This essay is excerpted from Into the Comics-Verse: Comics and Contemporary Culture.
Whether overtly engaging with contemporary political debates or not, superhero comics have always been at the mercy of their historical context. The original superhero boom of the 1930s and 40s’ Golden Age was part and parcel of World War II. Superman was the escapist (and assimilationist) fantasy of two Depression-era immigrant boys from the American Midwest. Captain America could be seen clocking Hitler on the jaw nearly a year before the US entered the war, and comics routinely showcased ads—often starring the fictional heroes themselves—calling on readers to invest in war bonds.
In fact, superhero comics virtually always see a noticeable boom in new characters in times of war. The Silver Age of comics began in the early 1950s, at the height of nuclear paranoia and at the very beginning of America’s ill-fated fight against the specter of domino theory in East Asia. It’s no coincidence that many of the most enduring characters from the era, among them the Fantastic Four, the Atom, and the Hulk, gained their abilities through contact with nuclear or some other form of radiation. The X-Men too, in a phrase no longer in fashion, were initially branded “children of the atom.” Even Iron Man’s 1963 origin story was directly embedded in the Vietnam War (again antedating most real-world American involvement in the conflict), a setting updated to the Afghan War for Jon Favreau’s 2008 film version. On the DC Comics side, Green Lantern John Stewart’s US military service sees similar periodic updates based on the Marines’ latest international deployment, with the most recent iteration putting him (without significant commentary) at the site of American war crimes in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
In the 1980s, however, as the Cold War entered its “Star Wars” phase, circling the drain of its own absurdity, the war these new superheroes were fighting seemed to be an internal one. Moore’s work rarely featured heroes battling nefarious outside forces, but very often showcased a twisted parody of the human desire for power. The true fight, for Moore, was on the frontlines of the darker side of human nature, and this nuance gave much of his work the anti-establishment edge that still makes them popular.
It’s only sensible that Moore would insert anti-nuclear messages into his books, seeing as how Margaret Thatcher was perhaps even more trigger-happy than Ronald Reagan when it came to threatening nuclear war. The most overt of such messages is, not surprisingly, to be found in two issues of Moore’s Swamp Thing entitled “The Nukeface Papers.” In this startling, none-too subtle story, the villain of the month is a madman who gets his kicks off of literally consuming nuclear waste.
But Moore’s message here lacks subtlety not only due to the nature of the villain, but also because Alan and the art team plaster the pages of the book with excerpts from real newspapers with stories depicting the hazards of nuclear radiation. Not that lack of subtlety is a bad thing. Much of Dr. Strangelove, a now-dated but deserved classic, is equally unsubtle yet artistically rich in its anti-nuclear message.
We see the coalescence of all these themes in what is widely considered Moore’s magnum opus—Watchmen. Here we find caricatures of the right-wing “law and order” mindset portrayed as callously bloodthirsty (the Comedian), sociopathically viglantist (Rorschach), and of neoliberal internationalism as disingenuously interventionist (Ozymandias). Moore, again none-too-subtlely, draws his imagery directly from the material artifacts he critiques: in this case, superheroes themselves, rereading the old Charlton characters ideologically, through writing them into a narrative that reeks of ideology even as it glances forward to the aestheticized nihilism of the 1990s.
Steve Ditko, the progenitor of many of the Minutemen’s archetypes, was himself a rigid absolutist, and many of his characters reflected the black-and-white cast in which he saw morality. Moore envisioned, in the character of Rorschach, an opportunity to comment on vigilantism and a wider range of superhero archetypes. In true Mooreian fashion, the threads of Ozymandias’ conspiracy conduce unavoidably to an apocalyptic orgy in the face of which self-appointed heroism not only is helpless, but finds itself centrally implicated. The narrative of Watchmen loses coherence in keeping with the world it depicts, maintaining its staid nine-panel layout as a guide even as the world descends into mute chaos.
Comics had thus come full circle.The jingoism of its earliest superheroes such as the Fighting Yank, Miss America, and Captain America had now come under critique from one of the industry’s rising talents. The world is, for the moment, “saved,” but the human race’s victory is a Pyrrhic one, coming as it does with the destruction of Manhattan at the hands of Adrian Veidt’s staged alien invasion. Moore’s corporatist megalomaniac brings about peace through deception and destruction
In the conclusion of Watchmen, Moore asks us what the price of saving the world truly is, and whether our entrusting our collective power for self-determination into the hands of others can end any way other than catastrophically. For asking these questions, his best work will endure for years to come.