Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, WatchmenAlan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen offers something of a counter-factual history of the Cold War. In particular, it imagines the central role of two generations of masked do-gooders: a 1940s cohort of “Minutemen,” most of whom are somewhat ephemeral and more than slightly ridiculous (of “Mothman,” “Dollar Bill,” and “Silhouette” we hear very little) and a 1960s/1970s gang of “Crimebusters” who take themselves a little more seriously and have a much more sinister edge.

The Minutemen are nostalgically portrayed mostly through a faded sepia photo and are clearly out of their depth when it comes to derring-do that goes beyond picking up petty thieves and minor gangsters: at their inaugural meeting, in 1939, one of them nervously admits that “Just thinking about war, it scares me.” The Crimebusters are made of sterner stuff, and feature at least one member who is genuinely superhuman. This is Doctor Manhattan, a former nuclear scientist who thanks to an accident at work now has almost unlimited powers to decompose and recompose matter, to mutate and multiply himself, to survive in the harshest environments, as well as to see past, present, and (with some restrictions) future in one instant. It is thanks to Manhattan that (in this version of twentieth-century history) the USA has won the Vietnam War and is able to hold off the Soviet threat of nuclear annihilation. Vital for US national security, he is now the only costumed crusader who legitimately pursues his vocation. By the late 1970s, as the US urban infrastructure crumbled and even superheroes were viewed as more trouble than they were worth, all the others were forced to hang up their capes. All but Rorschach, that is, a particularly violent and uncompromising individual whose mask is an ever-shifting pattern of blots and who in one way or another is the story’s central character.

But if this is a novel that stresses decay, disintegration, and the loss of innocence–and it is–none-the-less its portrait of the past is not entirely rose-tinted. For the rot set in early, as did the general sense of ambivalence that surrounds all these supposedly “super” figures. Even in 1939, the sepia-tinged harmony is soon shown to be a sham: as soon as the photo session is over, a bloody fight erupts as the “Comedian” attempts to rape his fellow Minuteman (Minutewoman?) “Silk Spectre,” only to be beaten up in turn by a third of their number, the aptly-named “Hooded Justice.” There never was a Golden Age of heroism, and this inaugural violence and violation comes to taint the second generation of superheroes too: indeed, the Comedian is the only Minuteman to continue on to membership in the Crimebusters a generation later. His amoral cynicism and frank revelry in violence is presented as a constant temptation for vigilante avengers who choose to act outside the law without ever necessarily finding an alternative moral or ethical principle. At best, ultimately the book seems at first glance to endorse a very crude utilitarianism: that conspiracy and deception on a massive scale, not to mention the destruction of (here) the entire US Eastern Seaboard (and the deaths of many millions), is justified by a project to end the Cold War and bring perpetual peace. But this, after all, is precisely the logic of the Cold War itself.

Only Rorschach and (it is implied) the Comedian balk at this simplistic balance of the greater good. Rorschach’s words as he storms out of the utopian hero (or anti-hero)’s Antarctic lair are: “No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never Compromise.” But he and the Comedian are killed for their pains: indeed the two deaths bookend the narrative, as it’s the Comedian’s murder that kickstarts the plot, and Rorschach’s death takes place in the final act. Can we to sympathize with their doomed resistance to the calculations of power, however well-intentioned? I think and hope so, not least because the entire story is framed as Rorschach’s (he may have been eliminated, but he has got the word out against all odds), though in some ways this means that the end only takes us back to the beginning. More strikingly, it also means that the resulting ambivalence is extreme, almost unbearable: other characters, not least the second-generation “Nite Owl” and “Silk Spectre,” are much more immediately sympathetic, more “human.” In the end, however, we are asked to sympathize with an ultra-violent cynicism whose most obvious virtue is only that it is not so deadly as a rationalism that ends up indistinguishable from nihilism.