Moore also seems to imply that conventional heroism will not save humanity because in the end there is no moral difference between the so-called heroes and so-called villains. The Comedian and Rorschach are just as brutal and sadistic as their alleged enemies. The US government recruits The Comedian for all manner of despicable "black ops" missions that the government can later deny. The only "supervillain" we actually see, the former Moloch the Magician, is no longer a master criminal; when Rorschach terrorizes him in order to gain information, Moloch is just a sick old man dying of cancer who wants only to be left alone. Nite Owl, the character most like a conventional superhero, with a genuine desire to do good, is literally and figuratively impotent, both in the sense of being unable to affect the story's outcome and in the sense of being unable to consummate his desire for Silk Spectre--unless he is wearing his Nite Owl costume.
In his essay, A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls
, written more than a hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton argued that popular fiction, ranging from fairy tales to the epic adventures of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and even the "penny dreadfuls," or mass-produced sensational fiction of his time, served two purposes. It fulfilled a basic human longing for stories of heroism and adventure and it taught a basic moral code. Chesterton responded to the so-called intellectual sophisticates of his time who looked down their noses at "penny dreadfuls" even as they looked down their noses at the moral codes contained therein:
And with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are discussing (with equivocal German professors) whether morality is valid at all. At the very instant that we curse the Penny Dreadful for encouraging thefts upon property, we canvass the proposition that all property is theft. At the very instant we accuse it (quite unjustly) of lubricity and indecency, we are cheerfully reading philosophies which glory in lubricity and indecency. At the very instant that we charge it with encouraging the young to destroy life, we are placidly discussing whether life is worth preserving.
Chesterton argued that in many respects he preferred the simple morality of the "penny dreadful" and the people of the lower classes who read them to the fashionable despair of the intellectual elites:
So long as the coarse and thin texture of mere current popular romance is not touched by a paltry culture it will never he vitally immoral. It is always on the side of life. The poor--the slaves who really stoop under the burden of life-- have often been mad, scatter-brained, and cruel, but never hopeless. That is a class privilege, like cigars. Their drivelling literature will always be a "blood and thunder" literature, as simple as the thunder of heaven and the blood of men.
I would suggest that the pulp novel, the old time radio show, and the Golden Age comic book of the 1930s and '40s were the successors to the "penny dreadfuls" of Chesterton's day. No one could possibly confuse the high-mindedness of Superman or the Shadow's stern warning: "The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay!"
with the nihilism and brutality of Rorschach and The Comedian. When I was a boy, I wanted to be Superman. Some days I still wish I could be. Who would want to be Rorschach?
I would also suggest that in Watchmen
, however, we have what Chesterton might have regarded as the worst of both worlds: a work of popular fiction infected with the nihilism and cruelty of the intellectual elites. It's the product of a "paltry culture" indeed, if reviewers think that such a thing qualifies as high art. Watchmen
is not "on the side of life;" it is, at its heart, on the side of death. It reeks of hopelessness and despair. It holds that the thunder of heaven is merely thunder and never the voice of heaven; and that men and women never spill their blood for any good purpose, even to save their country, their family, or each other.
My comment: Anyone who mentions both Chesterton and The Shadow in the same paragraph has won my favor, and therefore shall be made one of my ministers and granted way-cool ninja-jedi Mind Control powers, once my dirigible planet enters the solar system from the transplutonian darknesss. Perhaps I will make him master of Australia, and wed him to my beautiful but evil daughter, Princess Aura.