Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is considered by many to be one of the greatest comics ever written as it transformed the entire comic book world. It not only criticizes comics and superheroes, but it in fact deconstructs the entire myth of the superhero. The central question that Moore and Gibbons challenge readers to think about, “who watches the Watchmen,” opens up some discussion involving the moralities of the characters. Should we as readers and members of the comic book world consider the costumed adventurers as heroes? If so, what morals are we able to empathize with, and where do we draw the line?
Rorschach and Ozymandias are two examples of characters whose moralities are shaped by different standards. However, while the audience looks like Rorschach and Ozymandias in contrasting lights, they do share some similarities. For starters, we know that Rorschach and Ozymandias come from similar backgrounds in the sense that they both lack parental figures to model themselves after early on in their adolescence. The whereabouts of Rorschach’s father are unknown, and his mother who prostitutes herself abuses him. He was also beaten by a group of men as a child. Similarly, Ozymandias is orphaned at the age of seventeen. Never having a father figure to look up to, he instead finds comfort and inspiration in the works of Alexander the Great, an important factor in the motivation of his morals.
Rorschach is a complex character but his moral beliefs are for the most part very black and white: it is good and it is evil there is no in-between. While Rorschach once abided by the laws, he eventually came to the revelation that he was too “soft” for letting evil live (Moore & Gibbons, 192). Consequently, he descends into a world of violence and relentlessness. As readers, we are challenged to question what allows Rorschach to resort to such graphic aggression, such as the slaughtering of innocent dogs that were feeding off the bones of a murdered child, or handcuffing the real murderer and burning him alive. In chapter six, a monologue given by Rorschach and delivered to the psychiatrist provides insight as to why when he claims that “existence is random…save what we choose to impose” (Moore & Gibbons, 198). It is clear that Rorschach sees each individual as independent from one another and the governance of morals should rely on the individual. He discards the law and punishes those who are evil in a way that he sees fit. Rorschach chooses his past to be the driving force behind his morality and his decisions. He relies on himself to be the determiner of who is allowed to live and who is allowed to die. In this sense, he lacks solidarity or the notion that he is part of an interdependent group and therefore fails to consider how his actions may affect those around him. Instead, his morals are driven by justice, all people should be treated equally unless there is a legitimate reason, in this case, if they are evil, to treat them unequally (“Three Systems for Ethical Reasoning”).
Rorschach is usually uncompromising when it comes to following his moral ideals, hence his untimely demise born from his decision to tell the world about Ozymandias’ crimes. However, he provides his audience with an instance in which his tendency to act with violence against those he believes to be evil is compromised. When Rorschach comes face to face with the woman who has accused him of making sexual advances on her, he initially intends to execute her as he has done with the rest of his victims. But after he stares into the woman’s child’s helpless eyes, he changes his mind and lets her go. This is a critical point in the plot because we see that Rorschach is also driven by compassion, his way of “mitigating suffering” for the young boy (“Three Systems for Ethical Reasoning”). Rorschach sees himself in the young boy and longs to indirectly give him the life he never had. In fact, executing the mother would seemingly be a direct contradiction of his morals because by killing the woman, he would be creating the similar past that he once had for the boy, the very past that drove him to become Rorschach, then making him evil. Choosing to let the mother live was a slight compromise of Rorschach’s morals, however, it was done so in order to avoid becoming the evil one himself. Had he executed the mother, he would have had to execute himself.
Ozymandias’ morals revolve mainly around the long-term consequences of his actions. As previously mentioned, Ozymandias has an obsession with Alexander the Great, and like he once did, longed to unite the world into one peaceful utopia. Readers soon discover Ozymandias’ plan to create this perpetual peace by wiping out half of the population in New York City, which ultimately causes the rest of the world to unite and the peace to be restored, at least for the time being. The ethical question then arises: is it okay to kill millions of people if it will save thousands more? Ozymandias believes so: “I’ve struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity…” (Moore & Gibbons, 402). In this way, he portrays himself to be a utilitarianist. According to his claim, killing off a smaller part of the population was necessary in order to save a much more significant amount of the population. If this is the case, he is acting in the interest of the public and not in the interest of himself. But perhaps Ozymandias’ true motives are not what he claims them to be. If the character is scrutinized, one may find that Ozymandias is the archetype for egoism more so than that of a utilitarianist. While it may seem Ozymandias kills an entire population for the good of others, he really does it for self-fulfillment and self-importance. He has a great need to feel he is making a difference and serving a purpose in the world, even if it means sacrificing thousands of lives for the sake of himself. That being said, Ozymandias’ morals are really shaped around the benefit of himself.
Given that Rorschach has the potential to be driven by compassion and Ozymandias acts according to his best interests, it is easier to empathize with and therefore sees Rorschach as the protagonist, and perhaps even Watchmen’s overall hero. Despite the fact that Rorschach lacks solidarity in the sense that his morals are shaped based upon his own personal history and therefore disregards public opinion, he acts compassionately and in a way that limits suffering for good people. In addition, there is honorability in his unwillingness to compromise when it comes to letting evil prevail. Ozymandias, no matter how good his intentions may seem, shapes his morals around the end result that must consist of his self-fulfillment.