Book Review: Watchmen
But a sad truth it is. The truth that fallen man, no matter how intelligent, how idealistic, how “good”-intentioned, how perceptive, or even how super, man is not and cannot be the savior, either of himself or anyone else. And in one of the most creative forms of depicting this reality, the story that Watchmen tells is fantastic.
The story itself is a very important contribution to portraying the depravity of man. It combines the lessons we learn from the book of Judges (what man will do when “there is no king, and everyone does what is right in his own eyes”) and the lessons we learn from Ecclesiastes (without God, life under the sun is a vanity of vanities).
As for the artwork (both in drawing and color), it was a beautiful portrayal of the story. I enjoyed the subtle symbols in certain frames; the seemingly cinematographic work with the frames to keep the reader’s attention in the right part of the storyline while accentuating other elements that would otherwise be lost in just a text rendition of the story; and the overall grandeur of the individual frames themselves.
Regarding the plot and the above mentioned Biblical truths that were accentuated, there are different kings to be sure - there is the president of the United States, the government leader of Russia and other countries, etc. And then there’s also even Dr. Manhattan, who for a time works under the U.S. president but then chooses later to be his own autonomous ruler. But when certain citizens or even entire societies lose trust in these kings, they tend to take matters into their own hands. This is depicted clearly in Rorschach's quest for his warped view of justice, as well as in the very sad sub-story portrayed in a comic called “Tales of the Black Freighter,” which a young minor character is seen reading throughout the story. Even some of the more “down to earth” characters such as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have their own sense of right and wrong that differs from one degree to another with each other and with the other characters. And of course the Comedian and [SPOILER ALERT] the mastermind behind the whole plot itself, Ozymandias, both have their own view of right and wrong.
The story hinges all on the character of the Comedian in several ways: (1) he seems to be the only one who “gets it,” that life is all one big joke (without God, a premise seemingly assumed by all characters in the story, life is the vanity of vanities), (2) his death and Rorschach’s discovery of it commences the entire story, and (3) throughout the story all the main characters (even the “villains”) reflect on their relation to the Comedian and how his view on life might not really have been that far off from what they ultimately experience.
As stated above, it seems all the characters either explicitly or implicitly deny the existence of a loving God. But that being the case, it gives even more thrust to the understanding that life truly is a vanity of vanities if there is no God. Unlike King Solomon who came to the conclusion that we must fear God and keep His commandments (Eccles. 12:13-14), this book has a couple different conclusions - neither of which lead to God.
It at first concludes that the ends must at some point justify the means. But it seems the creators of Watchmen understood that by mere nature of the case (and I would say because God has given even the unregenerate the knowledge of Himself - Rom. 1:18ff), that just does not sit easy with people. And so we’re left with a slightly more redeeming conclusion: that perhaps truth, no matter how ugly, is important - and that it’s good when it’s revealed. But these conclusions are dubious at best and I think presented as such. And so again, that adds all the more to the fact that without God, man truly cannot have a standard by which to judge right and wrong.
There are very poetic elements throughout the story, such as Silk Spectre’s family history and all that it entails; the humanity the Comedian somehow instilled in his relationship to the other characters, even while he himself seemed to be one of the most inhumane in his treatment of others; and the congruence between the comic “Tales of the Black Freighter” and the characters of the main story.
I will say that the format of a graphic novel did a great deal to the thrust of the message of this book. It would not have been as convincing or even as enjoyable had it been just text. That being said, it was also good to have the extra “notes” in between the chapters to give the reader even more insight into the context of the story.
While the creators of Watchmen did not come to the conclusion that we must fear God and keep his commandments, they certainly leave that as the only real option for the reader to conclude. When throughout the entire story and even at the very end, man simply cannot figure out for himself a standard by which to judge right and wrong or a remedy for the fact that all men do commit to wrong, it becomes very clear that we need a loving and just God - indeed we need the only living and true God who has revealed Himself to us through Jesus Christ (Jn. 17:3).
Furthermore, when even the most intelligent or most “super” (but fallen) man cannot truly save us, what other hope do we have? Peter knew this all too well: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…” (Jn. 6:68ff). There is no other option. Fallen man cannot save himself or anyone else. This story portrays man’s best attempt at saving humanity. But for all its efforts, it was predicated on a subjective and arbitrary view of right and wrong; it was based on a lie; and it ultimately failed (at least assumed from the last scene when the truth was to be discovered).
The watchmen saviors can either empathize with man’s weaknesses but not save him, or they can save him (sometimes without even empathy for his weakness) but provide only a false, temporary salvation based on lies and subjectivity - which is no salvation at all.
If humanity is truly to be saved, we need something much more than the world’s smartest man, or even the world’s most "super" man. As the author of Hebrews tell us, we need Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord:
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. … The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Heb. 4:14-16, 7:23-25).
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Who watches the watchmen?
The ending question of the book.
The answer: our sovereign Lord and Savior who will judge all and save all who call on Him:
For the Lord is our judge;