Updated: Oct 12
As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.
Watchmen was a comic book series released in the 80s, written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons. The comic book series would later go on to spawn a movie, TV series, and even a prequel comic book collection (Before Watchmen). This review of the 80s comic book series will focus solely on the dialogues revolving around the topic of meaning of life.
One theme that reoccurs time and time again throughout the series is nihilism. We see about midway through the work, after the character Rorschach is arrested, and while staring into the dark depths of an ink blot, he says the following:
Felt cleansed. Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in the night. Looked at the sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. There cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone.
Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no patter save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose.
The psychologist interviewing Rorschach ... well, the look on his face says it all. It is the look of someone coming to terms with a reality that was ignored hitherto in life. The look of someone coming to terms with the meaninglessness of life.
Returning home after having an awkward dinner with friends and an argument with the wife, the psychologist concludes:
Why do we argue? Life's so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud, suspended in endless nothing.
The horror is this: in the end it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.
For a graphic novel series, this is pretty damned philosophic. More so than one would normally expect from a series. But what is mentioned above is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, there would be a whole chapter devoted to the discussion of meaning. This would take place when Dr. Manhattan would whisk Silk Spectre away from Earth, onto Mars, forgetting that she has to breathe air ... unlike him. Though, to his credit, he swiftly recognizes the problem and corrects the minor oversight. You see, Dr. Manhattan has a reached a certain point in intellectual evolution that he no longer sees a difference between that which is alive and that which is dead. That is, they both have the same number of atoms. While Silk Spectre pleas with him to save Earth from WWIII, a war that would end life as we know it, he declines to intervene (at least at first), stating:
All that pain and conflict done with? All that needless suffering over at last? No... No, that doesn't bother me. All those generations of struggle, what purpose did they achieve?
After all, as Dr. Manhattan notes, Mars gets along just fine without life—and even has a certain beauty to its landscape. The question Dr. Manhattan poses causes Silk Spectre to reminisce on her own life and purpose. Breaking her chain of thought, Dr. Manhattan follows up:
I was asking the point of all that struggling; the purpose of this endless labor; accomplishing nothing, leaving people empty and disillusioned ... leaving people broken.
Everyone will die and the universe won't even notice. It will in fact keep chugging along without worry or care.
Silk Spectre would after some thought, seem to come to terms with what he says, with the pointlessness of life. A somber realization which prompts her to say:
...I mean why bother telling you all this? It just confirms things, right? All these wretched, grubby little human encounters: better of without 'em! None of it ever meant a damn thing, anyway! I mean these, my mother's clippings; her whole life, right there! What's it mean? In your terms, next to a...a neutrino, next to something you can't even see for Christ's sake? It means nothing!
Or as she would summarize earlier, we're all blind, stupid things stumbling around in the fog. And as she could continue:
I'm through thinking about my life, looking back on all my stupid memories. It's been a dumb life, and if there's any design it's a dumb design. ... I-I mean look, here, my life, my mom's life there's nothing there worth avoiding, it's all just meaningless..."
It is here that Silk Spectre confronts the truth she's known all along, but refused to acknowledge, the Comedian is her father. The following conversation ensues:
SS: My whole life's a joke. One big, stupid, meaningless...
Dr. M: I don't think your life's meaningless. SS: You don't?
Dr. M: No.
SS: But... listen, you've just been saying life is meaningless, so how can...
Dr. M: I changed my mind.
SS: But... why?
Dr. M: Thermodynamic miracles...events with odds against so astronomical they've effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds for countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive meeting siring this precise son that exact daughter...until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and out of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold...that is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.
Dr. Manhattan would go on to talk about how with all the people, the overcrowding of the planet, we sometimes lose sight, sometimes forget the miracle of life. He would eventually agree to try and help stop WWIII.
The chapter would end with a quote by Carl Jung, As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.
Simultaneously as the Watchmen story unfolds, we have a character in NYC reading a comic book series about a man stranded on an island seeking revenge on the pirates who marooned him there and killed his entire crew. Driven by madness, guided by delirium, revenge becomes his sole purpose in life—which, like many of use, blinds him to the truth and to reality.
Finally, in the last book of the series, after Ozymandias kills thousands in NYC, in order to unite the world against a fictitious trans-dimensional enemy, and to stop WWIII, he says the following:
The world's present would end. Its future, immeasurably vaster, would also vanish. Even our past would be cancelled. Our struggle from the primal ooze, even childbirth, every personal sacrifice rendered meaningless, leading on to dust, tossed on void-winds.
This is interesting, and he would go on to discuss a bit further, but he seems to conclude that if something ends, everything up until that point has been meaningless. An idea that Data, from Star Trek may argue against.
Overall, this is a must read series for any comic book fans—for the story, for the art, and for its philosophy. Though the series is heavily laced with nihilism, we do see Dr. Manhattan finding some apparent reason for life to continue amid the chaos, amongst the entropy.