Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)


Of all the Watchmen characters, you would no doubt be hardest pressed to argue that the Comedian is a hero.

In fact, the Comedian seems to me to represent everything that's wrong about the "heroes" of the Watchmen universe. He's a guy who is, as far as I can tell, acting out his most base and destructive impulses under the guise of being a superhero. All he's done is gotten society's approval to act like an adolescent psychopath. And as time goes on, things just get worse. He goes from beating up pathetic supervillains to boosting morale for the brutal Vietnam war.

I cannot say even one thing that is redeemable about this guy's actions. Not even one. However, I'll say this. The Comedian ends up getting it.

In his final days, he slides into the horrendous realization that most people (at least, in the Watchmen universe) are deluded. Maybe that means staying ignorant of the truths about the world, maybe that means telling yourself some convenient lie to justify what you're doing. Politics and morality are mostly a matter of perspective rather than absolute truths in the Watchmen universe. And the Comedian gets that. And he seems to take that as license to be completely amoral for some time.

But at least the Comedian is wrestling with the hard truths about the world. At least he doesn't delude himself about who he is. And maybe that's one interesting take on Watchmen: it's fairly critical of superheroes.

Because maybe morality deserves something better than to play dress up with or to get boiled down to some nasty bar-room fight. People would rather have some symbol of what's right and just than really tangle with the complexity of the problems in their life. We like to think in terms of good and bad, but is a good superhero pummeling a bad supervillain in the face such an amazing, moral achievement? A blow for all that is good? Maybe the Comedian gets that this whole way of trying to do good IS a big joke. The tragedy is that he doesn't seem to strive for anything better.

...or does he?

Later, when he comes to his archnemesis--crying like a child, no less--maybe it's slowly sinking in that not only is the world a terrible place, but all he's seem to done is try to capitalize on that. He hasn't tried anything else. Just taking advantage of how nasty things can be. It's interesting to me that this character is such a big focus in the series. Even the Watchmen trade paperbacks have shots of a little smiley face or that shattered window pane the Comedian took a dive through.

Maybe he's us, to some extent. Grappling with these horrible realizations and realizing that he could do better than just add fuel to the fire. It's painful, but it's very, very human. Maybe the most human of all the characters. He's so fragile and his choices are so ugly, but the intricacy of what it is he's tangling with philosophically is part of the big existential picture of the whole thing. And maybe there's something heroic--or at least understandable--somewhere in all that.

The problem for the Comedian? It was all too late. His life was over. And the choices he made weren't pretty.

It's a cautionary tale, maybe one Alan Moore wants us to walk away from questioning ourselves. How much do we take license to act out our own darker impulses, whether it's through deluding ourselves or just deciding "why not, everyone else is?" It's not a fun story, but maybe it's the most important one in the whole series.

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