In one respect, the past does stay as bright as ever. I remember hiding under my desk during bomb drill and looking up at the gum collection thinking, if the bomb really hit, would those hardened gray-pink blobs be the last thing I’d see? What was on my school notebook? A green and white peace symbol. What was my favorite button on my jeans jacket? A smiley face. “Have a nice day.” It was the exact same colors as the fallout shelter signs scattered here and there around town, usually above stairwells, at the basement stops of elevators, or one particularly frightening one, near the end of a blind brick alley.
To use a phrase common in those days, right on! Just like “Have a Nice Day.”
If there was one thing common to being a child of the cold war, it was the fear, always in the back of the mind, that the Russians could launch their missiles, we would fire ours back, and the whole world would be destroyed. Yes, Virginia, we really did have nuclear bomb drills where we were told to “duck and cover.”
None of the young people going to see Watchmen these days grew up with that fear. I don’t think “bomb drills” have been held in years, and if they tried to have them, people would laugh their butts off. And in the ultimate irony, “Ozymandias” didn’t save the world by mass slaughter and framing Dr. Manhattan, Ronald Reagan saved it by winning the cold war through spending the Soviets to death. We are actually living in the world today that probably would have resulted twenty-four years down the road if Watchmen were real and the strange events of the story’s alternate 1985 had actually occurred. Laurie Juspeczyk seems about my age, although the Minuteman picture means that in the story, she needs to be older. If she and Driberg had a baby (and I’m sure they would have, eventually), that baby would be about Meredith’s age. Bal’s not a superhero grandbaby of the gorgeous psychopath rape couple, Sally Jupiter and Edward Blake the Comedian, she’s the grandbaby of a couple of genius 1950’s radicals who used to party with Lenny Bruce and other assorted blacklisted characters.
I’m not the only person to notice that the Comedian resembles Ernie Kovacs, the great 50’s comedian who died in an auto crash in 1962 (and whose widow, Edie Adams, just passed away). Others have mentioned that Rorschach’s real name is Walter Kovacs, and that’s a lot of coincidence for there not to be some subtext there. The bizarre thing is, the real Ernie Kovacs was the gentlest, most creative of comedians, with a unique style of humor that’s never been matched. On the outside, he resembles Edward Blake; on the inside, he can’t have been anything like him and done the sort of universal, timeless, unique comedy that he did.
Yes, that’s a famous picture of Ernie Kovacs, not Edward Blake. Look familiar?
So, in terms of the Minutemen (Missiles) and Dr. Manhattan (Project) and Watchmen (as in “My father was a watchmaker, but I gave it up when I realized time could not be kept”), Dr. Manhattan returning for his watch in order to be trapped and “atomized” into quantum particles, and the “Doomsday Clock” – and in terms of a product of the 1950’s, like Ernie Kovacs, like Dr. Strangelove – like Dr. Manhattan’s effort to make sense of the universe in his watchlike Mars palace – Watchmen is a great film, as its inspiration is the greatest of graphic novels.
You may find Rorschach’s severe administration of justice and commitment to truth-telling difficult to take. The scene where he describes to the prison psychologist (“You don’t like me – why?” “Because you’re fat.”) how he became fully Rorschach, is as difficult to watch in the movie as it was to read in the original graphic novel. However, anybody who would come across what Rorschach found in that horrible place and who didn’t want to axe the child-raping murderer doesn’t have their head screwed on even remotely straight.
If you’re as PTSD’d as I am, you may feel liberated by Rorschach’s brutal candor and lack of any and all governors on behavior, making the scrawny, undersized red-headed stranger able to destroy any and all of his prison nemeses with ease. When Nite Owl and Silk Spectre arrived to bust Rorschach out of his burning Attica, it was more like they were rescuing the surviving inmate population, not their fellow “mask”.
Or, you may feel liberated by the Comedian’s joyful slaughter of Vietnamese peasants (somewhat), and as glad as I was to see him launching grenades at rioting hippies. When he shoots down the Vietnamese woman who has confronted him with the results of his sexual exploitation of her, it’s collateral damage of the most brutally honest nature, and Dr. Manhattan’s bemused, too-late false concern even better. When it was revealed that a week prior to his death, the aging Comedian was confessing his sins to his worst enemy and bawling like a baby to think of the horrible plot he’d uncovered, it’s hard to keep in mind that the same crybaby was the gentleman who in the film, still gripping his Cuban cigar between clenched teeth, slaughtered JFK, and who fathered the beautiful second Silk Spectre through the worst sort of violent expression of “love”.
Supposed to be a political commentary? It’s a commentary that, made during its time, seemed politically trenchant, because the world really was on the brink of nuclear destruction. A Smiley Face is a Fallout Shelter is a shredded Vietnamese peasant. The Watchmen are special because they made themselves heroes, and the most Godlike of them is the “symbol and protector of America,” a 50-foot tall blue man who blithely slaughters the lone honest one among them, just so that man wouldn’t tell the truth.
The danger that gave rise to all of these metaphors has greatly-changed today, and what remains are the feelings, the characters, the things that they say about all of us. The truths as Sally Jupiter said, “At my age, the future grows a little darker every day, but the past is as bright as ever.” The truth where Dr. Manhattan, the man with godlike powers who isn’t very human at all any more, says that Laurie came from a terrible rape, but became the one unique thing that she was. She’s supposed to be a symbol of goodness, I suppose, but maybe more in the graphic novel than in the film, her character was a real woman, who needed and wanted all the things any woman does (and three blue guys weren’t it). The fans will see one thing in Watchmen, the moviegoers another, the graphic novel purists, yet another. Nobody can “get” it all — it’s a creation that has taken a life of its own, and not at all the same life as other popular superhero fictions have. Better than X-Men? The Watchmen are “grittier” and “flawed” so therefore . . .
I don’t think so. When it was written thousands of years ago, Gilgamesh was about the things that were important to the Mesopotamians in that day. Gilgamesh was actually kind of an asshole, and Enkidu wasn’t even human – he became “human” like a mud-based Pinocchio in the course of the story, and both of them interacted with gods who did stuff for their own, humanly-inscrutable reasons. Kind of like where Dr. Manhattan was headed. Watchmen got the Cold War wrong, but it got everything else right – so much so that it doesn’t matter “who won the Cold War” because the rest of it really does go on forever. And there really are people who think Ozymandias was a hero, and his crackpot genocidal mania the best thing evarr. Which is why there are people like the Comedian, to launch grenades into their idiotic protesting faces.