Whether overtly political or not, superhero comics have always been subject to their own 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 fantasy of two Jewish 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 always see an uptick in times of war. The Silver Age of comics began in the 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 origin story was directly embedded in the Vietnam War, a setting updated to the Afghan War for Jon Favreau’s 2008 film version.
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 seems quite fitting that Moore would insert anti-nuclear messages into his books, seeing as how Margaret Thatcher was perhaps too trigger-happy 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 eating 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 bloodthirsty (the Comedian) or mentally broken (Rorschach) or outwardly deceptive, clandestine, and self-righteous (Ozymandias).
Moore even draws from the genre itself for models for his caricatures. Rorschach is, as is well known, an analogue for Steve Ditko characters like Mr. A and the Question, Dr. Manhattan a barely-altered counterpart to Captain Atom, Nite Owl a parody of Batman.
Ditko was himself a rigid absolutist, and many of his characters reflected the black and white nature 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, he goes into all the reasons the presence of crime-fighting, self-appointed vanguards of virtue would spell societal disaster. In a few issues of Watchmen, Moore portrays the police going on strike to protest the vigilantes—an unelected force putting a trained, state-sanctioned force out of work.
Similarly, the Comedian is a caricature of callous, unhinged patriotism. Edward Blake is a nihilistic, unlikable, unstable character crafted as the lynchpin around which the plot of Watchmen revolves. Comics had come full circle. The loud, proud patriotism of its earliest characters like Captain America had now come under self-conscious critique from one of the industry’s rising talents. Ozymandias would similarly go on to show the dark side of superheroes, taking international security into his own hands.
The world is “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, fascist megalomaniac brings about peace through deception and destruction. Ozymandias too is an unsubtle vehicle for Moore’s views on state violence and the unavoidably destructive nature of political power.
In the conclusion of Watchmen, Moore asks us what the price of saving the world truly is, and whether our entrusting our collective faith, our collective power for self-determination into the hands of others can help but end just as catastrophically. For asking these questions, his best work will endure for years to come. It is a reminder that in the most tumultuous of eras in politics, we can take it as a small comfort that great writers and artists rise to the occasion.