My internal editor asks, “Why write a blog about Watchmen? My silent editor points out that I’m no expert on the subject matter. I didn’t grow up reading graphic novels and didn’t discover Alan Moore’s Watchmen until I watched the 2009 movie. Further, there have been many literary reviews and insightful articles written about the moral and political meanings of Watchmen.
So, I ask myself, “Where does this interest in HBO’s series Watchmen come from?”
Fascination with Anything Rorschach
The obvious answer to the editor inside is that I’m deeply interested in anything having to do with inkblots and the Rorschach. As a psychologist and psychoanalyst who has devoted decades studying and using the Rorschach Test in my clinical practice and professional writing, I even weaved the Rorschach into my debut novel, The 11th Inkblot.
Yes, yes, that’s all well and good, my personal editor says, we’re aware of your interest in Hermann Rorschach and his enigmatic inkblot test, but you’re writing a blog about Watchmen. Really? Why?
Part of the answer is simple. There is a key superhero character named “Rorschach” in Watchmen, whom I’ve written about before. In an imagined letter to Hermann Rorschach, I wrote about how his inkblot test had become a cultural icon, part of our collective consciousness. In the piece, I noted how the puzzling character of Walter Kovach, AKA “Rorschach,” mirrored the amorphous nature of the inkblots themselves.
So how could I resist a fictional story about a superhero named Rorschach who wore a mask that looked like swirling inkblots? But the Rorschach figure with his connection to the lore of the inkblot test and its value in contemporary personality assessment is only part of what makes me want to write about Watchmen. There’s something more.
I’m fascinated with the inherent ambiguity and complexity that the Rorschach situation presents us. The instruction, “What might this be?” invites us to make something out of nothing, to interpret and find meaning that is not inherently provided by the inkblots themselves. Ambiguity, uncertainty, not knowing – these are aspects of human experience with which the Rorschach forces us to grapple.
I made my case. I had to write something about the new version of Watchmen. My self-editor was hooked, and the piece took shape.
In his essay called The Greater Good: Analyzing Morality in Watchmen, Jeffrey Wu discusses the moral ambiguities inherent in the story and embodied in the main characters. We are confronted by questions of whether widespread killing is ever justified, even if it leads to a greater good. The Rorschach character in Moore’s Watchmen was the embodiment of ambiguity and uncertainty.
- Was he a superhero or a mortal?
- A righteous man or a psychopathic killer?
- The abuser or the abused?
Yu also describes the ambiguous nature of Rorschach’s moral compass, noting that he sees the world as a “blank slate.” Like the inkblots, life is intrinsically meaningless, except for whatever meaning the individual can impose on it.
The Original Stain: Systematic Racism in Watchmen and Real Life
I quickly became immersed in Damon Lindelof’s modern Watchmen tale, which, like swirling blots of ink, was both confusing and filled with uncertainty. But, I was blown away by the soul-searing portrayals of the ugliness that stains our society and the gut-wrenching reminders of trauma passed from one generation to the next. There is no ambiguity in how the story holds up a mirror that exposes illness in our social history and political landscape.
The first episode, seen through the eyes of a small Black boy, Will Reeves, depicts the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which even today is euphemistically referred to as the “Tulsa Race Riots.”
This horrific event was whitewashed from much of mainstream American history and only brought into our myopic national awareness by the killing of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020. The horrors of this atrocity and the deep roots of societal racism are at the core of this Lindelof’s Watchmen. The blatant violence against Blacks at the hands of white supremacists is gruesome, but I found the subtler mask of racism painful to watch.
Like when the original Black crimefighter, Will Reeves, AKA “Hooded Justice,” is told by All American hero, Captain Metropolis, to keep his hood on because “audiences aren’t ready for a black hero.”
Watchmen’s protagonist, Angela Abar, a Black female ex-cop crimefighter, “Sister Night,” has also been the victim of racial violence. As a result, she hunts and seeks retribution against racists who have infiltrated the highest echelons of society. Angela dons hood and mask, like her grandfather, Will Reeves, the small boy who survived the Tulsa Massacre and later, became Hooded Justice. The oppressed and victimized use their anger to gain strength and power against a societal stain that hides in the shadows and sometimes exists right in plain sight.
Trauma researchers understand a great deal about the psychological effects of trauma in the present, but less is known about the impact of trauma on generations to come. Racial trauma on Blacks may be understood as the legacy of slavery, lynching, segregation, Jim Crow, voter suppression, and more. Dr. Joy DeGruy developed a theory of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome to capture the intergenerational psychological and sociological legacy of the original stain of slavery.
In the science fiction world of Watchmen, Angela has overdosed on her grandfather’s Nostalgia, memory pills, which document the decades of his life. Angela barely survives living through her grandfather’s trauma. A haunting exchange takes place between Angela and her grandfather Will when he asks if she took his pills and felt his experiences.
As they talk about their hurt and anger, Will says, “Now you know everything, my origins story…Did you feel what I felt?”
Will: “That’s what I thought too, but it wasn’t. It was fear, hurt. You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.”
Watchmen: In Summary
Watchmen mirrors, sometimes more symbolically than literally, the darker side of our society. To the themes of moral ambiguity, institutional racism, and intergenerational trauma, we could add pathological narcissism, idealization, devaluation, and others I’m not aware of.
In the end, Watchmen is a blank slate, a literary inkblot for those who choose to immerse themselves in this puzzling, often disturbing fiction that invites us to take an interpretive leap. While the original graphic novel, 2009 film, and current HBO version may seem too absurd, dark, and violent for some, others will watch and ask themselves, “What might this be?”
With humility, I acknowledge that others have written more incisive essays about the multiple meanings of Watchmen and that some would take issue with what I’ve chosen to focus on and what I’ve left out.