; and we see Ozymandias looking puzzled and concerned. What the heck did he mean by that?

When Zach Snyder came out with his 2009 movie adaptation of WATCHMEN, I was interested to see if he retained that line. Snyder's version was remarkably close to the original comic, not only taking dialogue directly from the book, but often striving to re-create the comic panel by panel. He did use the line “Nothing ever ends,” but gave it to another character, the Silk Spectre, who quotes it to Ozzy as a something Manhattan liked to say. The way she delivers it, she makes the line sound hopeful and life-affirming; but that's not how Ozymandias took it in the graphic novel.

I think I know what Dr. Manhattan meant. In that scene, Ozymandias was really asking if the Ends Justify the Means. Here Ozymandias achieves achieves World Peace and the Cessation of the Arms Race … at the cost of half the population of New York City. Dr. Manhattan does not answer directly, but his remark gives us a clue. This is the moral I took from Watchmen:

The Means that we use to accomplish our Good and Noble Ends have consequences and repercussions that far outlast those Good and Noble Ends.

Call it the Law of Unintended Consequences. Or, alluding to another graphic novel, you can remember the Road to Perdition and consider how it is paved with Good Intentions.

WATCHMEN ends on an ambiguous note. A brighter day has dawned. The United States and the Soviet Union have joined together and a new era of optimism and peace is unfolding. But this peace is a fragile one; a chance action by a simpleton in the final panel may undo it all. And that situation, with the guy’s hand hovering over the diary that could undo the whole plot, was indirectly the result of the murder which began the story in the first place.

There the story stops. It’s deliberately open-ended.

Because nothing ever ends.



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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.