I was 23 years old in 1985. Not only was the doomsday clock ticking, but the South African townships were burning, and Lebanon was bleeding to death. Countless individuals were tortured, massacred, and disappeared in Central and South America. Oliver North seemed to be running covert operations from his White House office, and reports implied that he had received official permission to declare martial law in U.S. cities, should the showdown with the USSR escalate into direct military engagement.
On the island of Manhattan, where I lived, crack cocaine was making its early debut, destroying bodies and lives. The sharp increase in real estate value had closed many buildings previously occupied by the very poor, and meanwhile cuts in healthcare had closed the mental hospitals. The streets were filled with homeless people in desperate need of care and those who would prey on them. The streets were filthy, too. Rats ran around the subway stations in the daytime, and the whole place stank of stale urine.
I was a young seminary student, and we seminarians did our best to make a difference. My male friends worked night and day to counsel homeless men and find safe places for them to sleep. I teamed up with a few friends to set up some soup kitchens, and I spent the lion's share of my time raising awareness about the brutality of the South African apartheid system. Other friends spent time demonstrating at the School of the Americas, or otherwise spreading the Gospel of peace in resistance to the dominant theme of our time, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
Many women I knew concluded that it would be wrong and irresponsible to bring babies into the world. That's how bloody and mad 1985 felt to us. We made many momentous decisions on the basis of the terrifying themes repeated over and over on the nightly news.
So when the comic book called
Watchmen was released, I just wasn't interested. I couldn't imagine what kind of person would take our very real challenges and cheapen them in such a cartoony way. My favorite then (and now) was
World War 3 Illustrated. This compilation published comics documenting our actual struggles and experiences on the streets, in our homes, and in front of our television sets.
Watchmen struck me as cynical, and intensely misanthropic, and we said no thanks to Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons. We spent our time and feeble incomes trying to stop the suffering.
Nearly a quarter century has passed, and sadly, age has brought with it the realization that suffering never ends. It changes, sure, but it doesn't end. Neither does injustice. And age has also brought with it a deeper appreciation of the need for reflection and insight, even when found in unlikely places. How can we stand up to injustice, knowing that nothing ever ends? What price do we pay for hoping, or for fearing?
In those days when I was so young, I couldn't have imagined that fighting wrongs could involve doing wrongs. I would have rejected outright the proposition that truth and the preservation of human life could be incompatible. I simply refused to believe that loss, sadness, and despair have no end.
In the last eight years, so significant in our history, I have come to realize that it is critical that we examine these questions. Misanthropic as it is,
Watchmen engages these questions with a level of intelligence rarely seen in any medium, including scholarly works of ethics. Unlike most superhero fare spoon fed to children in those frightening days,
Watchmen dared to suggest that nothing is black-and-white, that good guys can do terrible things, and that our will to preserve life can drive us to committing unspeakable acts of cruelty. We may survive, but we may have to do it without redemption.
From my middle age of love, for humanity, truth, peace, and compassion, I admire
Watchmen as an undeniably brilliant discourse on good and evil, the human condition, politics, ethics, truth, war and peace, and heroism.
If you have not yet read the comic, but would like to see the movie, I say go. You will be amazed by the visuals, the music, the characters, and the number of themes expertly handled in so short a time. You won't be lost or confused, and the movie is fascinating and entertaining. You'll be wrapped up in the characters, even emotionally invested in them, because no doubt you've done your best to come to terms with the world, too. You may have trouble relating to the film's central conflict, feeling that one side or the other must triumph. But keep your mind open, and let these characters take you where they may. If you are not losing hope, remember that others are.
If you have read
Watchmen, be forewarned. The comic is far more intricate than can be captured on film. The Black Freighter is missing, but will be released on DVD in a couple of weeks. The final solution is simplified, but its emotional impact is intact. If you take the time to flip through
Watchmen one last time before going to the theater, you will be so satisfied with the outcome of this effort. In some ways, the comic is treated as a storyboard, and in other ways, the compression of information in the film is truly impressive. And you have to see Rorschach's face and hear his perfect "hurm." You'll come to realize that this story about 1985 is, sadly, timeless.